The Philippines: Helping each other in times of emergency

21 December, 2012
December 2012: A local NGO worker hands over a list of available aid supplies to a Government disaster coordinator in Davao, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/Imogen Wall
December 2012: A local NGO worker hands over a list of available aid supplies to a Government disaster coordinator in Davao, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/Imogen Wall

Sunday afternoons in the Philippines are, in normal times, peaceful affairs – a time to relax, reflect and spend time with one’s family. But in Nabunturan, in the heart of Compostela Valley in Mindanao, these are far from normal times. This valley was one of the areas worst hit by Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo), which struck the Philippines at the beginning of December. 

And the municipal hall, far from being peaceful, is abuzz with activity. Through one door comes a steady flow of men carrying 20kg bags of rice over their shoulders, marked with the logos of the World Food Programme, Australian AID and the Department of Social Welfare and Development of the Government of the Philippines. All around are boxes and bags with tins of fish, meat and noodles, many donated by private individuals and companies. All donations are recorded by officials, and noted on a large white board by the main office.
 
The whole of the first floor is filled with over a hundred volunteers, sitting in groups and busily taking the food and organizing it into family packs in bright red and blue plastic bags for delivery to those affected. The space is filled with chatter and laughter. 
 
It is impressive coordination – a system that brings together large scale international assistance, the private sector, government and ordinary people giving their time. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that so many of these volunteers are people who have themselves been affected by this emergency.
 
Laarni works in the accountancy department of the municipal government, which is already stretched due to the emergency. As she holds open a plastic bag, a colleague carefully tips in five scoops of rice, 1kg each to make up the prescribed family ration of 5kg. Her kids are at home, she says, and she will stay here helping out all night if that’s what is needed. 
 
One group consists entirely of employees from a local banana plantation. Their whole crop was wiped out by the storm – an experience as devastating as it is sadly familiar in post-Bopha Mindanao. As he busily packs items in bags, their Human Resources Supervisor Bernabe Camay says the company will be forced to downsize from 250 employees to just 90: a terrible blow for the 160 who will lose their jobs for up to six months. Yet no less than 42 of them are here today, with their families, giving their time to help others. 
 
“We have been here every weekend since the storm,” Bernabe says. “We have husband and wife teams, and families have brought their kids. We have totally lost count of how many parcels we have packed.” Among them is the niece of one employee, 15-year-old Fridglin who was too busy to stop except for a quick photo with a beaming smile and beads of sweat across her forehead. 
 
In another corner are Jovy, Jasmin and Norhan.  All are education students on provincial scholarships. Their school was damaged in the storm, and has closed for the rest of the term. Exams have been cancelled. They say that when they got an SMS from their scholarship supervisor asking if they wanted to help out, they didn’t hesitate. “The province paid for our studies so we kind of feel we owe it to them to give something back,” says Jovy. “We have been up the valley to the affected areas and it’s awful,” adds Jasmin. “The people there really have nothing right now.”
 
In addition to working here, they have been out with fire trucks which are travelling up the valley and are used to provide improvised showers for displaced families, especially children. This is particularly critical, given reports of skin disease from wounds sustained during the typhoon.
 
On the other side of the hall, the finished food parcels are packed back into rice sacks for ease of transport and loaded into government and military trucks for delivery.  The volunteers here say they will carry on working until their services are no longer needed. Unfortunately, the enormous damage to agriculture means that the suffering caused by Bopha will continue for months to come. And for those who lost family members and friends, it will take far longer to heal.   
 
Reporting by Imogen Wall
 

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