Church activists: Lessons from Typhoon Washi helped save Filipinos

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After the passage of Typhoon Bopha, Sister Maria Famita Somogod, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, delivers food Dec. 6 to Gloria Riez, who was displaced by the storm in Iligan, Philippines. Sister Somogod is the Northern Mindanao coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

ILIGAN City, Dec. 11, 2012 — Although hundreds of people died as Typhoon Bopha hit the southern Philippines in early December, church activists and residents of one storm-affected region said lessons learned from last year’s Typhoon Washi saved lives this time around.

“All of our workshops on disaster risk reduction really worked. The people were prepared,” Sister Maria Famita Somogod, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, told Catholic News Service.

Sister Somogod is the Northern Mindanao coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. The national organization of men and women religious, priests and laypeople supports peasant demands for justice and agrarian reform. In the wake of Washi, which struck Mindanao in December 2011, the missionaries got involved in relief operations and disaster preparedness training.

While Iligan and nearby Cagayan de Oro were ground zero for the destruction of Washi, which killed more than 1,200 people, this time people were ready. Well before the arrival of Typhoon Bopha, known locally as Typhoon Pablo, municipal and neighborhood officials had evacuated those at risk.

“The night before Pablo arrived, we went to some of the most vulnerable areas to make sure people got out. They had already gone to the evacuation centers. They were safe. So no one died. Although some houses were damaged, the people had gone to the evacuation centers,” Sister Somogod said.

“The government really learned its lessons from Sendong,” as Washi was known locally, Sister Somogod said. “Starting two days before Pablo, announcements started in the radio and television. The municipal disaster teams started working. Officials closely monitored the water levels of the rivers, something that did not happen before.”

Not everyone gave the government high marks. Sineyda Valoria, secretary of the Survivors Collective in Iligan’s riverside Antorio neighborhood, said families there were ordered to evacuate to an elementary school.

“The government did well in ordering us to evacuate in time,” she said, “but when we got to the evacuation center there was no food or water.” A private group and municipal authorities finally gave each family three kilos (about 6.5 pounds) of rice, but Valoria said that was not enough.

“We were supposed to wait there until Saturday, but the people couldn’t wait. We preferred to come back here rather than be hungry there,” she said.

On Dec. 6, Sister Somogod and other church activists delivered food packages to some 40 families in Antorio, who were cleaning up their homes that were partially flooded in their absence.

Imee Manginsay, the executive director of the Cagayan de Oro-based Muslim-Christian Alliance for Advocacy, Relief and Development, also praised the government response as greatly improved over the last year. But she said it was the change in attitude of ordinary citizens that made a big difference.

“During Typhoon Sendong, the people weren’t alert. We didn’t listen to the radio, we were happy-go-lucky, even as the rains started to fall. When the waters started rising upstream, no one thought of alerting the people downstream,” she said.

“But this time everyone was listening to the radio, and when the electricity went off they found radios with batteries. People shared information, and many people were evacuated two days before the typhoon hit.”

Manginsay said one key to the success of the disaster response has been the intentional involvement of women in planning.

“During disasters, it’s the women who care for the children and think of the impact on the family. So during our training and our mapping of risks in the communities, we insured that women participated fully. It’s the woman who will prepare the emergency kit and be sure that there’s a flashlight and batteries. The men will worry about the cows and water buffaloes, but the women will insure that the family survives,” she said.

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and other Catholic groups have been highly visible in protesting the environmental degradation that they believe exacerbated Typhoon Washi’s deadly assault. Hillsides denuded by logging and mining gave way easily in the heavy rain, and tens of thousands of trees and logs washed quickly downstream, battering fragile houses to bits. This month’s Typhoon Bopha’s death toll was centered in the Compostela Valley, where illegal logging and mining had set the stage for the massive flooding that killed hundreds.

On Dec. 4, Benedictine Sister Stella Matutina, secretary-general of Panalipdan, an environmental activist group in Mindanao, released a joint statement with an indigenous leader calling on the government to learn a larger lesson from the storm’s violence.

“We have long called to stop large-scale mining, logging, agribusiness expansion and power projects that leave an adverse impact to the environment and agricultural lands in Mindanao. But our calls have fallen to deaf ears until recent disasters have shown how these industries aggravate the disasters, resulting to deaths and destruction,” the statement said.

“It is sad that while we face the consequence of greed from multinationals for our lands and resources, we have also become victims of the fatal effects of these companies’ operations as well as the military’s brutal attacks for defending our lands and very lives.

“We strongly demand that the Aquino administration stop the liberalization and sell-out of our lands and the ancestral lands of the Lumad (Mindanao’s indigenous peoples) for large-scale mining and other big multinational companies to avert further disasters,” the statement said. “It must hold accountable the companies that plunder our lands and bring deaths to our people in Mindanao.” (Paul Jeffrey/CNS)

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