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Editorial

Need for permanent evacuation centers

/ 05:11 AM December 21, 2017

With at least 41 dead and 45 missing in the wake of Tropical Storm “Urduja,” is it time to seriously consider a proposal to set up permanent evacuation centers?

In July 2016 Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate filed House Bill No. 1763 seeking to establish community-based permanent evacuation centers in every two to three contiguous barangays nationwide to secure calamity victims. The measure pending before the House committee on national defense and security should be fast-tracked as it addresses the common plaints of people affected by the 20 or so typhoons that whip the country yearly, not to mention the quakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides common in these parts.

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As in Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” most of the fatalities in Urduja perished when their homes were swept away by raging rivers made swollen by relentless rains. Landslides also took their toll.

It’s often asked why people in such clear danger and despite repeated warnings and offers of shelter in government evacuation centers refuse to leave their homes. Aside from people’s fears of losing work animals, livestock and household stuff to looters, a major concern is the state of evacuation centers, where cramped unsanitary conditions have resulted in deaths. (In war-torn Marawi City, at least 24 people died from dehydration, pneumonia and other illnesses, according to then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial. Nearly 40,000 evacuees were housed in emergency shelters set up in community halls, gymnasiums and Islamic schools.)

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In such close quarters, evacuees are bound to suffer from communicable diseases, diarrhea, and malnutrition. Women also face the possibility of rape, abuse and molestation because of the lack of segregated toilet facilities and lighted pathways, and power outages.

Sadly, local government units continue to house evacuees in makeshift tent cities or in multipurpose halls and public school classrooms with inadequate facilities and water supply and limited space. Using schools as temporary evacuation centers also delays a community’s return to normalcy as children cannot resume their studies until the evacuees return to their homes.

Noting that most of these makeshift evacuation camps are themselves in danger-zone areas, Zarate proposes in his bill that evacuation centers be earthquake- and disaster-resistant. They should also be located between barangays so that more people can reach them posthaste. Such sites can serve as the command center for disaster response as well.

But LGUs might balk at plunking down a huge amount and looking for a sizeable area to serve as a permanent evacuation center. What happens to the site when there are no more evacuees? How to justify the use of public funds for an idle structure? And how does one maximize such a big space? How to see to it that its design would ensure privacy even with a great number of displaced families needing to be housed?

Japan, which has its ample share of devastating disasters, has put up emergency shelters designed by renowned architect Shigeru Ban who devised a simple partition made of paper tubes that can connect to each other and serve as columns, beams and joints. White canvas sheets attached to the frame and held together with safety pins assure privacy.

But why look elsewhere? The town of Macabebe in Pampanga has identified two sites for permanent evacuation centers, according to Jomel Cruz, its municipal administrator and disaster management officer. Using donations from international organizations, the LGU built cubicles that provide some privacy, with five families that know each other fairly well in one large cubicle that needs an hour or two to set up.

When there are no evacuees, the cubicles are packed and stowed in a storage room in the evacuation center, which doubles as meeting room for LGU offices, a Tesda training center, and a social hall. As well, these centers can be good venues for sports activities, and could steer young people away from vices like drug use—a better option than expensive rehab.

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Needless to say, such evacuation centers should have sufficient running water, electricity, segregated toilets, kitchen and laundry facilities, a playground in the premises to keep children occupied, and enough provisions to keep evacuees from returning to their homestead even while the area is still in a state of calamity.

Setting up permanent relocation sites needs a huge initial investment, certainly, but when has investing in human lives been a waste of capital?

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