Friday, 2 October 2009

Can’t get any better than this: Home at the Palace

TJ Burgonio, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines — Impoverished families displaced by Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international codename: Ketsana) are living a dream in the Palace.

Having fled their homes in the flood- and fire-ravaged Barangay Tatalon in Quezon City, they now find themselves bedding down in Malacañang’s carpeted Ceremonial Hall and being plied with meals and snacks, new clothes, even toiletries.

“This is like a dream for us. We are very lucky,” housewife Evelyn Oclarit, 33, told the Inquirer Thursday as she looked around the ballroom-size hall where President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hosts formal dinners for state leaders.

On the other side of town in Marikina City, 6,000 people are packed into Nangka Elementary School and making do with desks, tables and pieces of cardboard for beds.

Those who saw the Inquirer writing down the names of interviewees asked that their names also be listed, thinking it was a survey of those who had lost their homes.

Ignoring the efforts of US servicemen on a mercy mission to organize an orderly distribution of relief goods, children and adults alike scrambled to get hold of the clothes and shoes being handed out.

Others were able to get medicines for fever, fungal infections, and cough and cold.

Elsewhere in the yard, many of the evacuees took advantage of the water provided by a fire truck to take a bath.

City workers and firemen trained a water hose on the thick mud, to no avail.

The stairs were so slippery with mud that, an evacuee said, a pregnant woman fell and had to be taken to a hospital.

Under chandeliers

But in Malacañang, the Oclarits and five other families who left the teeming crowd of evacuees at Diosdado Macapagal Elementary School in Quezon City’s Barangay Tatalon not only soaked in comfort and cheer but also enjoyed a free tour of the President’s official residence.

They spread fresh mats on the carpeted floor under three huge chandeliers, and savored the silence in the hall that looks out to the swollen Pasig River.

“There’s a lot of room for the children to play. This is a far cry from the cramped home that we’re renting,” said Evelyn Oclarit, a mother of four, including a 3-week-old baby girl.

Meters away at the Mabini Hall, provisions continued to arrive for 17 other displaced families from Tatalon who started occupying the building’s first two floors at midnight on Tuesday.

Apart from catered food, snacks, medicines, infant formula and toiletries, the evacuees were provided new clothes and pillows by the Office of the President.

“They give us food every now and then,” said Janet Macabudbud, 30, also a mother of four.

“We have more than what we need,” she said, pointing to packs of biscuits waiting to be opened.

Keeping them occupied

The evacuees at the Palace have been subjected to stress debriefing as well as livelihood orientation. Their children are busy with activities, like games and poster-making, supervised by social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

“We have to keep them occupied,” psychologist Donna Marie Arcaya said.

A mass baptism is being planned for seven children of the displaced families, according to the social workers.

A guided tour for all the evacuees is also being mulled, but Secretary Hermogenes Esperon of the Presidential Management Staff said: “We will have to do that later.”

Officials could not say how long the evacuees would stay in Malacañang.

Student volunteers

Kalayaan Hall continued to bustle with student volunteers stuffing food items into plastic bags, unloading goods, and inputting data into computers.

Even Heroes’ Hall just below the Ceremonial Hall has been converted into a repacking center of relief goods for distribution to evacuation centers.

“We’ve serviced 27,500 families,” Esperon said at a briefing, admitting later that certain flood victims had yet to receive assistance.

Earlier in the day, Malacañang deployed student volunteers aboard fire trucks to evacuation centers in Metro Manila to help clean up and distribute relief goods.

‘Everything’s gone’

The people squeezed in Nangka Elementary School were mostly families living in a settlement area called Balubag whose homes were damaged or washed away by the flood, according to principal Rosario Diaz.

Among them was Liza Gabanes, 38, who has been staying in the school since Saturday, when “Ondoy” struck.

“I don’t have a house. There’s no water. There’s nothing to wear. Everything’s gone. How can we still prepare for the coming typhoon?” Gabanes said in reference to Typhoon “Pepeng” (international codename: Parma).

Ana Dayawon, a 34-year-old mother of two, said her family was “used” to typhoons and would just “take care.”

Other evacuees said that while they had heard that two typhoons were poised to strike, no one from the city government or the military—who was overseeing the relief efforts at the evacuation center—had briefed them on what to do.

They said they had also heard that they would be moved on Friday to a “tent city” near the Marikina City Hall.

Jasmin Evans said she was worried that strong winds might blow the tents away.

But Elena Flores, 60, and her daughter Rosita Labayo said that at least the food ration was coming regularly.

Additional funds

On the phone with the Inquirer, Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said the DSWD was “speeding up the repacking and prepositioning of relief goods in regional offices wherever the [new] typhoon would hit.”

Cabral said the DSWD had a sufficient supply of relief goods but that she had asked the Department of Budget and Management for P100 million to augment her department’s depleted calamity fund.

She said that from P50 million, the DSWD’s calamity fund was now down to P24 million.

She added that Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya had assured her that the money would be immediately available.

Col. Daniel Lucero, Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for civil military operations, said all Army offices in Metro Manila would remain “shut down” and manned by a skeleton staff because most of the officers and soldiers were busy helping in relief operations.

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