Commentary

Building communities of hope

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A month after Tropical Storm “Sendong” struck on Dec. 16-17, Cagayan de Oro City is slowly getting back on its feet. Nearly a third of the city’s population was severely affected by the floodwaters. More than 10,000 families sought refuge in evacuation centers put up in public schools, barangay covered courts and churches. Others stayed with relatives or friends.

Out of the archdiocese’s 21 city parishes, 17 riverside parishes were extensively inundated. Hardest hit were the parishes in Macasandig, Balulang, Carmen, Cathedral, Consolacion, Puntod, RER, Kauswagan, Bulua and Canitoan.

The government has declared a no-return policy for six sitios that are actually part of the river’s delta. These are Cala-Cala, Isla de Oro, Isla Delta, Isla Copa, Isla Bugnaw and Isla Baksan. More than 4,000 houses on these sites were washed away by the rampaging waters of Cagayan de Oro River. The government has also restricted construction of houses within a 15-meter distance from the river. Although the floodwaters reached further inland to submerge even concrete houses in subdivisions, the hardest hit were the makeshift wooden structures built by informal settlers at the river’s edge. For lack of living space elsewhere, “squatting” on what was actually still part of the riverbed was tolerated by city officials and ended in tragedy for many families in the wake of Sendong.

It is in this light that the resolve by both government and multisectoral groups to relocate families whose homes were totally washed away presents the challenge of building new communities of hope. With the reopening of classes on Jan. 3, many evacuee families have transferred to temporary shelter arrangements like tents or bunkhouses provided mostly by international donor agencies. More sites for permanent housing units still need to be identified and acquired. These would supplement the city’s nine hectares in Calaanan and Xavier University’s offer of five hectares in Lumbia, which can accommodate only about 1,500 families out of the estimated 5,000-6,000 needing relocation.

On its part, the archdiocese, through its Social Action Ministry and the affected parishes, started to organize Tabang Cagayan from the first day of the calamity. Its purpose is to assist and augment the efforts of the local government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development. We are grateful for the outpouring of donations in cash or in goods sent by many individuals, dioceses and organizations from different parts of the country and the world for the flood victims.

The archdiocese, together with the DSWD regional office, has also played the role of convenor in bringing together government agencies, civil society organizations and international humanitarian groups in forming clusters on food, health, sanitation, education, security, shelter, religious affairs, etc. to address the pressing needs in the evacuation centers. All these organizations became members of a multisectoral executive committee. An operations center was set up at the Xavier University gym to facilitate camp management and to act as a clearing house for the provision of goods and services to the various camps and affected areas.

Early in the relief work, the need for accurate data was felt in identifying and profiling the survivor families of Sendong. With many youth volunteers and seminarians helping in the interviews and encoding, the archdiocese’s data management team was able to design a computer program that generates disaggregated information on the families affected by the floods. This information is made available to the DSWD and other organizations to help them in prioritizing families for permanent housing units.

Another urgent need still felt by Sendong survivors is post-trauma counseling. Coping with the loss of loved ones or an entire home needs time and sensitivity to heal. Debriefing sessions have been conducted by university teams and doctors to prepare local volunteers, among them the archdiocese’s women religious from a dozen congregations. A suicide case was reported on Jan. 5 in an evacuation center—an indication of the desperation felt by many traumatized survivors.

One notable example of accompaniment in the evacuation centers and affected areas is the presence of the Daughters of Charity (DC) sisters. Four separate batches of 15-17 sisters each have arrived to work quietly for a week at a time among the different centers—to help distribute relief goods, systematize records, make house-to-house interviews, help the sick receive medical attention, etc. In one barangay, the sight of a DC sister walking with a Muslim woman guide, both with head veils, to interview affected Muslim households shows another dimension of solidarity in moments of adversity. The Holy Spirit and RVM sisters have also sent teams to assist the displaced families.

The local church has not forgotten to remember the names of the dead and missing in this tragedy—now exceeding a thousand. Memorial Masses were said in the Cathedral on Dec. 30 and Jan. 7. A candlelight ceremony by the riverside was held on Jan. 25, the 40th day after Sendong. Evacuation centers and temporary resettlement sites also have had their religious services. We have made available the open grounds of both theological and college seminaries and some parish churches for the temporary housing of more than 200 families.

The social preparation for building new communities continues—in the midst of remembering loved ones who have perished. It is with this hope that in the foreseeable future we can repeat the Psalmist’s plea, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” (Ps. 30:11)

Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J. is the archbishop of Cagayan de Oro City.

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