It was a hot summer’s day but it started to drizzle when the alarms rang across the town of New Bataan for an earthquake drill. Ambulances and trucks entered the an open field and emergency responders quickly attended to mock casualties. Nearby, residents assembled in an evacuation camp while coordinators communicated on their radios. A mother was crying beside a little girl in one of the beds. I thought that it was part of the scenario until I heard her saying: “I wish we had been prepared five years ago.” She lost one of her children during one of the most unforgettable catastrophes ever to hit their town.
It was December 2012 when the strongest weather disturbance to hit the south of Philippines in two decades landed in Compostela Valley. Fierce winds, mudslides, and flash floods destroyed houses, uprooted trees and swept through schools and buildings where the residents took refuge. Many people in Compostela lost loved ones; many more lost their livelihoods. The painful experiences taught them an important lesson: prepare for the unexpected.
“One night we could not go anywhere because water surrounded the twelve houses left. All the other houses of our neighbors were taken by the raging water.” This is how Lynne Dollolasa remembers Typhoon Bopha. She was at that time trying to save lives as an emergency responder while trying to recover as a victim herself. ‘’We never expected to see casualties everywhere. We could hardly see any dry land, everything was mud.’’
Lynne recalls that although there was a warning, no one was really worried because no typhoon had hit their municipality in decades. “Generally, the information was ignored. So we were caught unaware.”
While the storm was unstoppable, for Lynne the damage could have been less if only she had been more prepared. Back then, the town had a disaster council and a team of emergency responders, but no operations centre. And like Lynne, most responders needed help themselves.
Lynne recalls how the national government and international humanitarian organizations worked hand in hand to deliver assistance and conduct recovery operations in their town. But more than the recovery assistance, the people of New Bataan valued the introduction of systems, policies and recovery operations they were taught to survive and cope with a large-scale disaster.
After providing emergency relief and recovery assistance, the World Food Programme (WFP), through the generous support of USAID, helped renovate a building that now functions as the Disaster Operations Center of New Bataan. WFP also provided equipment and conducted trainings to build search and rescue capability of emergency responders.
Lynne is now the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Officer of New Bataan. She can be found with her team training responders and conducting emergency drills in every barangay (sub-unit) of their town, and they willingly teach their best practices to other disaster-prone communities inthe country.
The people of New Bataan now look back on their experience of Typhoon Bopha as a reminder of the critical task on their hands — and as a lesson that taught them to rise up stronger.
Lynne concludes: “Maybe I could not say that we are totally and 100 percent prepared, because nobody could ever be prepared enough for a big disaster… But at least, at this moment, people really know what to do.”
Click here to learn more about the programmes of WFP Philippines.