It’s a common enough scenario: A disaster strikes and residents are told to evacuate to safe ground, but always there are holdovers who choose to stay in the danger zone.
The eruption of Mount Mayon in Albay is no exception. Farmers sneak out of evacuation centers to tend to their farms at the foot of the volcano, feed their work animals and livestock, and check on their homes.
Farmers, who make up some 10,000 of the 84,000 people displaced by Mayon’s eruption, have always been the most vulnerable to such vagaries of nature as flood, volcanic activity, mudslide, or typhoon.
And the usual response — as seen in previous catastrophes — is for the women and children to flee to safe shelters while the men hunker down to guard the family home.
The farmers say they’re fearful, not of the volcano, but of losing their harvest of rice, corn, or vegetables, like the chili peppers and taro leaves that are the staple of the Bicolano diet and their main source of income.
Even the long-term ill effects of air laced with the ash spewed out by Mayon hardly faze these holdouts: For them, what matters is the more immediate need to salvage their livelihood and save whatever little has been spared by nature’s wrath.
It’s easy to dismiss their stance as stubborn, ill-informed, foolhardy, and an unnecessary hurdle that can put the lives of rescuers to risk as well.
But what is the alternative? Miserable conditions in cramped and congested evacuation centers, and worrisome thoughts of how abandoned homes could be looted by malcontents.
Crisis, it’s been said, brings out the best and worst in people. We’ve seen the worst, but have had very rare glimpses of the best. Local officials, in their haste to shepherd people out of harm’s way, can be insensitive to the plight of farmers.
Which was why the latest move by Albay’s local authorities to set up communal grazing grounds where livestock and work animals can feed on ash-free grass comes as a welcome change. Giving farmers security and peace of mind over their farm animals could prevent them from slipping away into danger zones.
Other local initiatives — small steps, to be sure — can be similarly implemented, among them better conditions in evacuation centers to entice more families to stay.
The P31.6 million (A$775,000) worth of humanitarian support given by Australia through the Philippine Red Cross in the form of tarpaulins, sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans and hygiene supplies for 30,000 individuals could make the difference to the more than 56,000 people housed so far in 46 evacuation camps.
As well, the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s efforts at psychosocial intervention for evacuees traumatized by the crisis is a step in the right direction. And so is its play therapy for evacuee children.
The Church, too, has done its share, with Caritas welcoming donations of used clothing, blankets and other goods, and directing cash donations to banks and remittance centers that generously offered their services for free.
Then there are the radios donated by World Vision to the shelters, which provide evacuees with timely news updates on the volcano, as well as music and drama to hold boredom at bay.
Twenty-nine radios are now being used in evacuation centers in Camalig and Cabangan; 194 were given to the provincial government of Albay — a small way of instilling normality in a crisis scenario.
The P25-million fund turned over by the Office of the President to the Albay provincial government on Monday to help improve sanitation and food supply for evacuees should go a long way.
Some P50 million more is forthcoming, with the Department of Agriculture ready to give P100 million from its Quick Response Fund.
The DA said it would also offer farmers a P20,000 loan without interest and collateral under its Survival and Recovery Program, to pay for seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs necessary to help those affected.
The Center for Health Development Bicol has deployed its Rapid Health Assessment team to evacuation centers in Camalig, Guinobatan, Daraga, Tabaco City, Sto. Domingo, Malilipot, Legazpi City and Ligao City. The team is composed of 326 health workers, including nurses and midwives.
Such efforts by individual agencies speak of a strong sense of community at a time when it matters most. These initiatives are most welcome and should be emulated by other groups and LGUs in similar circumstances.
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