Shelter from the storm: life in an evacuation centre
UNICEF’s Andy Brown visited the town of San Pedro, Laguna, following Tropical Storm Ondoy. He went back in 2010 to see how the situation had improved. This is an account of his first visit.
It was the week before Christmas but for 12-year-old Lesley there was little to celebrate. She had been living in an evacuation centre for three months since Tropical Storm Ondoy slammed into the Philippines capital Manila on 26 September 2009. For twelve hours, it lashed out at buildings with winds of around 100 km per hour. It picked up vehicles and hurled them into the air. It uprooted trees, tearing great chunks out of the ground. The sky ripped open, torrential rain poured down and rivers burst their banks, unleashing a catastrophic flood that swept through Lesley’s house, washed away her possessions and shattered her young life.
The living conditions in the covered court she now called home were grim. It was divided into tiny living areas by makeshift wire fences and bedsheets hung from clotheslines. These were little more than three metres across. In some cases, they were so small that family members had to take turns to sleep.
“We’ve been here three months,” Lesley told me, indicating the cramped space. “Our house in Landayan, is still flooded. I miss it and I’m sad that we can’t go home”. Lesley was a pretty girl in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and a blue hair band. Her father was still working as a security guard but her mother, a seamstress, had been unemployed since the flood. “Mum can’t find work at the moment so we’re having money problems. I don’t like living here – I have to walk a long way to school every day.”
I’d arrived at San Pedro Elementary School a couple of hours earlier, armed only with a camera, notepad and UNICEF t-shirt – its bold cyan colour and distinctive logo immediately identifying me, somewhat inaccurately, as an aid worker. I was quickly surrounded by a large crowd of people who pressed in on all sides demanding food, money and supplies. They were clearly desperate and I knew from my security training how these situations can turn ugly. With help from one of the school teachers, Emily, I explained that my job was to report on the situation of the evacuees, in order to raise more money, but that I couldn’t personally promise or provide any supplies. Eventually the tension eased and I was able to get on with the task of interviewing children and their families.
Around 200 families were living in the schoolyard. Most of them had been there since Tropical Storm Ondoy flooded Manila and the surrounding areas. Over 600 people were killed that weekend. Nearly 400,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centres, often in schools. In total, over six million people were affected by the typhoon and the devastating floods that came in its wake. Most of them were slum dwellers. In the two months since the storm, many people had returned to their homes or to resettlement communities. However, around 70,000 were still living in evacuation centres.
For the families at San Pedro Elementary, things had got even worse. They had just been told that the army would be arriving the next day to transfer them to a disused ceramics warehouse, lacking even the basic facilities they had at the school. I got the definite sense that these people were in danger of being forgotten as the world’s attention moved onto other things.
“It’s been hard having the families here because it’s disrupted the children’s education,” Emily said. “We’ve got less classrooms and have had to cut lessons from one hour to forty minutes. We’re teaching Grade 1 to 3 in the mornings and Grade 4 to 6 in the afternoons. But of course we wanted to help the evacuees. Where else could they go?”
Still trailed by some of the crowd, I plunged into the evacuation centre and made my way through its narrow sweaty corridors, looking for people to interview. The smell of unwashed bodies and boiled rice lingered in the air and I could hear the distant sounds of children playing in the schoolyard. I passed a group of boys gambling with dice for a few pesos in change. They started guiltily and tried to hide the game but I smiled and they relaxed, turning back to their game and ignoring my intrusion.
I glanced into some of the living areas as I walked past. These cramped spaces had to make do for everything. In one I saw a corner for cooking, with pans, food handouts and bottled water piled up on a small wooden bench. There were a couple of sleeping mats on the floor and overhead a line of clothes was hanging out to dry. I also saw attempts at decoration. One family had hung a clock from the wire fence, showing an improbable winter snow scene. Meanwhile, a Chinese good luck charm fought it out with Santa Claus for pride of place on top of a pile of emergency supplies.
It was as I was struggling to talk to a woman who spoke very little English that I met Lesley. She came over and spontaneously started translating from Tagalog. Lesley’s English was excellent. She was also very well turned out and didn’t look at all like she was living rough. I later noticed the same thing with some street families. Without the benefit of a washing machine or shower, they somehow managed to create the illusion that they’d just stepped out of the family home to buy something at the market. In both cases, people clearly took pride in their appearance, almost as a statement of pride and resilience amid disaster and poverty.
Lesley took me to meet her mother, Marina, in their tiny home with walls made from cardboard boxes, sacks of rice and a pink, double bed sheet. Marina was a bubbly middle-aged woman who seemed constantly on the verge of breaking into laughter. She fooled around with a kitchen spoon and whispered in her daughter’s ear while I tried to take her photo. Despite their situation, both Lesley and Marina were friendly and optimistic. I asked Lesley how she was getting on at school. “My favourite subject is English,” she replied. “I’m in Grade 6 now but when I grow up I want to be an air hostess and fly to London and America.”
“I’m very proud of Lesley,” her mother added, beaming. “I hope she gets to live her dream.”
Later, I spoke to Education Cluster Coordinator Martijn Engels about the situation. In an emergency, schools are often used as evacuation centers because they’re among the best constructed buildings in a community. However, this creates problems for teachers, pupils and evacuees alike. “It’s a very difficult issue because there are conflicting rights here,” Martijn said. “Some of these people have lost everything and the only place they can stay is in schools. We don’t want to force them out.
“But on the other hand children need to be back in school, both for their education and their protection. We know that in emergencies, some people take advantage of the chaos to abuse or traffick children. Being in school is their best protection. It also offers children a sense of normalcy, which is good for dealing with the disaster psychologically.”
While relocation options were being explored, UNICEF was supporting learning activities and child-friendly spaces in the evacuation centers, along with psychosocial activities to help children come to terms with their distressing experiences. We also provided education materials for schools, including school kits for children, teaching materials for staff and library sets for schools.
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© UNICEF Philippines/2009