Rebuilding homes, lives in Yolanda-shattered Bantayan
SANTA FE, Bantayan Island—The dark clouds gave way to the sun as the human chain passed hollow blocks down the line, each block a step closer to rebuilding lives shattered by Super Typhoon Yolanda nearly five months ago.
The international group of volunteers worked over the past week to kick-start the construction of 135 disaster-resilient homes at a resettlement site for displaced families in this community by the sea.
“It’s just the beginning and, hopefully, we build better community support and spirit for the people of Bantayan Island. And it’s also an opportunity for our employees to feel like they can contribute and help one of our countries of operations,” said Marc Fancy, executive director of Prudence Foundation, the charity arm of life insurance firm Prudential Corp. Asia (PCA).
“[We’re] in the life insurance and asset management business, and that’s about protection, that’s about security and risk management. And so, as what we do for business is about society and looking after society, I think the company has that in its DNA naturally,” said Fancy, long involved in volunteer programs in different parts of the world.
PCA, which operates as Pru Life UK in the Philippines, this year mounted its biggest overseas volunteer program so far, enlisting some 100 volunteers from its base in Hong Kong and units in Singapore, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, the United Kingdom and the Philippines for the Bantayan project in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity.
4th volunteer program
Held from March 24 to 28, the “Bantayan build” was the fourth international volunteer program for Prudence Foundation, which also gathered its employees from around Asia to build houses and clear debris following the 2009 earthquake in Padang, Indonesia; in Ishinomaki, Japan, after the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster; and in Mae Ai, northern Thailand, in 2012, months after widespread flooding struck the region.
“The real catalyst was Padang in 2009 where we were hosting an event in the main hotel… and the event had 80 people. Four people died who were from our office, from our company. So that hit us personally as an organization,” Fancy said in an interview with the Inquirer.
“In a disaster, when you’ve lost everything, hope is looking diminished. And if you can give people a bit of hope and the opportunity to rebuild their future when they’ve lost everything, it’s a nice feeling,” he added.
Pump boats, pedicabs
As part of a “package” of assistance for Santa Fe town, Prudence Foundation also gave 183 pump boats, or outriggers, and 140 pedicabs to families who had lost their livelihood due to the storm.
“We also wanted to make sure that we weren’t just providing shelter but that we were also giving people livelihood, an opportunity to have sustainable income and livelihood in the future,” Fancy said.
The livelihood aid is part of the $2 million in assistance that the foundation has so far provided for Yolanda survivors across the disaster zone, including emergency relief, education and aid to disaster risk reduction programs.
“Each of these programs are not one-offs. We’re trying to look for how we can contribute as a foundation, as an organization, so that we will be able to help in the rehabilitation in the Philippines,” Fancy said.
Other volunteer groups
At least three other groups, including Islamic and Christian organizations, are also working on the ground to provide new houses for coastal families in Santa Fe who are not allowed to rebuild on their old lots.
Their contributions support part of the local government’s goal of building 216 new houses on a newly acquired, 2.3-hectare property in one to two years, said Maria Arsenia Perez, Habitat’s procurement officer for the project.
With a floor area of 30 square meters, the homes will be built to withstand winds of 270 to 300 kilometers per hour, and an Intensity 8 earthquake, said Nonoy Floresca, Habitat’s resource development and strategic partnership manager.
“They (Prudence Foundation) have committed to providing housing and they are also giving us pump boats and pedicabs. So it’s not just houses but also livelihood. They are the first organization to do that here,” Santa Fe Mayor Jose Esgana said.
Santa Fe, the port of entry into Bantayan Island, lost 95 percent of its houses when Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) plowed through central Philippines on Nov. 8 last year, displacing 4,000 of the 6,700 families in the town, Esgana said.
Current shelter needs are pegged at 2,300 homes. Thousands of families, including those in island villages, remain living in tents and makeshift homes.
“You’d be lucky if you’d see one house standing out of every 20 houses,” Esgana said.
Recovery under way
Despite the still enormous need for aid, recovery is under way in the town. Beach resorts have rebuilt their facilities to start attracting tourists again—and they are coming—with some 200 of the 354 rooms before Yolanda already available for occupancy, the mayor said.
While other hotels continue to rebuild, the local government is encouraging homeowners to open their houses for homestay programs for tourists. The goal is to maintain, if not exceed, the annual 100,000 tourist arrivals on the island, the mayor said.
Fishing boats can be seen on the shore, indicating that fishermen are ready to go to sea. Porters await arriving vessels at the dock. Children are playing on the beach.
And while the tents remain, the sight of the newly repaired homes in the villages shows that the people of Bantayan are moving on.
Company with a heart
The PCA volunteers were ferried to the island on choppy waters on March 23. It was a rainy morning a day after vessels were barred from crossing from the main island of Cebu province to Bantayan due to Tropical Depression “Caloy.”
But the weather improved on Monday morning as the team began to work. Members of the Azkals, the national football team, came later in the week to lend a hand, including star players Emelio “Chieffy” Caligdong and brothers Phil and James Younghusband.
“When you have a heart as a company and your people are engaging in communities and helping other people, I think it makes you a better company. I think it just makes us a more humane and sensitive company to our customers, our policy holders,” said Donald Kanak, PCA chair and Prudence Foundation trustee.
“So we become a much more market-responsive company, [seeing the] true hearts of people who are in need. Sitting in an office, you don’t get that feeling, right?” said Kanak, who was participating in a Prudence Foundation volunteer program for the second time.
One step further
For others who signed up, it was an opportunity to help on the ground, a step further than just sending donations.
“It’s different when you yourself are there instead of just your money or the goods [you have sent]. This is a privilege for me rather than a sacrifice,” said Jessie Rigor, a Filipino volunteer who heads a branch of Pru Life UK in Makati City.
Chanvit Rompothong of Eastspring Investments Singapore, the firm’s asset management arm, shared the view: “Traditionally, when you hear about these types of disaster, you know, you just give money, there’s really no opportunity to directly go and help. This is exactly a chance to do that, to really rebuild and take part in the charity work.”
Malaysia’s Mukesh Ramani found Bantayan build an opportunity to take part in work that has become a family tradition.
“My family has always been involved in volunteer work in the children’s home, animal shelter, so I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to come and meet people … I think the reward will always be to be proud once the houses come up and when the community comes in [and we see] how happy they are. You feel proud, you’re giving homes to people,” he said.
It was a chance to give back for Eastspring Investments Japan’s Hiroko Omote, who saw how her colleagues work together in her home country months after the 2011 tsunami.
“In Japan, when we had this program, people wanted to come to help my home country … I was so impressed. And whatever I could do for other countries, I thought I should do,” said Omote, who also helped raise funds for Yolanda survivors in the early part of relief operations.
“I don’t know how much they (local community) feel this helps but this is a lot better than sitting at home doing nothing, right? The home is the core of your life. You need to have a comfortable house. So I think what Habitat is doing is wonderful, so I am glad that I can do something,” she said.
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