University turns into evacuation center, with creative solutions from students | Inquirer News

University turns into evacuation center, with creative solutions from students

By: - Reporter / @deejayapINQ
/ 12:30 PM December 24, 2011

ILIGAN CITY, Philippines — The biggest evacuation center here may be running like a well-oiled machine but the fuel driving it is the kindness of strangers, officials of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) said.

Tending to the needs of more than 2,000 families, the MSU-IIT evacuation center for victims of Tropical Storm “Sendong”  began as a happy accident, springing from a single act of generosity that took on a life of its own.


It all started at about 7 a.m. on that fateful Saturday, December 17, merely hours after Sendong wreaked havoc across the city, when 100 bedraggled villagers, still dripping mud, some naked and shivering from the cold, knocked on the gates of the university and begged for a place to stay.

School officials, responding out of instinct, welcomed the sorry-looking lot, not realizing at the time that they were about to start something big.


“It’s the natural thing to do when you see people in distress,” Chancellor Sukarno D. Tanggol said, recalling the moment he received a call from his subordinates asking whether they should open the gates.

His instant reply, he said, was yes, unwittingly setting in motion the creation of what would become the largest evacuation center in this coastal city of 300,000 people.

“If they had come to us at the height of the storm, we would have opened the gates that very hour,” Tanggol said in an interview.

The 100 villagers were first housed in one of the school buildings.

They were allowed to wash themselves in the bathrooms. They were given clean clothes, fed hot porridge to tide them over, and provided blankets and beddings to rest their weary souls.

The school officials thought that was the end of it.

Soon, however, more victims, in varying states of misery, came knocking at the door, having heard by word of mouth that the university was accepting evacuees.


At first, they arrived in trickles, then in families and large groups, and sometimes, entire neighborhoods.

Among them was Maribel Lagrada, 40, a housewife from Puro 2-B in Barangay (village) Santiago, who recalled how she, her husband and four grown children had gone up to MSU-IIT to ask for shelter.

“I was almost naked. A barangay watchman gave me a shirt to cover myself up. My daughter who was 8 months pregnant was also naked. We were all still wet from the mud when we came,” she said, now appearing healthy, clean and well-fed.

Lagrada and her family members had been swept away at the height of Sendong by the swirling waters that surged out of the Mandulog River overlooking the settlement where they lived.

As they bobbed their heads over the violent water, her children and Lagrada could only call out to each other in the dark, she said.

“I heard them shout, ‘Bye-bye, Ma’,” she said. “We had no hope of living through that,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Fortunately for the family, Lagrada said, all of them, including her two pregnant daughters, made it through the morning when the flood subsided.

In the chaos that followed and against a bleak landscape of demolished houses and uprooted trees, she said they soon realized they had nowhere to go.

“Our feet just took us here,” she recalled.

“We couldn’t turn them away,” said Ernesto Empig, dean of computer studies at MSU-IIT, who oversees day-to-day operations at the gymnasium that now houses over 10,000 residents of neighboring villages displaced by the great flood.

“We’re an academic institution. It was never our plan to put up an evacuation center. Everything was spontaneous. As more people came, we realized we had to do our part,” he said.

When the Philippine Daily Inquirer visited MSU-IIT, a large sprawling campus with about 12,000 students enrolled, on Wednesday, already 2,281 families were registered at the evacuation center, staying in the multi-purpose gymnasium. The number was expected to rise, Empig said.

The evacuees were clustered in informal groupings according to village. They put up plywood barriers between clusters on the floor of the gym as well as the bleachers on the side. There was a flurry of activity in the gym, with the residents sweeping the floors, washing clothes, eating or just lying around.

There’s a self-policing policy with a leader appointed for each cluster, and the occupants were expected to take care of their own, Empig said.

At first, people were asked to queue up for food, but later the student volunteers realized the wisdom of distributing food by cluster.

“It was a great idea. Now they don’t have to line up three times a day,” Empig said.

Breakfast is usually just coffee and bread or biscuits, while lunch and dinner consist of rice, vegetables and meat or fish, depending on what’s available.

“It’s nothing fancy. Our goal is to make sure no one goes hungry,” Empig said.

Donations come from all over, he said. “When people heard that we’re the biggest evacuation center, they just started sending goods – food, beddings, and so on.”

“One student from the boarding house came in with a plastic bag of sardine cans,” Empig said.

“It’s very touching to see the outpouring of support from all over Iligan,” he added, citing donations from local private companies, non-governmental organizations, and in many cases, individuals who only wished to help.

Soon, the Department of Health and the Department of Social Work and Development got in on the action, sending personnel and more supplies, after word got out about the thousands streaming into MSU-IIT.

Empig said the student volunteers were showing great initiative in the operation of the center. “A lot of the organizational matters I leave to them. They have many ideas about how to improve our operations,” he said.

Unlike most other places, where the smell of bodies in close quarters can be overpowering, there’s no foul smell in the gym, as the evacuees wash and relieve themselves in four toilets servicing the center.

Portable toilets were also recently pledged and were set to arrive soon.

“We started a contest among the clusters: the cleanest cluster gets a reward such as extra food,” Empig said. This, he added, was another idea courtesy of the students.

But Empig said challenges remained.

“What we really need is facilities to house them. Food comes aplenty. We have clothes coming in. There’s supply of water. But we can’t accommodate everyone in the gym,” he said.

He noted that some of the evacuees had resorted to sleeping on the grass lawns outside the gym, which should accommodate only 3,500 persons but where 10,000 people were now crammed.

Tanggol, the chancellor, said the MSU-IIT evacuation center would continue operating for as long as the residents had nowhere to stay.

But he urged the local government to start immediately what promises to be a massive relocation effort for the displaced villagers. The target, Tanggol said, was to find a new place for the evacuees before classes resume in January.

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