Somewhere in the Samareña city of Catbalogan, a provincial capital in one of the Philippines’ poorest regions, lies the remains of an inconspicuous village. Abandoned nipa huts sprawl over a steep hill, dotted with pieces of wood and banig (straw mat) among the bushes. This is where the barangay (or village) of Mercedes once stood.
Six months ago, tropical storm Seniang (known as Jangmi elsewhere in the world) left 59 people dead in the Eastern Visayas region in central Philippines – 23 of them in barangay Mercedes alone. A landslide triggered by the storm left all the 54 families of this barangay homeless.
They were relocated to a public sports gymnasium owned by the provincial government of Western Samar, where bunkhouses were assembled with the help of local NGOs. Seven months later, however, at least 150 people still await a permanent shelter solution.
“Children are getting constantly sick because of the poor conditions of the this place”, says Lea Serilla from the Samar Branch of local NGO Tabang Visayas, which coordinates the shelter. She explains that the City Social Welfare and Development department provides them with only a modest relief – between 15-25 kilos of rice per month per family, along with four cans of sardines, four cans of corn beef and eight packs of coffee.
Rodrigo Mabag, 43, is one of the people living in the bunkhouses inside the gym. He lost his three sons, aged between 19 and 25, in the landslide.
An overseas Filipino worker, he was in Saudi Arabia working as an auto-mechanic when he heard of the collapse of his and his neighbors homes:
I got online and my brother had posted a link on Facebook on what had happened in the barangay. I became desperate because I couldn’t reach my wife. I only managed to talk to her three days later, and that's when she told me about the boys.
He managed to come back to the Philippines, but is now jobless as he stays in the bunkhouse to take care of his wife, who suffered a bad back injury during the landslide:
To lose my children is hard enough. All I wish now is that the government takes care of the shelter [problem] so I can start over again. I want to open my own business now.
Although the gym is owned by the provincial government, the responsibility for disaster-related displacement lies with the city officials, according to the provincial media office.
“The provincial government is pressuring us to vacate the gym, as they want to lease the area for the Gaisano company who will build a shopping mall there”, Nidia Arroza, City Social Welfare and Development officer in Catbalogan, says.
She adds that the city still has to draft a long-term plan for disaster relief in the municipality:
We are apprehensive as typhoon season is near and we have yet to relocate those families. If a big typhoon hits again, we have no other big evacuation center in the city.
The city government's plan, she says, is to buy a piece of land on the outskirts of Catbalogan in Barangay Payao and settle the families there – at a cost of 150 million pesos (about US $3.3 million), which they will borrow from the bank.
For Lea Serilla, however, this sounds like an attempt by the government to shift the poor to the outskirts of the city:
Barangay Payao is really far away from the city, much further than Barangay Mercedes. Not only they have waited for seven months for permanent shelter, now they will have to settle with a much inferior alternative.