Red Cross builders brace for Philippine storms

By Erik Olsson in Camarines Sur province, Philippines

"First there was heavy rain, then came the wind. Our makeshift shelter was shaking. All of the children were screaming and crying and we began to pray. I was scared the trees would fall on our house and injure my children."

Even though well over two years have passed since Typhoon Durian (known locally as Reming) struck the shelter of rice farmer Expedito Hernandez and his family, he vividly recalls the ordeal.

A few days before Durian made landfall, Hernandez heard radio warnings that a typhoon was approaching. The family packed up drinking water, rice and cooking utensils in case they had to evacuate.

When Durian arrived over the Bicol region, the Hernandez family were prepared.

The wind was gusting up to 225 kilometres an hour. The house began to flood and the water level soon reached the window frames. Hernandez and his wife Rose realised the only option was to leave.

Bamboo and nipa

"I covered my five daughters in blankets and we took shelter at the house of a neighbour who experienced less flooding," he says.

After being displaced for a month the flood water began to subside and the family returned to their plot.

"When we saw the scattered remains of our shelter everyone in the family started to cry," Hernandez recalls. Their old house had been completely torn apart by the strong winds, heavy rains and the flooding.

Hernandez constructed a makeshift shelter out of the remaining bamboo and nipa (palm) leaves. The rest of the family stayed at his parents' house.

The Hernandez family were by no means alone that year, 2006. Typhoons, severe storms, floods and landslides left over 300,000 families homeless in the Bicol region alone. Schools, hospitals, water systems, roads and power networks were damaged.

Every year at least 20 typhoons on average strike the Philippines, among other natural disasters. Many poor people live in makeshift shelters and are used to rebuilding or repairing their homes on a regular basis.

However, the severe typhoons between September and December 2006 destroyed not only built structures but also the coconut lumber, bamboo and nipa trees traditionally used as building materials in poor communities.

Technical assistance

A Red Cross assessment team concluded that providing tents and tarpaulins wasn't enough.

The Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) and the International Federation began a large transitional shelter programme. In just eight months, more than 12,000 badly affected families received building materials and technical assistance to construct or repair homes.

Priority was given to disabled beneficiaries, single-parent families and the unemployed. It was also emphasized that families should own a plot of land away from disaster-prone areas.

"I was very, very happy because we could not afford to build a house," says Hernandez.

In just three weeks the new house were completed with the help of a carpenter and his parents.

It's hoped the new shelter will stand the test of at least five years' worth of typhoons as it's built with corner posts in concrete foundations as well as reinforced beams and diagonal braces supporting the galvanized roof.

"The construction was finished in July 2007 and by then my daughters were very excited to move," Hernandez says, adding that the wash basin, latrine, carpet, blankets and cooking pots the family received from the Red Cross assured a smooth start to a new life.

Permanent house

The family had five previous houses completely destroyed by typhoons, but Hernandez is confident the new shelter will stand future typhoons better.

"The sawali (bamboo) walls are more sturdy than nipa so now there is no leaking when it rains," Hernandez says. The new 20-square-metre home is much more spacious compared to previous ones.

The shelters should withstand typhoons winds up to 185 kilometres an hour, according to Sandro Kushashvili, head of operations at the International Federation's Philippine delegation.

"The new building techniques introduced by the Red Cross have proved so popular among the neighbours of beneficiaries in the Bicol region that they actually copy the designs," says Kushashvili.

Expedito Hernandez agrees: "Most of my friends who visited us said they would copy the building technique."

After the shelter was completed he went back to work in the rice paddies. The plan is to save up enough to replace the coconut lumber posts with more sturdy concrete, turning the shelter into a permanent house with an even better chance of withstanding the next typhoon.