Opinion

Taal Victims: What Happens Next And What They Need Now

These are questions that keep the evacuees up at night.
IMAGE Ralf Dugan
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It’s been more than a week since 50,000+ people were evacuated from their homes after the Taal Volcano eruption on January 12. The thousands of Batangueno evacuees are now being temporarily housed in schools, courts, and churches across CALABARZON, igniting the bayanihan spirit. Donations are arriving by the truckload and more and more volunteers continue to sign up to help where needed. But even as we wait for Taal’s imminent violent eruption, there’s still the looming question: What happens next? After Taal (most likely) erupts, how much damage will it cause to their homes and towns? When will they be allowed to go back? Will they be allowed to go back?

The evacuees now exist in a state of limbo, and that’s perhaps more terrifying than Taal Volcano itself. In the span of a few hours, they went from having a home to sleeping on the floor of an elementary school. For the average Filipino, working tirelessly every day to make ends meet, to be completely uprooted from a stable life is the real nightmare. In a country where natural disasters play a role in keeping the poor in poverty, these evacuees will face a similar threat if they’re not given the means to get back on their two feet.

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So, what happens next?

Photo by Ralf Dugan.

The loss of livelihood and land

The donations coming in from people across the country solve only a few problems: food, water, and hygiene. Soon, the realities of being an evacuee or bakwit will set in, and that’s where the real disaster begins.

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Fishermen away from the lake, farmers without land, teachers without schools—how will these people regain their livelihoods? How will livestock, the source of income for many evacuees, be reunited with their owners? Where will the evacuees move to when classes resume in the schools sheltering them?

The towns surrounding Taal are known for tourism, and a portion of its inhabitants had financially stable lives pre-eruption. The houses and cars they saved their entire lives to purchase were left to ruin as they rushed to escape the eruption. Now, they’re faced with an impossible question: When do they go from being temporary evacuees to permanently homeless?

Then there are the thousands of children who have had their education disrupted with no clue on when they’ll get back on track. It might take months before they’re allowed to return to their towns, and this is time their parents can’t afford to be unemployed. Some will have to find new professions to survive as donations can only last so long. And then there is pride.

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When I volunteered at an evacuation center last Saturday, I saw older men wearing watches and younger girls wearing earrings, as if they were hanging on to the last remnants of their wealth. That’s when I realized the only difference between us and them is where we just happened to live.

These are questions that keep me up at night, and I’m sure plenty of evacuees too. But unlike day to day needs, which can be alleviated with relief goods, these are problems that can only be solved by the government, which is yet to announce its plan for the evacuees.

Photo by Ralf Dugan.
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Making a home for themselves

But there is still something we can do. Many volunteers and netizens have realized the gravity of the challenge posed to evacuees, and they’re doing their best to address these pain points. Relief work now needs more than just donation packages and relief goods—it needs your time.

Communal kitchens, communal laundry areas, more bathrooms, and even church services—these are simple but incredibly helpful ways of serving the affected communities. There are evacuation centers that require hundreds of people to share one bathroom, and many haven’t had a home-cooked meal in a while. Organizations like Art Relief Mobile Kitchen are working around the clock to provide hundreds of evacuees with hot meals, while a group of volunteers decided to purchase 20 washing machines for two evacuation centers.

These are temporary solutions that will vastly improve their quality of life, which has been upended since the eruption. Everyone’s just trying to make do with what they have left, and any semblance of normalcy is welcomed. That’s why, if you’re planning to volunteer again (or for the first time) anytime soon, here’s what you need to know:

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1| Every municipality and evacuation center has a central relief goods storage area where goods are redirected to and repacked. This is where your donations go so volunteers can check that everything is distributed fairly. But some centers have mountains of donations and not enough people to pack them in time, which then causes delays in distribution. This is where manpower is vital.  

2| Not every evacuee is at an evacuation center. Some have been taken to the homes of individuals, and they need relief goods. Most of the time, they’re the ones that need them the most. In some cases, the evacuees in these houses are not yet registered at evacuation centers, so they do not receive relief goods.

3| Evacuation centers need the big things: stoves, gas, cooking materials, bedding, washing machines, portable bathrooms—all of which are pricey, but worth it, and something generous corporations can easily afford.

What they don’t need: used clothes. Some evacuation centers are flooded with used clothes, most of which haven’t been washed and pose as a health hazard. Kindly note that evacuation centers are not the place to dump your unwanted items, even if Batanguenos have been kind enough to find humor in the situation.

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Photo by Ralf Dugan.

Healing trauma

The financial and social burden caused by evacuation is just one problem to solve. Another, perhaps more difficult, challenge is that of the trauma of the children involved. For the elderly that were evacuated, the memory of running from the 1965 and 1977 eruption is still fresh in their minds. But for the children, the entire fiasco is shocking, to say the least.

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You wouldn’t realize their trauma unless you talked to them. On the surface, the stay at evacuation centers seems like a great big adventure for the children that they get to share with their friends. No school, no homework, and endless time for play. But a closer inspection will tell a different story.

Wala na kaming bahay,” one six-year-old child said quietly at the evacuation center I visited last week. Her friend, aged seven, spoke of how her family had to leave their dog behind in the rush to escape. An older boy shared how he went from having his own room to sharing a tent with his parents and eight siblings. But they didn’t share the story their parents told us: About how many families had to walk three hours under ashfall because panic-induced traffic was preventing them from evacuating the danger zone.

Photo by Ralf Dugan.
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One way volunteers can help them heal from their ordeal is by facilitating simple activities like art therapy where kids can flush away their trauma through art and creativity. It won’t wipe away the memories of ashfall and leaving their homes, but it’s a start.

When the overwhelming fear of what will happen to them next sets in, remember that each action is a start. Donations are only the beginning. It will be a long, near impossible road to recovery that will require government intervention and consistent attention from the public.

Because bayanihan only works when it lasts.

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Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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