Looking beyond the disaster

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The Red Cross' newly-built homes are resilient, meaning they can withstand strong winds and rain. © Sam Smith/IFRC

By Sam Smith, IFRC

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Situated on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’, the Filipino archipelago is hit by floods, landslides, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on a regular basis.

In this piece we revisit three communities that were caught in the path of three huge typhoons – Bopha, Haiyan and Ketsana – to see the long-term impact of Red Cross work.

My New Home

“That’s where they found a lot of bodies.”

Ian Adlawan slowed the car as we passed an innocuous river inlet along the roadside.

“People were washed away by the floodwaters and their bodies were just dropped there,” said the Philippine Red Cross driver.

Everyone has a story to tell about Typhoon Bopha, one of the strongest storms to hit the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. When it made landfall on 4 December 2012, Bopha brought gusts of 130mph and torrential rain that triggered floods and deadly landslides.

Nearly a quarter of a million homes were damaged or destroyed, and around 1,100 people lost their lives. The Philippines is struck by an average of 20 typhoons every year, but they usually hit further north.

“It was the first time we had encountered a typhoon of this magnitude,” said Randy Loy, who heads up the Philippine Red Cross chapter in Compostela Valley, one of the worst affected areas.

“We have strong winds, landslides and floods, but we had never had a typhoon like this one.

“When you saw the aftermath – the flattened trees, the debris, the damaged houses, the mud, the floods – you really had to wonder what on earth had happened that day.”

There were warnings on TV and radio about the approaching typhoon, but people did not know how to prepare for the storm or where to go.

Many fled to evacuation shelters that were in the path of the storm or at risk from landslides.

“I was terrified. The roof of our house was ripped off and water started pouring in,” said Ulpiana Holotba.

“I ran with my husband as fast as we could. The flash floods came with no warning.”

Ulpiana, 62, sought refuge in a community shelter, along with her husband. They spent the following year living in a temporary shelter and surviving off relief items – they were unable to find work.

“My husband works on banana plantations, but they were completely destroyed. And I used to sell food to the workers on the plantations,” said Ulpiana.

“We are both used to working. So it wasn’t easy just sitting there and waiting.”

As part of the recovery effort, the Philippine Red Cross, with support from the IFRC, built 550 houses for people who had lost their homes. A further 3,050 households were given support to carry out repairs.

The newly-built homes are typhoon resilient, meaning they can withstand strong winds and rain.

“When I found out we were going to be given a new home I was so happy,” said Ulpiana, tears rolling down her cheek as she recalled the moment.

“We had given up. Living in the tent I thought there was no hope. We had no food, no work and then suddenly we were told we were getting a new house.”

They moved into their new home one year after Typhoon Bopha. It is located in a purpose-built village for families who lost their homes to the typhoon.

We meet Ulpiana nearly four years after the disaster. The rain is lashing down and the softly-spoken mother-of-two is stood under a canopy in front of her home, flipping pancakes.

She sells them for three pesos each and makes about 50 pesos profit a day (1USD). It’s not much, but it supplements her husband’s income on the banana plantations.

“I feel so much safer here. My last house was made from thatch. This is concrete and much stronger,” said Ulpiana.

“My grandchildren often come to stay with me. It’s safe for them here.”

The community is what’s known as a ‘Red Cross 143 village’. Red Cross 143 is an initiative that aims to create teams of volunteers in every village across the country.

Each teams consists of one leader and 43 members who are trained in how to prepare for and respond to disasters.

For example, they know how to give first aid, how to use rescue equipment and how to identify warning signals.

“They are our eyes and ears on the ground,” said Randy. “We give them information about approaching storms and they also feed us situation reports.

“It means everyone stays informed and communities are prepared and ready to stand on their own feet when disaster strikes.

“Typhoon Bopha was a wake-up call. Since then we’ve worked with the local government to institutionalise disaster risk reduction training at a grassroots level.”

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