Manila parish takes disaster management into its own hands

Risk reduction programs are incorporated into development plans in Catholic dioceses
Manila parish takes disaster management into its own hands

Members of Manila's San Isidro Labrador parish’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Ministry. (Photo by Mark Saludes/ucanews.com)

It was Sunday morning and rain and wind were pummeling the district. Water in a nearby river started to rise.

Men rushed into the parish office, took handheld radio sets, helmets and other emergency response equipment. 

From a window on the third floor, a priest was directing the rescue of six people trapped in the middle of surging floodwater.

Later in the day, the same men who made the daring rescue were seen inside the church assisting the priest during the celebration of Mass.

They were all members of the Basic Ecclesial Community of San Isidro Labrador Parish in Bagong Silangan district in Metro Manila's Quezon City.

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The parish, which serves about 130,000 mostly poor urban settlers, stands in a low-lying area near a river that surges every time there is heavy rain.

When a typhoon hit the Philippine capital in 2009, at least 148 people died in the district while hundreds of families were displaced due to flooding.

Mercy Kote could not forget the people she saw riding on floating debris being swallowed by the strong current.

Bagong Silangan is not only flood-prone. It also lies on an earthquake fault line that authorities say might move any time soon.

Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena, the parish's pastor, said poorer members of the community are the most vulnerable when it comes to disasters.

"They reside near the threat," said the Carmelite priest.

While the concrete houses of the rich stand in the upper portion of the district, the shanties of urban poor families are in the lower section.

Father Billena said the secret of a good disaster risk management program is the involvement of the whole community as "first responders."

He learned it in his hometown in the southern Philippine province of Camiguin when he was still a student. He saw how Catholic missionaries organized people when a strong typhoon hit the province.

"They started at the grass roots. They made people realize that no one would make them safe but themselves," said the priest.

"The people did it because no one else would," he said, adding that "active participation" of people in planning, organizing and implementing measures is the "first line of defense" for any community.

Inspired by the experience, the priest turned Basic Ecclesial Communities in his parish into "frontliners" in responding to disasters.

The parish formed its Disaster Preparedness and Response Ministry composed of catechists, youth leaders, and volunteers.

"We respond even to man-made disasters such as fires or even road crashes," said Geronimo Jarabelo, head of the ministry.

Because of their work, the parish's disaster response team has been invited to several dioceses across the country to share their experience.

Caritas Philippines, the Catholic bishops' social action arm, said the church's efforts in disaster risk management is only "supplementary to the government’s."

But Jing Rey Henderson, one of the coordinators of Caritas, said that in many instances "government action falls short versus the needs on the ground."

"Thus the need for other actors, such as church organizations, to complement it," he said. 

"We cannot just wait for the government. We should do our part while they are doing theirs," she added.

Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines, said the organization has included emergency response in its humanitarian work and a resiliency program for dioceses.

The priest said that although the church has no synchronized platform yet in dealing with disaster, "mainstreaming disaster risk reduction" can build "disaster resilient dioceses."

Father Gariguez said disaster risk reduction should be incorporated into plans and programs for development in all sectors, including parishes.

He said the aim of the church's roadmap on disaster risk management is "to graduate from repeated poverty caused by disasters and the achievement of sustainability by reducing disaster risks via resiliency."

The Philippines is known to be one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, with an average 20 tropical cyclones passing through the archipelago every year.

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