Health And Family

Inspiring stories and lessons from typhoon Yolanda

TEACHABLE MOMENTS - Josemaria Claro - The Philippine Star

It was six in the evening and the early sunset in Ormoc, Leyte added to the darkness and gloom we were feeling as we headed to Barangay Maticaa. The residents were expecting the relief goods to arrive at mid-afternoon. However, due to roadblocks and constraints brought about by limited communication, the goods arrived late. More than a thousand people, including children, pregnant mothers, and senior citizens, were cramped inside a basketball court. In the total darkness, one could hear the buzz of impatient and tired people becoming even more agitated as they saw the truck transporting the relief packs. Despair, fatigue, and impatience — it was the perfect recipe for a stampede. 

But it never happened. 

The residents, though jampacked inside the covered courts, had stubs given to them beforehand. A few minutes after the truck arrived, volunteers formed a human barricade to maintain the queue from the covered courts all the way to the truck while two were assigned to verify the stubs and the number of packs due each person based on family members. It was noisy and tense all throughout, but the volunteers were firm in following the system they have used for the past several years. Soon, the covered court was emptied and everyone in the queue had received aid.

But much more impressive than the orderly distribution of relief goods was that the volunteers are themselves victims of typhoon Yolanda. One volunteer from Tacloban lost her home and went to Ormoc carrying a piece of luggage, which was all that she saved from the storm surge. Most came from Ormoc, who had to stop repairing their own houses just so they could give aid to far-flung areas. And then there was someone among us who was homeless and had lost a loved one but was coping by being with the community which shares her passion and values in life. 

This was just one of the many stories of the volunteers of Gawad Kalinga immediately after typhoon Yolanda. Established with the end goal of eliminating poverty in the Philippines, it’s automatic for the volunteers of the organization to organize the distribution of relief goods to impoverished and disaster-affected areas. But this is just the first phase. The second phase would be the selection of the worst-hit community and transforming it into a GK village by building not just decent houses but a vibrant community amid the rubble. 

And Yolanda showed them how the communities they built not only ended poverty and indignity, but also enabled thousands of Filipinos to survive a great calamity.

Take, for instance, the GK Tambulilid Ormoc community. Tambulilid is a relocation site for the victims of typhoon Uring which claimed more than 8,000 lives in just 30 minutes. While the provincial government was able to give the survivors a safer site, the residents unfortunately had to build their houses by themselves. The result was a depressed community until GK came in 2004 and replaced the makeshift shanties with simple but decent houses made of concrete and plywood, built through donations of volunteers and the sweat equity of the residents themselves. 

Beyond houses, Gawad Kalinga assigned a caretaker team to periodically visit the communities. This caretaker team engages the community in values formation sessions. They also help the beneficiaries organize themselves so that they could elect their own version of a village association. This set of officers then plans development initiatives for the community, which include livelihood assistance.

In fact, a day before typhoon Yolanda struck, the residents of Tambulilid were busy gathering relief packs to be sent to victims of the Bohol earthquake. After the typhoon crippled the whole of Ormoc, it was heartwarming to know that not one relief pack was touched by the residents.  “Even in that kind of situation, even in that kind of tragedy, the community was able to maintain order and wait for instructions. It’s because they put great trust on GK,” Buboy Ygot, caretaker of GK Tambulilid shared. 

He also eagerly recounted how the community was able to share the relief goods they received from Cebu, Leyte, and Manila to Tambulilid’s next-door neighbors: Camella Homes. “Nakakatuwang makita kung paanong nag-abot ng kamay ang mahihirap para sa mayayaman,” Ygot remarked.

This is not to say that the GK communities were unaffected by the storm. Indeed, no one from Ormoc was spared. They couldn’t help but cry in disbelief after seeing the houses they built, the same houses that served as testament of their survival from the 1991 flashfloods, now destroyed after just a few hours.

But having been to Ormoc, Tanauan, Palo in Leyte, Estancia in Iloilo, and to the remote areas in Capiz, I couldn’t help but notice how hope flourished most in the GK communities despite the destruction and despair left by Yolanda. While other residents from non-GK sites had either left their hometowns or utterly depended on the help of the government, the GK residents had immediately started the process of rebuilding, knowing they have the support of a larger community that would not desert them in the painful task of picking up the pieces after a tragedy.

As the government shifts its focus from relief to rebuilding, perhaps it’s time for them to start from scratch and work with other non-government organizations engaged in community organization. No community can be formed from a very politicized local government. What is needed instead is the partnership with mission-oriented groups who will shepherd communities, thereby making it possible to impart the right values during ordinary times and organize people during emergency and crisis situations. The effect will be a resilient community, which may not always escape the wrath of a changing climate but will nevertheless remain empowered, knowing they can rebuild again and again by finding strength in a genuinely cohesive community.

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