Filipinos come home after the typhoons

by Teresita Usapdin, Philippines National Red Cross, and Rosemarie North, in Nueva Ecija province

Forced to flee before the super-typhoon, Nanmadol, last week, they started going home, uncertain if they would find any homes or possessions worth salvaging.

Some of the roads damaged by a series of four typhoons since November 14 were again passable, so over the weekend, 5,000 people returned by convoy to their villages in Gabaldon, four hours' drive northeast of Manila, in Nueva Ecija province.

Their homes clung to a precarious spot between the Batoperry River and the mountains.

On 2 December, with the strongest typhoon of the season approaching, they decided to escape, some walking more than 10 km to evacuation centres set up in schools, gymnasiums, a hotel and community centres.

In Nueva Ecija province, staff and 34 volunteers from the Philippine National Red Cross worked around the clock to rescue people and give first aid during the dash to safety.

"We didn't look where we were going," one man said as he waited in a bus for the convoy to be able to pass a road reduced to one lane by the gushing waters of the Batoperry River. "People just fled, running, looking for any shelter. We didn't have time to take anything with us. So now we're going home looking for our belongings."

Rowena de Guzman, 33, a mother of five girls, aged one to 12, is also making the trek home: "We don't want to stay in the evacuation centre. Even though we're not sure what we'll find, we're prepared for the worst."

The people of Gabaldon are among the lucky ones. In Aurora Province, not far to the east as the crow flies, villages are still unreachable. Landslides blocked roads and flash floods washed away bridges.

Across the country, an estimated one million people were affected by the disaster. More than 500 people have lost their lives; one hundred are missing. About 500 homes have been destroyed; at least 22,000 have been damaged.

There is still no electricity in Gabaldon. Low-lying roads are still covered in 50cm of brown water. Where the water has receded, logs, scraps of vegetation, boulders, mud and silt cover every surface.

Rogelio S. Bue could have sheltered at the elementary school where he is principal. But he was one of about a fifth of the village's population who chose to stay at home. Rogelio wanted to protect his shop, which he inherited from his late mother.

"Many people left their houses. But I secured my shop and made a small dyke at the entrance to stop water flowing in," he says. "This is the only thing I have so my heart and my mind is not prepared to evacuate this place. It has taken a long time to build it up and it is hard for me to go."

Rogelio's shop and home behind were left intact, with only damp patches showing the high water mark.

Others in Gabaldon were less fortunate. Edna Lyn, 20, and her husband, Armando De Guzman, 31, were hoping to find baby clothes for their one-year-old son, Leonardo, when they returned on Saturday. They are left with nothing.

"We were hoping it would still be whole but look what happened to our house. We escaped so quickly we didn't have time to take any belongings. Safety was the first thing on our minds," said Edna. "We came early because we were expecting there would be something to salvage but we can't even get inside to look."

To reach the remains of the young family's house, you have to ford a creek and walk into what looks like a huge riverbed. Last week they lived 50 metres from the river, protected by a small earth dyke that ran along the edge of the river.

During Typhoon Nanmadol, known locally as 'Yoyong', the river swelled, gouging out banks up to 100 metres from its normal course. Rolling sand and rocks undermined the couple's modest bamboo and thatch home, sinking it into silt and mud. All that remains are collapsed walls under a roof.

They live in a hamlet called Agos, which means river flow or current. It is perhaps a hint about the riskiness of the site of their home.

Edna's husband Armando used to work on farms and take a share of the harvest in return. With the destruction of crops, that work is now gone. He looks inconsolable. The couple are expecting another baby in four months.

"I'm very, very sad. I'm feeling helpless. The only hope we have now is the dry wood," he says. "We will try to make it into charcoal to sell."

On Sunday, Red Cross staff and volunteers returned to Gabaldon laden with used clothes and bags of rice, tinned sardines and noodles. Along with Philippine National Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon was a four-strong team from the International Federation, including two disaster management experts, a water and sanitation delegate and an information delegate.

Accompanying them were United States Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and representatives of the Spanish Red Cross, United States Office of Foreign Development Assistance, the Philippine Army, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and the media.

While people's immediate needs are being met, the Red Cross is assessing unmet needs. The International Federation has launched a preliminary appeal for 2 million Swiss francs (US$ 1.7 million) to help 250,000 typhoon-affected people for three months. The funding will provide for people's immediate needs including food, water and shelter, and help prepare people for the future.

As people's thoughts turn to the future, the first job is a big clean-up. All through Gabaldon people are shovelling the mud out of their houses, moving logs and rocks out of the way, and carrying clothes, bedding, furniture and kitchen equipment to the river to rinse.

At the river, Jean and Fernando Cabatig are washing a plastic cabinet and dishes. Their only other remaining possession is Fernando's motorized tricycle taxi.

"It's true that there's almost nothing here now," said Jean, 37, a mother of three. "Our house was covered with mud. But washing our things is keeping our sanity intact."

"But it's all right - I'm happy that the family is safe and that we're home again."