“Let’s do it and let’s do it big!” said Ildebrando Bernadas, Disaster Risk Management Officer from the city government of Tacloban, Philippines, when I approached him with the idea to conduct tsunami drills in schools.
The Tacloban City Department of Education had a very similar reaction, in fact, they proposed that we conduct drills in all schools in tsunami-prone areas in the Eastern Visayas.
The enthusiasm of officials and the urgency to hold drills didn’t surprise me. Tacloban is the city where the strongest typhoon in the history of the Philippines, Haiyan, made its landfall five years ago.
Followed by the storm surge, which reached up to five meters and flattened the city, Haiyan claimed 6,300 lives.
People said that if they had known that the storm surge was like a tsunami, they would have run away from the coast. But they didn’t have the knowledge and confidence to escape when the storm surge made its way through the city and destroyed everything.
Large-scale tsunami drills
In 2017, the United Nations Development Organization (UNDP) with the support of Japan initiated a school tsunami preparedness project with a view to help 90 schools in 18 countries to develop disaster response plans and test them through drills. This project provided us with a golden opportunity to step up our work in tsunami-prone areas in the Philippines.
In my country, we have regular earthquake response trainings in selected schools. But no one before had conducted large-scale tsunami drills for all schools and all students in the tsunami-prone Eastern Visayas region.
Over the period of six months, nearly 20,000 students, teachers and members of school management from 20 public and private schools participated in five simultaneous drills.
These drills created lots of interest from other schools.
We decided to produce an instructional video to guide schools through the process of conducting a drill. I was stunned by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the principals. Inspired by the video, many schools wanted to organize drills to learn about their disaster risks and create an appropriate response plan.
Without a doubt, the drills had created a momentum for schools to strengthen their tsunami preparedness.
But, we couldn’t have done it without the support of the Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) offices by the local government units (LGUs), the Regional Office of Civil Defense (OCD) and the local Department of Education (DepEd).
The importance of partnering with the local DepEd was the first lesson we learnt. It helped to upgrade already existing school-based earthquake trainings into tsunami drills and involve all schools in tsunami-prone areas in the region.
Harmonizing emergency response plans
In the early stages of the project, we found that we needed to bring together all stakeholders — school principals, teachers, disaster risk reduction specialists and community leaders to harmonize the schools’ evacuation plans with those of the communities in which they were located.
These meetings revealed a major gap in evacuation plans — a lack of proper escape routes. And the joint plans were quickly developed to resolve it.
Supported by the community, the Notre Dame Private School of Abuyog constructed a new gate to avoid evacuating students through the old church belfry. The evacuation route was cleaned up near the San Fernando Central School and the local government started formulating emergency protocols for residents and motorists. The Matariano Barangay Council approved a plan to build an escape path for two schools to move fast to uphill safe area. The Tacloban City Rescue Unit started training school-based Emergency Response Teams on basic first aid, and the municipalities of Salcedo and Abuyog followed in their footsteps.
All parties vowed to continue the drills. “It is only in regularly conducting these evacuation drills can we shorten the time from being in the danger zone to the designated safe zone,” said Bernadas of Tacloban City Government.
Bringing together all stakeholders and facilitating the harmonization of disaster response plans of schools and communities was the second lesson learnt. It helped to identify and solve the shortcomings of evacuation plans.
Engaging with the community
It was obvious that schools’ disaster management plans were more effective when they were linked to and supported by the community they locate in. But people in these communities should also know how to act in an emergency situation.
When we saw worried mothers and fathers, aunts and grandparents at the school gate waiting for their children, we understood that the drills had handed us an opportunity to involve the community.
I was surprised by how many of caregivers wanted to know about their role in times of an emergency, how parents are contacted, where will children go if their homes, parents or relatives are gone etc?
These were valid questions that need further discussion, but it was clear that after the tragic experience of Haiyan and recent typhoons, parents wanted to be ready for any extreme weather-related emergencies.
To give parents and caregivers an opportunity to participate in the drills was the third lesson we learnt. Not only it helped to prepare them for emergency evacuations, it raised important questions that need to be reflected in emergency communication protocols.
The tsunami drills in the Eastern Visayas are just a beginning of the long road we need to take to make the Philippines prepared for natural hazards.