Between Taal and a hard place
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - January 20, 2020 - 12:00am

First of all, we commend each and every Filipino, rich, ordinary even those who qualify as “poor” but who have given from their wealth, resources or simply served as volunteers to help the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have been evacuated from the 14/17 Kilometer danger zone circling Taal Volcano. 

Just when many people lamented the lack of Bayanihan in the country, that spirit of community rises from its slumber and shows how our collective generosity and compassion quickly acts and pours out not by the bucket but by the drums, vans and buses. Just writing about what I have seen personally and on social media gives me goose pimples and is enough proof that we all forget politics, status and suspicions when our very own Kababayans are down for the count. We show up to dust them, stand them up, refresh them and lift them up. I am proud to be Filipino.

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Like it or not we need to put up international standard tent cities to deal with the disaster created by Taal Volcano or else our children in public schools will become secondary victims by not being able to go to schools that have been turned into evacuation centers. DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, has already called out the problem fearing a major setback in education targets if the children don’t complete the required number of school days. The evacuees need to be moved somewhere at the soonest possible time. While TV and radio reporters have covered the major schools and evacuation centers, there are just as many private homes, barangays and villages that have opened doors to evacuees and they too will have to move elsewhere first for the short term, while they are documented and processed. And eventually be given permanent addresses.

Tent Cities is the fast solution and if contractors and local officials will devote their attention to integrity, quality, and speed, my own experience in construction tells me that the basic needs such as toilets, showers, wash up area, open kitchens and material recovery system can be done in 15 days. There are so many empty 20/40-foot containers scattered in ports in Manila, Cavite and Batangas. These can be used for those utility requirements. If you want something simpler, build them, and enlist the evacuees. Give them jobs building the tent cities, give them salaries, their self-respect and give them hope. The current system of locating evacuees in schools and gyms only work short term and is only safe health-wise for evacuees in the hundreds. Those building can’t take thousands, which is what we have now. Someone has to think fast, work smart and get started because we don’t have the luxury of time. The situation should no longer be left to local officials who have their own constituents to serve and worry about. This disaster needs National Government management.

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As we try to find remedies for the conflicting concerns at evacuation centers, someone in Malacañang should already call in or appoint people who will manage the “Taal Relocation and Recovery Program – 2020”. While we are all responding to immediate needs on the ground, Malacañang should use its emergency powers to set up a National Authority to handle the data gathering, determine logistics and locations for new townships. People need to bear in mind that the victims of Taal Volcano are not like the usual typhoon or earthquake victim who still have property or homes to go back to after the storm or earthquake. The eruption of Taal volcano democratically destroyed life as we know it around the 14-kilometer radius. I know people who had no choice but to painfully and tearfully walk away from their “retirement plans”, their farms, ancestral homes, and dream properties over-seeing the lake. Rich or poor, all they have left are memories they can’t even go back to in the near future. Everything is deadly, unstable and life threatening even 2 to 5 years from now. How would government even clean up the mess and where would they dump all that ash fall, dead animals and debris?

I may be premature in my presumption but now might be the right time to start looking for new places to create new towns and barangays. The politicians regularly split voting districts just to accommodate their political ambitions so why not do the same to set up new communities for the Taal evacuees. My only appeal to our government officials, please do it right and build it right. Don’t treat refugees as refugees or flying voters. Treat them and provide for their needs now because many of them are TAXPAYERS. If they came from evolving provincial barangays or towns, that’s all gone now. Now give them a future with dignity and respect by building them a place that represents your excellence and professionalism not “Cheapest –fastest’” piece of junk. Last but not the least I hope someone in Malacañang monitors the prices of land outside but next to the ring of fire because I remembered how after Typhoon Ondoy, those who got flooded decided to go to build new homes in higher ground. As a result property values around Barrio Kapitolyo went from 17.500/sqm all the way to 100 thousand/sqm. over the years. It seems that property values are things that government overlook when dealing with the impact of natural disasters.

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