Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Movin' on up: Typhoon Ketsana one year on

I visited the town of San Pedro in Laguna, the Philippines, in December 2009 following Typhoon Ketsana. I went back in August 2010 to see how the situation of children had improved.  

Lusminda and Danilo Morales outside their new home
© UNICEF Philippines/2010/Andy Brown

Ten-year-old Danilo Morales lives with his parents and eight brothers and sisters in a single room concrete house in South Ville resettlement community, San Pedro, Laguna. The family don’t have much but they’re grateful for it nonetheless. This time last year, the Morales family was among the 400,000 people forced to abandon their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centres as Typhoon Ketsana (known locally as Tropical Storm Ondoy) raged across the Laguna area. The storm pummelled the Morales’s shanty home in Landayan to pieces and the rising floodwaters swept away their possessions. They were lucky to escape with their lives.

“We were very afraid when the storm arrived,” Danilo’s mother Lusminda said. “It was raining hard and the flood waters were moving fast. My husband and I managed to get all the children safely to Landayan covered court, where we sheltered for the first few days.” The family were transferred to three different evacuation centres, before finally moving to their new home in South Ville. “It was a difficult time for us,” Lusminda recalled. “We had problems getting food, water, clothing and medicines when the children got sick.”

Things are much better now for the Morales. “We’re very happy to have our own home. It’s safe here and we don’t have to worry when it rains. The school is close by and we can go into town on the jeepney to buy food. My husband and I make a bit of money selling ‘taho’ but we’re looking for a better livelihood. I hope there are no more floods and we can live happily ever after”

Looking back

This was my second visit to the San Pedro area. The first time was in December 2009. Back then, Laguna lake was still overflowing and hundreds of families from the Landayan area were packed into a crowded covered court at San Pedro Elementary School. The situation was difficult, both for the evacuees who struggled to make ends meet and for the teachers and students who had to share their school with them.

I started off by revisiting the school and met up with Emily Ebreo, the teacher who showed me round last time. The school was at once familiar and utterly transformed. As we walked around the covered court, I could still picture the evacuation centre in my mind. “This is where people cooked and this is where they hung their clothes out to dry,” I said to Emily, pointing here and there. Now, the court was full of excited children running around and, once I’d got out my camera, posing for photos in ever growing crowds.

The covered court was still chaotic but in a very different way. The chaos of a normal schoolyard with children running around and shouting happily had replaced the desperate chaos of the evacuation centre. The classrooms that had formerly housed evacuees, forcing the school to cut lessons, were now refurbished, brightly decorated and full of young students. I’d visited on the day of a ‘readathon’ and children were engrossed in books of Filipino myths and legends. Later, they would be asked to explain the stories in their own words.

There had been some more recent storm damage to the school. In July, Typhoon Bashang had brought down a large tree in the schoolyard, damaging the roofs of two classrooms. “We were closed for a few days but it was nowhere near as bad as Ondoy,” Emily said.

Children play in the covered court formerly used as an evacuation centre
© UNICEF Philippines/2010/Andy Brown

Settling down

I wanted to find out what had happened to the evacuees so we went to the local council office, where we met Marilou Balba in the urban development and housing department. “We moved the families out of the schools earlier this year so as not to disrupt the children’s education,” she explained. “Some went back to their provinces and others moved back to their old homes when the water level in the lake went back down.

“We’ve built new homes for the rest at South Ville resettlement community. This was originally intended for informal settlers living along the railway line but we’ve allocated one area for Ondoy evacuees. We’re planning an extension so that we can rehouse the people who went back to homes alongside the lake. They’re still at risk if there’s another flood.”

Marilou agreed to take us to South Ville to meet the families who had been rehoused there. We drove out along a rough road, past factories and an old dump site. The resettlement community itself was built along a regular grid, with blocks of small concrete houses laid out in meticulously straight lines, in marked contrast to the organic sprawl of urban slums. An elementary school was already up and running and a clinic was under construction. At the local office I was shown a map of the site, with the areas set aside for railway families highlighted in pink and those for the Ondoy evacuees in yellow.

We walked down to the Ondoy block. Most children were in school but a few were still at home. Outside one house, a group of boys played a game of pool using counters on an ingenious homemade table that they swivelled round to line up the best shot. Next to them, a group of girls was at work making flower garlands for sale. Stalls and shops had sprung up on street corners selling food, water and household supplies.

After meeting the Morales family, we went to see the new school and speak to some of the students and teachers. Here, I met 11-year-old Marilou Paderez, also from Landayan. She was living in South Ville with her parents and four siblings. Her father had got a job as a construction work. “Our house was destroyed by the storm and we were evacuated to a covered court,” Marilou remembered. “Life was hard. We lived in a very small space and I couldn’t go to school for several months. I’m happy to be living here in South Ville. We have our own house and we don’t have to worry. I like the school and my teacher is very good.”

I asked Marilou what her favourite subject was. “I like Maths because you can divide, subtract, multiply and add up,” she replied. “When I grow up I want to be an accountant so I can help support my family.”

Prepare for the worst

Now that life has returned to normal in San Pedro, the priority is preparing for future disasters. The local council has set up a disaster coordinating council and, when I visited, the provincial government was holding a summit on disaster preparedness. One of the reasons the council is resettling people from Landayan in South Ville is so that they’re on higher ground if there’s another flood.

UNICEF is also working with schools and local communities on disaster preparedness. “One thing we’ve been working on in the last few years is a building back better programme,” UNICEF Philippines Communication Chief Angela Travis explained. “So we’re building stronger schools that should withstand typhoons much better than the original buildings.

“We’re also educating children and communities about what to do in a disaster. For example, many of the books and schools supplies were swept away when the water rose. So we’re encouraging people to put these things on higher shelves in schools and homes. The children also learn an emergency drill in the event of a disaster, to make sure everyone is accounted for.”

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