Struggles of Taal evacuees mount as crisis drags on

Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 25 2020 05:18 PM

Residents from Lemery, Laurel and Talisay Batangas make the Tagaytay Integrated Elementary school in Tagaytay City their temporary home, January 23, 2020. The city government of Tagaytay is making adjustments for the resumption of classes for their schools being used as evacuation centers. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

LIPA CITY, Batangas – Jeffrey and Luisa Magracia will embrace parenthood for the first time the most memorable way. 

Luisa, 26, is 9 months pregnant but is currently staying in a warehouse in Lipa City, Batangas where she may most likely give birth to their first baby in the coming days.

The couple, along with the rest of Jeffrey’s family, left their homes in Lemery town on Jan. 15, after ash spewed by Taal Volcano 3 days earlier and tremors triggered by the volcanic eruption made their stay there uncomfortable, unhealthy and unsafe.

“Sobrang sakit ng ilong ko dahil sa sobrang abo. 'Yong bahay namin, puno ng ashfall. Pati mga damit namin. 'Di rin kami makakain nang wasto kasi pumapasok sa bahay 'yong abo. Nakakapuwing. Kahit pagligo, ang hirap,” Luisa said in an interview with ABS-CBN News last Wednesday at a warehouse in Barangay Mabini, Lipa City that had been turned into an evacuation center.

(The excessive ash is irritating my nose a lot. There’s too much ash in our house, and even on our clothes. It’s even difficult for us to eat because the ash gets inside the house. And they also get into our eyes. Taking a bath is also just as hard.)

On those first 3 days of the crisis that swept Batangas and its neighboring provinces, Luisa said she would get dizzy, her feet swollen, and nose constantly irritated. Jeffrey, a construction worker, could not go to work anymore. 

Jeffrey’s parents, Roger, 67, and Elsa, 59, were forced to pack up their mobile sari-sari store as it was no longer safe to stay outside and there were almost no customers.

At the warehouse that owners Celso and Rosenda Solis opened for some 22 families, including the Magracia clan, all are relatively safe from the volcanic ash. Lipa City, located slightly southeast of the restive volcano, is not along the current regular wind track, unlike Lemery, which lies southwest.

But the evacuees have to endure living with strangers under one roof, with no partitions, and have to exercise patience to wait for their turn to use any of the 2 toilets there.

Roger made sure there is a piece of plywood and layers of cartons under their sleeping mattress laid on the cemented floor since he has asthma.

Angelica Facun, 32, from Balete town, which is immediately east of the volcano island, did the same to protect the health of her 5 children, all girls, including a 3-month-old infant.

“'Yong bunso ko, sinisipon na simula kahapon, siguro dahil sa alikabok. Pero, may gamot namang binigay, kasi may nagme-medical mission dito,” Facun, interviewed also last Wednesday, told ABS-CBN News.

(My youngest child has been having colds since yesterday, probably because of the dust here. But she is taking medicine already courtesy of the medical mission conducted here.”)

Angelica’s eldest daughter Ashley, 12, laments having to stop attending school because of the calamity. 

“Mahalaga kasi ang pag-aaral. Sayang 'yong mga araw na walang pasok,” the Grade 6 student, who was 2nd honors the previous year, said.

(Education is very important. It’s a pity that classes had to be canceled.)

While evacuees are grateful for the assistance they have been receiving from government and private donors, including food, medicine, hygiene kits, and such psychosocial interventions as religious counselling and storytelling activities for kids, boredom and the persistent desire to return home are daily issues that they have to constantly battle against.

“Iba pa rin kasi 'yong tulog mo sa sariling mong bahay. At do'n, nakakakilos ka nang normal, nakakakain ka nang wasto,” Luisa said.

(The quality of sleep you get at your own home is different. And there, you can act normally, and eat properly.)

“Mahirap din kasi hindi ito bahay natin. Iba pa rin sa sarili nating bahay, kahit kubo lang 'yon,” echoed her father-in-law Roger.

(It’s hard because this is not our own house. It’s different when we are in our own homes, even if it's just a hut.)

“Naguguluhan ako… Nalulungkot ako… Nando'n (sa amin) 'yong isip ko dahil ando'n 'yong ikinabubuhay naming mag-asawa, pati ng mga anak ko. Naghihirap na nga kami, nawalan pa kami ng hanapbuhay at trabaho,” Roger shared when asked what comes to his mind during idle moments at the evacuation center.

(I get confused… I feel sad… I keep thinking about home because that’s where our source of living is. We’ve been struggling in life, and now, we’ve been deprived of our livelihood and jobs.”)

 DEFYING ORDERS

A family gathers at the open area of a park in front of the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex, which is now being used as an evacuation center for displaced residents of the Taal Volcano eruption in Batangas City, January 23, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Some local residents in the affected areas have been sneaking back to their homes to check on their properties and animals, defying orders by government to permanently vacate those within the 14-kilometer radius from the volcano’s crater. Phivolcs continues to warn of a hazardous eruption possibly within hours or days.

Nearly 2 weeks after the Taal Volcano’s steam-driven eruption on Jan. 12, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council recorded more than 348,000 people from Batangas and nearby Cavite, Laguna and Quezon to have been displaced, of which, almost 138,000 were housed in evacuation centers.

“It’s important that people who were displaced are kept well-informed so that they can understand the circumstances and the reasons why they can’t go home immediately,” Mark Bidder of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told ABS-CBN News by email.

“They need to know the news of what’s happening back home, and knowing gives them a sense of control over what happens next.”

Bidder praised the Philippine government for “swiftly evacuating” affected residents and continuing “to ensure that people are out of harm’s way.”

He notes as well the “spontaneous expressions of generosity from all walks of life” for the affected population, citing the “long history of humanitarian goodwill” in the Philippines.

But “as it remains unsafe for them to return home,” Bidder underscored the need for “continued support for the period,” and more so, “to help them get back on their feet once a return is possible.”

“With the unpredictability of the volcano, those seeking shelter in evacuation centers may be displaced for weeks, or even months. They will need continued humanitarian assistance for as long as it’s not safe to go home,” Bidder said, as he assured that UN agencies in the country, along with international and local humanitarian actors, are coordinating with local authorities for further assistance.

DONATIONS POUR IN

Volunteers and members of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council gather donations from different groups at the main donations distribution hub located at the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex in Batangas City on January 23, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The NDRRMC’s latest report on Saturday morning showed that various government agencies have extended a total of more than P27 million worth of assistance. Donations from private groups and the international community have yet to be quantified.

Joselito Castro of the Batangas Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office told ABS-CBN News that relief distribution in the province is nonstop, although his office is checking on reports that some displaced people have yet to receive assistance.

He said it may be that those complaining have not reached out yet to the PDRRMO, where identified evacuation centers are properly listed. 

“Actually, hanggang ngayon, tsine-check namin sa mga bahay-bahay, mga kaanak,” he said last Wednesday.

(Actually, until now, we are checking on houses, or relatives [who may have taken in some displaced residents].)

Meanwhile, Joy Montalbo, the provincial social welfare officer, said some donors no longer go through the Taal Volcano Eruption Donation Hub based in the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex in Batangas City, as they have their own way of directly choosing their beneficiaries.

While it would be ideal for the hub to receive all forms of assistance so they can be appropriately channeled to where they are needed, Montalbo said they cannot prevent donors from proceeding straight to the recipients they have chosen.

“Kaya’t hinihikayat namin 'yong iba na sana ay maabot din nila 'yong mga maliliit na evacuation centers... Pero, hangga’t maaari ay amin pong inaabisuhan through our donation hub. Ang advantage no'n ay matutugunan nang equally sana 'yong ating mga kababayan,” Montalbo said.

(“So we are just encouraging others to hopefully reach out as well to smaller evacuation centers… But, as much as possible, we really advise them to go through our donation hub. The advantage in doing so is we can equally address the needs of those in need.)

At the Solis’ warehouse in Lipa City, a small group of engineers working for a big company in Laguna province arrived last Wednesday morning to give their donations to evacuees there. Lindon Comador, 26, said a friend who lives in the city suggested the place to him.

“No'ng mabalitaan namin sa news 'yong nangyari, gusto naming tumulong kasi medyo may kakayahan naman tayong tumulong,” said Comador, whose group brought drinking water, juice packs, sleeping mats, electric fans, clothes and hygiene kits, among others.

(When we learned the incident from the news, we wanted to give some assistance right away.)

Comador’s colleague, Jayvee Bigueras, 24, said it was their way of giving back, and being thankful for having the capacity to share, instead of the ones needing help.

RESUMPTION OF CLASSES A CHALLENGE

A young girl takes a rest at the Bolbok Elementary School in Batangas City on January 23, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Castro, the PDRRMO chief of Batangas, said the next important challenge to face is moving evacuees staying in schools so that classes could resume soon.

The provincial government is targeting the transfer of around 15,000 evacuees to 2 “interim homes” located in Ibaan municipality this weekend.

According to the latest report of the regional disaster management office, 259 schools in Batangas, Cavite and Laguna were being used as evacuation centers as of Jan. 19, hosting 62,055 people.

“Challenging siya sapagkat kung titingnan natin, kulang pa rin. So, nag-a-identify pa kami ngayon ng other facilities na puwedeng paglipatan… 'Yong mga lupa ng probinsiya, tinitingnan namin 'yong possibility kung maglagay kami ng tent city doon,” Castro said.

(It’s challenging because if you look at it, it’s still not enough. So, we are continuing to identify now other facilities where evacuees can also be transferred… We are also looking at the possibility of setting up a tent city in some provincial lots.)

“Sa schools, halimbawa, kung hindi pa rin maaaring i-alis, maglalagay kami ng tent para 'yong mga evacuees, kung may pasok, do'n muna sila sa tent. 'Yon ang mga strategies namin,” he added.

(“If, for example, the evacuees cannot move out of the schools yet, we plan to set up tents, so that, if classes will be held, they can stay in the tents. Those are some of our strategies.)

Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas said he was considering the possibility of extending assistance as well to displaced residents who may opt to move to other provinces.

At the gymnasium in the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex, the Lovisto family, who evacuated from Taal town, were already contemplating on staying with their relatives in Samar, especially since their child is only 5 months old. 

Erica, 25, hopes there is a free bus ride or other means of transportation assistance they can get. 

Castro fears that if the crisis prolongs, resources might become insufficient.

With many other post-disaster efforts being undertaken by the Philippines along with the lingering crisis, Bidder of the UN OCHA said “it’s important that we continue to forge strong partnerships… and figure out the best way to support people in meeting their immediate needs and support longer term recovery,” considering that “resources are stretched.”

He cites as a good example the efforts of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO) in addressing the needs of people affected by the eruption of Mayon Volcano in January 2018.

“APSEMO placed importance on maintaining strong partnerships with humanitarian organizations, and their inclusive approach enable partners to augment the government’s actions for the needs of those who evacuated during the 2-month displacement in 2018,” Bidder said.

Luisa, whose excitement for motherhood that is drawing near is dampened by worries about the imminent eruption of the Taal Volcano, could only pray for normalcy – a normal delivery, a normal baby girl, and a normal home.