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The Philippines - The PNRC: Rebuilding homes, restoring human dignity in Bicol

Philippine Red Cross
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Experts in disaster relief and rehabilitation cannot help but wonder how this seemingly superhuman feat was accomplished: in a span of only eight months, 12,300 homes were built from scratch or seriously repaired to provide shelter for as many families in the typhoon-devastated Bicol region in the Philippines.

Leading the awe-inspiring efforts of the Philippine National Red Cross to rebuild homes, save lives and restore dignity to victims of the typhoons that wrought death and destruction to the Bicol region is PNRC Chairman and CEO and Philippine Senator Richard J. Gordon.

"The suffering of a man and his family whose home has either been washed away or buried in a mudslide can't be described. Our task is to alleviate human suffering. Apart from providing shelter, we provide food supplies, clothes and starter kits. This is not meant to replace what they lost but to give them a helping hand in rebuilding their lives. The first step to recovery after a tragic loss is always the most difficult. Our job is to help with that first step," said Gordon, as he summed up the PNRC's mission in Bicol.

In 2006, some 600,000 homes were either completely destroyed or partially damaged by four monstrous typhoons that struck seven regions in the Philippines from September through December. Easily more than a million people were affected with loss of their homes, their livelihoods and their family members.

The worst affected during those disastrous months were the families in nine provinces in the Bicol region (Sorsogon, Isabela, Aurora, Albay, Marinduque, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Mindoro Oriental and Quezon). Such families are poor, and it was in fact this poverty in the first place, that drove them to build houses on land that was fundamentally unsafe. Situated too close to unprotected river banks or on unstable slopes or literally on top of layers of lahar that were just waiting to start sliding and all in an area that finds itself regularly in a typhoon's path of destruction.

It goes without saying that they are the very ones without any means to rebuild their homes and repair the damage done to the environment that they depend on for their livelihood. Even the raw materials from which they got materials to build their houses--coconut trees and nipa plants--all but disappeared after the typhoons and landslides.

Even worse, these homeless families face further dangers owing to the cyclical nature of Philippine typhoons: every year, some 20 typhoons sweep through the country. Housing these families in the usual temporary shelters and public schools is not practicable in the long-term. Once typhoon season rolls in, they run the risk of becoming victims all over again.

Disaster domino

The toll of typhoon disasters on families and communities can be widespread and complex; the immediate destruction and death are, in fact, just the beginning of a disastrous domino effect.

Even after the typhoons have left and the dry summer season arrives, homeless families have to deal with many resulting difficulties: a) psychological trauma and despair; b) lack of livelihood and resources to rebuild their lives; c) loss of food sources after the destruction of crops and death of livestock; and d) lack of basic necessities including housing, shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation; and even access to aid and relief: not only do these families live in hilly, forest, or mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, but whatever access roads were previously carved out from the terrain were erased by flooding and landslides.

For majority of those victims, all they have left of their former lives are the wreckage of their houses and photos of loved ones lost in the disaster. Red Cross volunteers assigned to devastated areas are immersed in the heart-wrenching reality of widespread loss and despair, even as they plod through by foot, step by painful step, or navigate difficult terrain on motorbikes, through floods, rocks, mud, fallen trees, slippery peripices, and the bleak emptiness left behind by nature's wrath.

The volunteers spend long days with homeless families suffering from hunger; families who are forced to put together from scrap materials what flimsy protection they can make against the cold, rain, heat, animals and other potential threats; who face constant exposure to disease due to insufficient, if not totally absent, sanitation facilities and garbage disposal; and who are unable to access medical care due to the remoteness of their location as well as lack of roads and transportation.

Even the less devastated communities are not spared the consequences of the disaster. The deluge of the homeless from the disaster areas strain social equilibrium and stretch a community's resources. School children lose classrooms and miss classes when disaster victims are sheltered in public schools.

As one will see later on, however, rebuilding homes for the victims makes all the difference in reversing the effects of the chaos and suffering that follow such disasters.

New homes, fresh hope

So how were the Philippine National Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies able to build 12, 300 homes for homeless families in just eight months?

With hundreds of thousands of victims suffering from the typhoons' effects, it at first seems a daunting task to help all of them. However, what is seemingly a huge problem become manageable once it is broken down into manageable portions.

In the same way that doctors in an emergency room conduct triage to help the most critical patients first, the PNRC and the Federation set out to identify the victims most in need of assistance and assessed their most urgent needs. The local Red Cross Chapter administrators played a leading role in this assessment.

The PNRC finally chose 15,000 families (more of less 75,000-80,000 people considering the average number of five members for each Filipino family) in the Bicol region as the most critical beneficiaries for relief and housing assistance.

Just as the destruction of homes brings a chain of difficulties and hardships, so does the construction of homes bring the most crucial element in surviving and recovering from disaster: hope.

Families that have a safe, comfortable place to protect them from the elements and other dangers are relieved of the stresses of fear and uncertainty; and so, in the safety of their homes, they are able to dream and plan for their future. Fuelled by this hope, families move from being passive victims and recipients of aid to becoming active initiators and participants in their own recovery.

This is why the PNRC and the Federation quickly set about undertaking steps to rebuild the homes of those 15,000 families.

After the resident's homes were constructed, PNRC Chairman and Senator Richard Gordon was pleasantly surprised to find out that the families were able to construct their own toilets. The toilets were properly built and very functional. The families proudly told Gordon that thanks to the Red Cross, they learned to make the toilets a priority when they built their homes.

The homes designed by and provided to the residents by the PNRC and its partners allow residents to add their own toilets and even a second floor, if they choose.

One of the recipients of these houses was Naga resident Salvacion Aguila, a mother with nine children. After her home was destroyed by a typhoon, she was given a new home by the PNRC.

Aguila makes her living by making and selling buchi (a native snack). Buchi is made by kneading sticky rice flour into a ball and filling it with sweetened ground mongo or mung bean.

After the typhoon devastated the area, Aguila needed help in order to resume her business. She asked Gordon for help in getting new capital to fund her business. Gordon made arrangements for Aguila to receive a loan amounting to two thousand pesos.

Gordon told Aguila that she would need to pay the loan to the Red Cross in the amount of ten pesos per month. According to Gordon, he wanted to teach Aguila and the rest of the affected residents that they cannot rely on dole-outs whenever disaster strikes. He wanted to teach them self-sufficiency and the habit of meeting obligations and responsibilities.

Today, Salvacion Aguila and her family have started a new life. She resumed her buchi business using the P2,000 from the Red Cross, and meets her loan payments of P10 per month.

Shelter kits

The first order of business was to provide hot meals and emergency food and non-food relief items to the victims. This was already a formidable undertaking considering the sheer number of victims and how they are spread out in such a wide area in difficult terrain.

Concurrent with the provision of food and other relief items was the continuous appeal for support, financial and otherwise, from the private sector and volunteers nationwide. The PNRC and the Federation are happy over the outpouring of support and the professional manner in which volunteers engaged with local communities in recovery and rehabilitation tasks.

One strategic action taken in helping the typhoon victims was to simultaneously undertake relief efforts and reconstruction efforts. To accomplish this, relief volunteers and staff were trained in the technical aspects of helping build homes as well.

While the immediate needs for food and other basic necessities were addressed, the PNRC and the Federation identified ten provinces as recipients of transitional shelter kits, that is, homes that are designed to last from five to ten years. Depending on the extent of the damage in their area, affected families could either receive shelter kits for roofing only or for constructing an entire house.

Affected families in the provinces of Sorsogon (500 households), Isabela and Aurora (totalling 1,600 households), along with Camarines Sur (5,600 households), Cantanduanes 1,000 households), Albay (1,000 households), Mindoro Oriental (800) and Quezon (800) in the Bicol region received shelter kits. Two other province, Marinduque and Laguna (204 homes), were added to the list later on.

From the initial target of ensuring 20 square meter of typhoon resistant shelter to 15,000 families by providing the know-how and materials (full shelters/homes or complete roofing kits) to the corresponding number of families, the PNRC and the Federation were able to provide a total of more than 12,000 homes.

Custom-made Logistics support

The PNRC faced twin challenges in providing homes to the thousands of families: a) delivering building materials to families and b) training the beneficiaries with the help of local volunteers in constructing homes according to a design suited to typhoon conditions.

It became obvious early on that delivering building materials directly to the beneficiaries on-site was impossible. The decision to reconstruct the homes on plots of land that were owned by the beneficiaries, at least as long as those plots were deemed safe meant that construction would happen in a dispersed way, over a vast area that would span hundreds of square kilometers. The terrain and lack of roads together with the highly particular difficulties facing each family and/or community made it impossible to find a common, cost-effective means of transportation that could deliver the materials to each individual family.

The solution, then, was to find the nearest, most practical places whereby the building materials could be stored, i.e., local warehouses in the barangay (community comprised of approximately 300 households) that could be used for free. Families who need the materials could then go to these common depots, pick up the materials and transport them--using whatever means are available to them--to the building site.

A lot of flexibility was required in these efforts. In some cases, the storage depots were used not only as storage for building materials but also as distribution points for food and non-food relief items. While a reasonable timetable for retrieving the materials and goods was set, families had to be given the leeway to make as many trips to the depots to collect the items depending on what their means of transport allowed.

In six provinces for example, some 400 trucks were used to deliver around 3,400 metric tons of building materials from the ports to some 60 storage facilities. From these storage facilities, families with the help of their communities picked up not only building materials but relief items as well.

Resourcefulness and creativity among the families and within communities were required in the use of transportation. From small trucks to farm equipment and motorbikes, all sorts of transportation were utilized to help bring materials and goods to affected families. In remote, hard-to-reach areas, tricycles (motorbike attached to a cab or carriage) as well as boats were used to transport people and materials.

Then there was the challenge of creating the appropriate design for the shelters, which should be able to withstand the force of some 20-25 annual typhoons that pass through the beneficiary areas.

The PNRC pooled technical resources to design the shelters. A civil engineer, a Filipino with past experience with the PNRC was called in to work with a technical advisor to the shelter department from the Geneva Secretariat.

Once the design was finalized, local carpenters and other volunteers were mobilized for training on how to build the shelters following that design. These local people had to let go traditional building methods that had proven to be ineffective against a typhoon. For example, instead of directly setting posts into the ground (a structure that proves unstable once water steeps into, and softens, the ground), they had to learn to set posts into steel-reinforced concrete blocks.

Also, most homes in the area were built without diagonal bracing, a structural practice that significantly improves the shelter's resistance and stability. This transfer of knowledge and technology related to best building practices, including the use of steel-based structures as opposed to wooden ones, has a ripple effect that will help entire communities know how to build typhoon-resistant homes in the future.

Training approach

In building the homes, volunteers and qualified personnel from within the local communities were briefed about the designs and then trained on how to construct them.

The training was done hands-on by building a model house with the beneficiaries in their target community which communicated the knowledge in a rapid and effective way. The model house bridged any language barriers and gaps in the understanding of the design and demonstrated the rationale behind the best building techniques.

Furthermore, posters showing the building process as well as instruction manuals were also distributed. The trained carpenters, recruited in the target areas, would remain available throughout the duration of the construction activities to provide a helping hand or technical advise to the beneficiaries whenever necessary.

Most importantly, the PNRC and the Federation showed great respect for the local cultures and traditions in the affected provinces all throughout the period of relief, construction and rehabilitation.

Even the traditional look of the local homes was preserved as much as possible. Families who wanted a home that still used nipa materials were able to do so but mixed these traditional materials with steel, wood and corrugated galvanized iron sheets for a stronger, more weather resistant house.

Imported materials were used for their durability and low-cost. However, whenever low-cost, quality materials were available within the community, these were purchased. This made sure that the reconstruction efforts also helped sustain the livelihood of business owners and workers within the affected communities.

Families were allowed the freedom to tailor the designs of their homes according to their tastes and needs. For example, families who had the means to construct their own toilets were able to do so.

This resulted in homes that are not only comfortable but also designed and constructed to be typhoon-resistant for 10 years.

Bayanihan spirit

Ultimately, the communities themselves deserve credit for accomplishing so much within a comparatively short span of time.

Before they could pull together as a community and work together to improve their situation however, they needed to learn and absorb the spirit of volunteerism. Gordon, who is a staunch advocate of volunteerism, led the way in teaching and inspiring residents to work together as volunteers for the common benefit of all families in their area.

Gordon rallied the residents into becoming a community of volunteers, into taking action and fulfilling responsibilities not only for selfish ends but with the realization that when many people work together for the common good, everyone benefits.

He pointed out that when disaster struck, the entire community suffered. Therefore, for a few members to hold out and refuse to help others would be tantamount to conspiring in the eventual and further destruction of their community.

This was how Gordon steered PNRC into instilling in the hearts and minds of the residents in importance of living, working and sharing the fruits of their efforts. Gordon knew that repairing the physical destruction would only have short-term benefits.

He knew that instituting changes within the value system and thought process of the residents was the key: in order to make lasting changes and progress in their lives, they had first to repair their spirits. They had to change from within in order to externalize the changes they wanted, in order to fulfill their dreams.

Red Cross volunteers worked hand in hand with local volunteers who worked tirelessly for the good of affected families and the community as a whole. It was truly the Filipino bayanihan spirit brought to life. Taken from the Filipino word 'bayani' (meaning, 'hero'), the bayanihan spirit moves the community to heroic action for the collective good.

Those who owned trucks, motorbikes, tricycle, boats and other means of transport selflessly provided these for the use of affected families. Volunteers including local carpenters and ordinary folk all came together to construct the houses.

With 12,300 shelters constructed, the Red Cross and IFRC are sure that communities affected by the typhoons are well on their way to recovery. Those communities, in turn, look forward to a more secure future, knowing that whatever challenges come their way, their bayanihan spirit, along with the PNRC will be there to help them through.