When Typhoon Bopha swept through Mindanao in the Philippines on December 3, 2012, hundreds of thousands of people found themselves without shelter that night. New Bataan was especially hard hit. The neighborhood of Andap lost 300 homes in a devastating mudslide. More than 900 people are reported missing since the storm, including 300 people in New Bataan alone.
The Philippine government has confirmed that 906 people are dead. Those who survived say they feel blessed to be alive, but for those who escaped the mudslide in Andap, they faced the morning of December 4 with nothing but the clothes they were wearing that night.
Olimpio Leon lost his home, and members of his extended family, in the mudslide. He is now staying with his wife and children in an evacuation center in the local high school.
"Around four in the morning, the sky was dark with the storm and the winds were very strong," he recalls of Bopha's approach. "At six, we started to evacuate to the elementary school. We had a few valuable things with us. We heard on the news that New Bataan was the center of the storm, but we had no idea it would be so strong."
"At seven," he adds, "the storm was getting worse, and we needed to leave the elementary school. We couldn't carry anything because the storm was very bad. We took a shortcut to the high school. I'm glad we didn't take the road because the mudslide came down when we would have been on it. By 8:30, the storm started to ease, but we also began to hear people shouting about the mudslide."
The mudslide hit areas that were safe during previous storms. It instantly shifted the riverbed 300 yards off course, burying homes, a clinic, a resort and community center. Even the foundations of houses were erased. And the elementary school, where the Leon family left their belongings, has disappeared.
In place of houses, gardens and toys, large boulders and mud stretch about a mile long as a silent reminder of loss and the long road to recovery ahead.
"We haven't been back to see where our house stood," says Olimpio. "We know it's gone. We don't need to see the site. It will hurt us to see nothing there."
Shifting to Recovery
Now Olimpio is focused on taking care of his family at the evacuation center. He listed items that would make his family more comfortable, such as cooking equipment, soap and blankets. He then pointed to a child napping on a thin sheet of cardboard, about the thickness of a cereal box.
"We need sleeping mats," says Olimpio. "Right now we are sleeping on school desks, tables and the floor. Some of us have cardboard, but others are sleeping on the cement."
Sleeping on cement is uncomfortable under any circumstances. When 25 people are crowded into one room, and the surrounding area is covered with sticky mud, that sleeping surface gets very muddy, very fast, despite diligent sweeping several times a day.
Catholic Relief Services emergency response experts know the importance of a decent night's sleep as survivors try to cope after a disaster. Sleeping kits and blankets were part of CRS' first distribution after Typhoon Bopha, funded by generous support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. A few days after the interview, Olimpio's family received a kit. Now he, his wife and children no longer have to sleep on the cement floor.
In the rush to respond to a widespread and complicated disaster, sometimes it's easy to overlook the difference a few simple items can make to one family. Even a young member of the Leon family was happy with the items. When asked what she thought about the sleeping mat, Maria Leon, age 6, says, "I like the color."
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Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.