Aid worker diary: Devastation in the Philippines

21 Oct 2013

October 2013, Bohol, the Philippines: Survivors of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the central Philippines are forced to use a small canoe to cross a river. The earthquake knocked out bridges and roads across the island of Bohol, and displaced more than 350,000 people. Credit: IRIN/Jason Gutierrez
Communities across the central-Philippines island of Bohol have been devastated by the earthquake that struck on Tuesday 15 October.

More than 350,000 people have lost or fled their homes following the devastating earthquake that struck the central-Philippines island of Bohol on 15 October. OCHA’s Prerna Suri was part of a team that visited towns near the quake’s epicentre.

It's been five days since Roddel Barace last slept. He lost four of his family members, including his 6-year-old son, to one of the worst earthquakes to hit the Philippines in years.

"It started off as a perfect day," Roddel recalls. "My father was repairing a chair in our front yard and my mother was washing clothes in the house. My wife and I had gone out for some errands. Suddenly the ground beneath us started shaking.

"I ran back and saw my son disappear."

Roddel's son, parents, sister and brother were buried alive, trapped inside their collapsed home for over six hours. "It was unbearable to hear them screaming, crying out for help."

It took more than eight hours for help to arrive. But by then it was too late. Shame Gyle, Roddel’s son, would have turned seven yesterday (20 October).

The road to Antequera

Antequera is a popular tourist destination on Bohol Island. The area is famous for its waterfalls, but it also sits directly on an active fault line.

The earthquake has reduced this once-booming town to rubble. Roads are cracked open and debris is strewn about. Many homes have been abandoned, giving the town an almost eerie feeling.

Since the earthquake, over 1,000 aftershocks have been recorded by the Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Subsequent landslides have made many major highways, roads and bridges impassable.

The bridge into Antequera has collapsed, so we had to cross the river on a small wooden boat (a "bumboat" as it is known in South-East Asia). We then took motorbikes along dirt roads, weaving past landslides and uprooted trees. We hiked the last few hundred metres as the road was too steep for our bikes.

When we finally arrived, families told us we were the first people to reach them. The earthquake knocked out the power supply, which meant that few people had access to clean water (most rely on ground pumps to draw their water). Because of its inaccessibility, Antequera remains one of the hardest areas to deliver aid.

More than 350,000 homeless

On the second day of our mission we visited Sagbayan, an area east of Antequera and closer to the earthquake’s epicentre. While Antequera was like a ghost town, Sagbayan was chaotic. Hundreds of people had gathered around the town square waiting for something to happen.

We met Linda. For the past five days she had been living under a plastic sheet in the ruins of her home. She told us her story. For 27 years, she was a domestic worker in Hong Kong. During that time, all she dreamed about was saving enough money to buy her dream home.

Her dream came true a year ago when she finally bought a three-bedroom house.

"Little by little, I scraped and saved for the past 27 years to have that house," she said. "Now, I'm too old to even work. My husband has left me, my children live away and I have no one to support me. What am I supposed to do?"

The earthquake has displaced more than 350,000 people. It will take months before most of them can rebuild their lives.

Humanitarian Response

"We have identified emergency shelter and clean drinking water as immediate needs," said David Carden, the Head of OCHA in the Philippines. He took part in the assessment of Antequera and other areas hit by the earthquake. "We also need to ensure everyone affected by this earthquake has adequate food and medicines, and access to latrines. Debris must be cleared so that they can start rebuilding their lives."

In response, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners are sending food, water, tents, hygiene kits, generators, water bladders and life-saving medicines to the affected areas. OCHA has been supporting the Government to coordinate relief efforts, updating and distributing information to its partners. OCHA plans to be in Bohol for the next six months.

Glimmers of hope

Amid the sadness, fear and grief, we also found glimmers of hope. We met Rosaria, who had just given birth to a girl in the back of an ambulance. She was assisted by midwives who worked without obstetric kits or specialized medical equipment. "I'm thankful to these brave nurses who have helped me despite what they've been through," she said.

Similar stories echo around Bohol. Stories of traumatized people who may have saved their homes, but they are too terrified by the aftershocks to live in them. Stories of neighbours helping each other by providing shelter. Stories of resilience that gave us hope that, despite the damage we had seen, the people of Bohol will overcome the challenges they now face.