In the aftermath of deadly typhoon Bopha, Heifer International was quick to mobilize relief efforts. Dried fish, roofing iron and other small offerings brought immediate comfort after this unparalleled storm, but the people know it’s Heifer’s community-managed disaster risk reduction trainings that will prepare them to face future calamities.
By Annie Bergman, World Ark Senior Writer
Photos by Nacho Hernandez
SAYON, Philippines — The wind woke Noel Apan at 4 a.m. on Dec. 4. It was unusual, he thought. Still, he didn’t worry. Typhoons hit farther north. There was no need to wake the family.
The weather service probably had it wrong, Apan told himself, remembering the warnings issued days before. Other villagers said that a typhoon hadn’t reached Sayon in 80 years.
Even if this were such a storm, surely it wouldn’t move this far inland. So he sent text messages to family throughout the village joking about its severity.
“How’s the wind?” Apan’s tongue-in-cheek messages read.
In seven hours he would be homeless.
Typhoon Bopha made landfall on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao late on Dec. 3, 2012, just hours after the sun set on what was said to be an unusually beautiful day.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGA SA) had predicted a signal 3 storm for inland Mindanao, or a typhoon with wind speeds between 6 and 114 miles per hour.
But Bopha, or Pablo as it was named locally packed sustained winds of 161 mph, making it super typhoon—equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale used in the United States.
Though the cyclone did lose punch as it moved inland from the southeast, it displaced more than 1 million people and killed more than 1,000. Nearly 1,000 more people remained missing three months later, many of them fishermen who were out at sea as the storm closed in on the island nation.
In the U.S., news coverage since the typhoon has focused on the badly hit Compostela Valley, just north and east of where the storm came ashore in Davao, where landslides trapped and buried many.
But in Sayon, along with the other villages that make up the Santa Josefa region slightly north and west of the Compostela Valley, the storm stripped the hillsides of mahogany, palm and mango forests, swamped villages and surrounding rice fields, decimated cash crops like oil palm and bananas, and left thousands with gaping holes in walls and roofs. Others were left with no home at all.
Nearly 400 families involved in Heifer projects here lost all or part of their homes, and many lost livestock. More than 250 pigs and 90 goats died in the storm, and farming families saw more than 1,000 acres of rice, corn and banana lands ruined.
The damage to Heifer projects was estimated at $550,000. In the Santa Josefa area, damage just to Heifer beneficiaries’ property was estimated at nearly 28 million Philippine pesos, or $69,000.
The average Filipino small farming family makes about $400 a year.
The entire house was awake by then, including his wife, Rosalyn, his two children and two brothers, and they were getting scared. None of them had experienced winds like this. Flash floods are common, but the combination of the wind and rain was terrifying.
That’s when Apan went to work. He had been one of the lucky members of a Heifer pig project to receive Community-Managed Disaster Risk Reduction (CMDRR) training designed to help families in this exposed island nation mitigate damage in the face of natural disasters.
Apan gathered every piece of furniture in his small wooden-slatted home in the main living area. He put their table on top of the pile and told the family to huddle underneath.
“I did this in case the house collapsed,” Apan said. “I knew we wouldn’t be trapped. We would be safe there.”
And there they sat, hugging, worried, scared, but mostly silent, waiting for the storm to pass.
Aware that the country was prone to a variety of natural disasters - tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, floods and landslides among them - Heifer International had already identified the Philippines as its number one country for concern.
About four years ago, Heifer Philippines staff began implementing training in local projects to address disaster preparation. Participants were taught how to secure livestock and feed, to harvest crops for food and to secure water and firewood. Project members identified evacuation centers and were also taught how to safeguard important papers, education materials and cash.
But the projects in the Santa Josefa region— like the one Noel Apan is part of—are newer projects, and only two of the 16 Heifer self-help groups had received the CMDRR training, said Forcep de la Torre, Heifer Philippines program officer for Mindanao.
“The day most of these families were supposed to have the training is the day Typhoon Bopha hit,” de la Torre said.
The two self-help groups that did receive the training learned many of the same things that Heifer implemented with groups in older projects farther north.
Hermie Evangelio, a local government leader, explained that the Sayon groups first identified the primary hazards facing the area. Since no one in the region could remember experiencing a typhoon, such storms weren’t included in their planning, he said.
It was determined that floods were the primary hazard, with landslides a secondary threat. The community helped map the area to identify which households were the most vulnerable. As the only two-story building, the school was designated the evacuation center. A boat was reserved for water rescues as well.
But no one could have prepared for a storm of this strength, Evangelio said.
Apan’s furniture shelter kept the family safe for three hours.
“About 10 a.m. the whole house started moving. It actually shifted about three feet on its foundation,” Apan said. “We were inside, still under the table. We started to panic. I managed to keep calm and relax everyone.”
What the family didn’t know was that a mango tree bowing to the winds was leaning heavily on a drop wire from the electric lines that came through the wall. As soon as the house was pulled several feet by the falling tree, the family knew they had to leave.
“We decided to leave the house, but the door wouldn’t open. We had to push on the wall to get out,” Apan said.
Seconds after all six of them had squeezed through an opening in the wall, the entire structure was lifted off the ground and flipped as one complete piece—a combination from the force of the tree pulling the drop wire to the ground and the gusts of wind.
“We stood there hugging in the rain and wind, not knowing what to do. We just said goodbye to the house and knew it was a good decision to leave,” Apan said. “In just a second, the house and all of the things inside of it were upside down. We were the only things that made it out.”
Apan said he looked for anything to protect the family from the strong winds and pounding rain. He saw their bamboo loveseat sitting in a field, so he retrieved it from the swamped land and brought it back to the concrete slab. Almost as soon as the family sat down, the wind picked up the couch along with all six family members.
“It was just terrible,” Apan said.
While scientists agree that it’s impossible to blame one extreme weather event on climate change, rarely has such a storm hit as far south in the Philippines and with as much strength as Bopha.
Still, the Philippines experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year, but the season for these storms is typically between June and October. So a December typhoon with 160 mph winds is certainly unusual.
Greg Holland, a hurricane expert with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., explained that rising ocean temperatures have “provided more energy that is available over longer periods for intense storms to develop.”
Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ chief climate negotiator, said at the Doha Climate Change Conference just days after the typhoon that he is concerned warming atmosphere and ocean temperatures could lead the people in the Philippines to only become more familiar with these highly destructive storms.
Holland validated Sano’s concern.
“The proportion of intense systems is expected to increase substantially with climate change,” Holland said. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and World Meteorological Organization have both indicated this as a likely outcome and recent research by us has indicated that there already has been a substantial increase.”
As for what governments and aid agencies can do to help people prepare for storms like Bopha, Holland said advance preparations of any kind, like Heifer’s CMDRR training, is a necessity.
“I would say that there is no reason to believe that conditions will improve, so any planning and care taken now will be a good investment in future well-being,” he said.
When the wind finally died down about 11 a.m., Apan and his family started to look for concrete homes where they would feel more secure. They saw their neighbors’ home still standing about 300 yards away and decided to head there.
The family set off, but Apan was worried about his pig from Heifer, which had been left in its pen near the house. Apan went to see about the animal. What he found surprised even him.
“I saw the pig swimming, so I picked it up. She became an evacuee with us,” he said.
By the time the family reached the neighbors it was nearly noon, and the family realized they hadn’t eaten.
“We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch. The neighbors fed the children about 1 p.m. but we couldn’t eat knowing what had just happened to our home,” Apan said.
Apan’s wife, Rosalyn, convinced him to try to make it to the town center. She was worried about the daycare where she worked as a teacher and also about her 59-year-old mother.
Trudging through debris-filled floodwaters that reached to his waist, Apan left his children with the neighbors and went to find Rosalyn’s mother and check on the daycare center. The daycare building’s roof had peeled off in part, and books and supplies inside were water-logged. Rosalyn’s mother was fine.
“The scene was awful to watch,” Apan said. “My wife was crying. I saw people evacuating their houses to the school, but the roof of the school was sagging under the weight of the rain and they were afraid of the ceiling collapsing. The people who had escaped the rising waters to the second floor were streaming to the first floor even though it was full of water.”
After learning that everyone they knew was safe, the couple returned to the neighbor’s home where they had left their children and Apan’s brothers. They collected tarps and waded back through the floodwaters to where their home had stood only hours before.
They set to work tying the tarps to trees. The family lived under these makeshift shelters for the next three weeks.
“The most important thing was that everyone was OK,” Apan said.
Immediately after the typhoon, Heifer and its partner organizations went to work assessing the damage to projects.
On Dec. 9, five days after Bopha, Heifer approved $50,000 in disaster rehabilitation funding to help provide short-term food relief and materials to repair homes and a feed mill, such as tin for the roofs and raw feed ingredients for surviving animals.
While Heifer focuses on long-term solutions to immediate problems like hunger and poverty, it was clear that without relief supplies families affected by the typhoon might not recover enough to become resilient to future disasters, de la Torre said.
While Heifer and partner organization HEED were collecting roofing and feed mill supplies for distribution, word of the damages reached other Heifer communities in neighboring provinces not damaged by the storm.
In just 10 days, Heifer was able to provide each family with 12 pieces of corrugated iron roofing, one 100-pound sack of rice, two pounds of dried fish, 11 pieces of assorted canned goods and 16 sachets of instant coffee. The food was intended to last 30 days.
“All the supplies came from neighboring communities,” de la Torre said. “And it was volunteers from affected families who came and helped pack the sacks of supplies.”
Then the rebuilding began in earnest.
The 366 Heifer families were divided into groups of five. These groups then got together to pool food and to help one another rebuild their homes. The Heifer families also took it upon themselves to divide the food among neighbors who weren’t involved in Heifer projects, de la Torre said.
They made schedules based on need to determine which homes to rebuild first. The rebuilding also depended on whether families had resources or the funds to buy those resources for their new homes.
It was during this time that families took comfort in one another and began focusing on the few positive stories they could find.
And though she’s facing hardships beyond any she’s known, San Miguel said she now finds hope in the seven piglets that were born just three days after the typhoon.
“It’s crisis for us right now. We’re depending on donations for food,” she said. “But the pigs have helped so much.”
Still, most families here depend on cash crops for the majority of their income, and most experts indicate that it will take years—two years for banana plants, three to five for rubber trees and up to 10 for palm and coconut trees—to regrow the plants to a degree where these families can begin earning money from them.
The government has said it will support the families by providing seedlings of cash crops, and in the meantime will provide rice and corn seedlings to replace the crops that were lost in the typhoon and the flooding.
Beyond the relief that Heifer gave, assessments are still being made for how to help families fully recover from the storm as emergency food supplies quickly run out.
Apan and his family lived in a tent and under tarps until Dec. 26, working by day to salvage any materials they could from their old home.
He and his brothers were able to save about 75 percent of the wood and other materials from his home. Apan sold two piglets that his sow had shortly after the storm for $231. He used that income to buy an additional eight sheets of corrugated iron to add to the 12 pieces that Heifer provided, and to pay for the carpenter he hired to rebuild his family’s home. The total cost to rebuild the structure was about $25. He saved the rest to pay for his children’s schooling.
“The neighbors are really discouraged about life. When it comes to their homes, their houses, they’re passive about it because they can’t afford to buy the lumber,” he said.
Evangelio echoed Apan’s assessment.
“Their basic needs aren’t being met. All of the cash crops are gone. These families have no source of income,” he said.
And while Apan has started working again both on his rice farm and also as a motorcycle taxi driver, he knows his future isn’t quite secure, either.
Food is running thin, he said. In addition to the relief from Heifer, he received a loaf of bread, peanut butter and apples from the Department of Social Welfare—the typical relief supplied to non-Heifer participants in the area, he said. And they’re worried about more storms.
But he has something that many here don’t: his pig. Apan is grateful to have had this resource to help him weather the storm, and he said he looks forward to passing on piglets and training so other families can become resilient, too.
“The pig is a big help for us. It’s part of our livelihood. I treasure the pig because it’s a gift from another family and one for another family.”