Providing a Safe Haven for Rescue Squads’ Families When Disaster Strikes

Manila | 06/27/2013 11:08am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

Noli Abinales heard a story he couldn’t forget. One of the leaders of the rescue team he had trained in Banaba Village in San Mateo, Rizal — a flood-prone area — had helped other families reach safe ground during an onslaught of floods a couple of years ago. The leader assisted his neighbors first: Other families and their children. His daughters, distraught and also in need of help, came last.

Abinales said that the children asked their father why they had to be rescued last. The reason was simple: As a team leader for Buklod Tao (“People Bonding Together”), their father was there to help others survive the floods. An informal organization that works on disaster risk reduction and provides community rescue teams during catastrophes, Buklod Tao is relied on by thousands of informal settlers when disaster strikes. As people are hurrying away from danger, team leaders from Buklod Tao are rushing towards it — rather than making sure that their own families are safely sheltered from the storm.

But that may soon change. In 2010, Abinales applied for funding from the non-profit organization Christian Aid, which provides financial support for disaster risk-reduction projects. Buklod Tao got P1.67 million ($38,284 USD) from the group, and with that money built a three-story shelter, still under construction, which will serve as an evacuation center for the families of Buklod Tao team leaders during times of natural disasters.

The building, which sits on an 827-square-meter lot, can hold 89 evacuees. It is located in the elevated part of Banaba, at the far end of a subdivision that is a few minutes away from the informal settlers. Hidden from sight — a basketball court is all that marks its entrance — it is but a skeleton now, a mass of gray hollow blocks. But Abinales, 65, with his graying hair and stooped back, guards it with his life.

“I live here,” he says in his stentorian voice, its authoritative tone betraying his past as a school teacher.

“It is a dream come true,” adds Josefina Verbo, one of the leaders of the rescue team.

Verbo says her family, who also live among the thousands of informal settlers in Banaba, know what to do whenever there is a typhoon alert: They immediately proceed to the nearest church or school that serves as a temporarily shelter. But Verbo says there’s always the concern that such shelters will be full by the time her family gets there. Having an evacuation center for Buklod Tao leaders’ families would help her and the other rescuers concentrate on helping flood victims, something that she has been doing since 2004.

Verbo, 58, still vividly remembers how she became a part of the rescue team. In September 2004, her village was flooded during a long, relentless rain storm. Water almost reached the ceiling of her house. At one point, Verbo saw a child, desperate and panicky, jump from the roof of his own house into the torrential flood waters. She instinctively swam towards him, saving his life in the nick of time. If she had been delayed by just a few seconds, Verbo says, the boy would have drowned.

The same year, when Buklod Tao announced they would conduct a training on disaster preparedness and response, a list of prospective team leaders was drawn up. Verbo’s name topped the list. Though she already knew how to swim, she was trained in special techniques by the organization. “When you’re going to rescue a child, do not hold his whole body,” she says, for example. “Clutch a part of his clothing or hold firmly to one part of his body only so you can easily guide him and his body weight won’t pull you down.”

Verbo knows how important Buklod Tao’s role is, given the vulnerability of poor families during natural disasters. Their village is located near the Langka river, which rises in strong typhoons. The plywood houses are easily washed away, and the local government lacks the capacity to stage a disaster response. “Sometimes the team dispatched by the government would come late,” Verbo says. “It’s a good thing we’ve already warned and evacuated the people ourselves.”

Docked at Verbo’s house is a bright orange boat that she uses to bring stranded families to the school when there’s flooding. But even when the sun shines, Buklod Tao keeps busy. The evacuation center is being built as a self-sustaining community center of a sort; once finished, it will provide space for employment, which can generate income for the organization. Buklod Tao already has four regular employees who make bags from tetra backs and weave slippers. Income from these activities allowed Buklod Tao to provide $114 loans to 238 informal-settler households who lost their sources of income after Typhoon Ketsana.

The Aquino administration is aggressively pushing for the relocation of these informal settlers — it has offered P18,000 ($411) to 20,000 families living near waterways in Metro Manila. But Verbo says they could never just leave their community. She earns money here by selling vegetables, and her eight children and three grandchildren consider the streets their playground. “It’s an emotional subject,” she says, adding that if forced out she would prefer in-city resettlement.

For now, there is the evacuation and livelihood center for Verbo and her family. When completed in September, it will become their temporary home. Abinales hopes that one day, however, it will offer a sense of permanence.

Photos by Purple Romero