Lent 2015: How to prepare for a disaster

By Nick Harrop, World News Officer

“The wind was circulating fast and glass was flying everywhere,” says Flora Badanoy, 39. “The roof was blown off by the gale. It felt like there was an earthquake. We were terrified. Then the hwater started coming in, with a strong current. We opened the front door and more water came gushing in. I thought it was the end of our lives.”

The Guiuan peninsula in the Philippines was the very first place to be hit by Typhoon Haiyan, shortly after midnight on 8 November 2013. Winds of up to 170 mph struck the coast and huge waves swept in from the sea, flooding coastal villages like Flora’s.

Palo, Leyte Island, Philippines - devastation after Typhoon Haiyan
Devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

“We were not expecting it to be a special typhoon,” says Flora. “The local officials told us we had to evacuate, but they didn’t say it would be so powerful. We were not warned that there would be floods. We’d heard there would be a ‘storm surge’, but we didn’t understand what the phrase meant. It wasn’t a phrase we used in our language.”

Help people like Flora whose lives are being affected by storms, droughts and floods.

Flora remembers the roar of the wind – so loud that she couldn’t hear herself shout – and the terror her children felt as water came flooding in under the door.

She and her husband concentrated on protecting the children, covering their heads with pillows to deaden the impact of flying debris. Even so, the children began to panic. “I told them to stay calm,” says Flora, “but one of them fainted in fright.”

For several hours, with wind and rain swirling around them, the family prayed for their lives. Fortunately, the water didn’t rise beyond knee level, and they managed to survive the night.

After the storm

When they ventured outside in the morning, the damage was spectacular: palm trees had been snapped in half, fishing boats destroyed, and almost every house reduced to a pile of debris. In just six hours, an unspoilt paradise had become a disaster zone.

With trepidation, they returned from the shelter they’d been staying in to what was left of their house. It had virtually disappeared: all that survived was one wooden post. The family’s clothes had been swept away and their few remaining possessions were soaked.

“I felt happy that everyone was safe,” says Flora, “but we lost our house. That was the most precious possession we owned.”

Flora and her family stayed with neighbours for five days, before constructing a makeshift shelter out of wood and rubble gathered up nearby. Conditions were cramped, and they knew that it would not survive even a moderate storm.

How CAFOD helped Flora and her village

Today, thanks to donations to CAFOD, they have moved into a new house, with a concrete base and a galvanised iron roof. The structure was built from treated coconut timber salvaged after the typhoon. CAFOD and our partner CORDAID worked with local carpenters and expert architects to ensure that it was structurally sound enough to stand up to future typhoons.

Flora, Philippines, disaster-resistant home, CAFOD
Flora outside her new home

Little more than a year after Typhoon Haiyan, Flora’s village was once again on the front line of a disaster. In December 2014, Typhoon Hagupit battered the peninsula with powerful winds and driving rain. This time, though, Flora and her neighbours were well prepared.

Disaster risk reduction – what happened when Typhoon Hagupit struck

Thanks to CAFOD training, the most vulnerable people in the community were evacuated well before the storm, while others weighed down their roofs with bags of sand to prevent them from being blown away. People now knew what a ‘storm surge’ was, and fishermen secured their boats well inland to keep them safe. Crucially, the improved structures of the new CAFOD houses meant that they all survived the typhoon.

The contrast with the year before was striking. Nini Bagoyoro, a community leader in Flora’s village, said: “A year ago, the day after Haiyan, you couldn’t describe the emotion of people in our village. Now, everyone was smiling. Everyone was more prepared than ever. We were safe. We were alive.”

On average, around 20 typhoons or tropical storms enter Filipino waters every year, and the country is also threatened by earthquakes, volcanoes and floods caused by heavy rain. Inevitably it is the poorest people – those living in basic housing, without savings or a stable income – who are worst affected.

The lesson from Flora’s village is that it’s far better, and far cheaper, to prepare well for disasters than to recover afterwards. That’s why CAFOD is focusing on ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’ this Lent.

Helping people to prepare for disasters

In places like the Philippines and Haiti, we’ve built houses that are resilient to typhoons and earthquakes. In East Africa, we’ve helped farmers grow drought-resistant crops and access water. In Bangladesh, we’ve trained villagers to raise their gardens off the ground to keep them safe from floods. And in Myanmar, we’ve supported vulnerable communities in regular evacuation drills. These are just a few examples of what has become a fundamental part of CAFOD’s work.

All around the world we engage with poor communities, churches, regional governments and local organisations – as well as scientists, universities and meteorologists – to plan ahead for emergencies. We may not be able to prevent disasters like the one that tore apart Flora’s life, but, with your support, we can help hundreds of thousands of people to be better prepared.

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Nick’s blog was also published in The Catholic Times.

This year, every pound donated to CAFOD’s Lent appeal will be matched by the UK Government, up to the value of £5m. This means that your gifts will have double the impact.

Please donate and help even more people like Flora whose lives are being affected by storms, droughts and floods.

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