February 25, 2018, 1:36 pm
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PWDs left behind in Marikina disaster preparedness plan (1)

By MARIA FEONA IMPERIAL and YVETTE B. MORALES
VERA Files

A loud, hornlike sound blares from the Marikina River. Restless families living in the flood-prone Balubad Settlement in Nangka, Marikina City start packing their bags and brace for possibly a second warning sound that would signal their evacuation. 

Despite the fear they create, warning sirens have become indispensable to over 451,000 residents of Marikina, who were caught unprepared by tropical storm “Ondoy” (Ketsana) whose torrential rain spawned record-high floodwaters that killed nearly 464 people in Metro Manila -- 68 of them in Marikina -- in late September of 2009. Records show the typhoon destroyed over 18,000 houses and caused P384 million worth of damage.

The city has learned its lesson: Twelve sirens are now installed along the riverbanks to serve as an early warning system. This and other disaster-related measures the local government put in place in the aftermath of Ondoy have turned the effort into a multi-awarded disaster resilience model in the country and abroad. 

But because the sirens can only be heard, they are of no help to those who cannot hear, like 22-year-old Rodelyn Gacute. 

A person with hearing disability, Rodelyn has had to depend only on her mother, sampaguita vendor ZoraidaGacute, who signals her of impending floods. Only then does Rodelyn, the eldest of seven, proceed to pack their clothes and wait for the signal to leave.

This has been their ritual of survival, the mother serving as the daughter’s lifeline. Had there only been an early warning system in visual format that could reach her deaf child, Zoraida would not have had to worry. But until there’s one, the only recourse is to always keep Rodelyn in her sight--especially when disaster strikes. 

“She has to be where I can see her at all times so I wouldn’t have to worry and look for her. Whatever happens, at least we are together,” she said in Filipino.

For a disaster resilience model, Marikina City ironically falls far behind the ideal in terms of preparing one of the most vulnerable sectors -- people with disabilities (PWDs) -- for disasters. Not only are alarm-based warnings inaccessible to some PWDs, the city also failed to capture all PWDsin its roster. With only 7,000 registered PWDs out of an estimated 10,000, some are in constant danger of being missed out during evacuation, rescue and relief operations -- proof of how the welfare of PWDs continues to be overlooked in the city’s lauded efforts. This, despite laws safeguarding their welfare during disasters. 

Protection for the vulnerable

PWDs are classified as vulnerable along with women, children, the elderly and ethnic minorities in Republic Act No. 10121 or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, which calls them “differently-abled people.”  

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of PWDs (UNCRPD), to which the Philippines is a signatory, also provides for the protection and safety of PWDs in natural disasters.

In 2013, Marikina received the Gawad Kalasag Award from the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) for its efficient early warning system. A single sound of the warning sirens varies in length and frequency, depending on the alert level. The water level during Ondoy was recorded at 23 meters. Had the warning system been in place then, the alert level would have been at 4th alarm signaling forced evacuation, and sirens aired non-stop.

Besides exposure to flooding, parts of the city also sit directly atop  the 100-kilometer West Valley Fault, whose movement could trigger a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, or “Big One.”

Rodelyn’s mother, Zoraida, knows her small home in Nangkamay will collapse should that happen. 

When her daughter experienced a 3.6-magnitude earthquake once, Rodelyn panicked and shouted the name of her father, Zoraida said. Fearing for their safety, Zoraida makes sure her daughter is always within reach.

“Kailangan nandiyan lang siya. Para nakikita mo. Parahindika mag-aalala. Asan na? Hindi kana maghahanap..Kahit ano mangyari, at least sama-sama (She has to be where I can see her at all times so I wouldn’t have to worry and look for her. Whatever happens, at least we are together),” she said.

Marikina’s multi-awarded early warning system is limited to audio signals 

To cater to all types of disability, national and international guidelines prescribe other formats such as the posting of a notice in a community center, hoisting of a red flag, broadcasting warnings on television and radio or a word-of-mouth information program.

However, in the three most disaster-prone barangays of Nangka, Tumana and Malanday, early warnings are limited to audio signals in the form of sirens, bells, whistles, public addresses, text messages and door-to-door rounds of first responders. 

Early warning systems should be available in both visual and audible formats, according to Canada-based Global Alliance for Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES). It has published guidelines on disability and disaster based on research conducted in the Philippines, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. 

The study noted that in the Asia Pacific Region, “very little has been done to make disability-inclusive early warning systems.” Most disaster announcements are delivered primarily in an audible format, and this doesn’t meet the needs of people with hearing disability, it added.

In a 2015 interview with the authors, Val Barcinal, then-head of Marikina City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MCDRRMO), said he had considered hoisting flags above the rivers in addition to sirens fixed on high poles. But the plan didn’t push through when he
found it inconvenient to assign someone to wave the flags every time there’s a disaster. 

Pilot lights alongside sirens were also considered, but Barcinal said it would entail much effort in terms of localizing the system per barangay, which “operates independently” from the city.

Trauma from Ondoy lingers 8 years on

An accessible early warning system, however, is only one of the indicators of an inclusive disaster management. 

Useless as it may seem to deaf people like Rodelyn, the sirens pose a different effect on children with intellectual disabilities like 16-year-old Marvin Orona of Barangay Tumana. 

Each time the first alarm is raised over the Marikina River, Marvin trembles and yells at his two younger siblings to start packing their bags. “Dalian niyona! Andyannaiyongtubig, mataasna(Hurry! The water’s rising)!” he would say, running around their home situated across a creek beneath the Tumana bridge. 

Then, he would reach for his bag and stuff it with some clothes, textbooks, pencils, and his most prized toys. He would cling to them tightly for the next few hours or so—until the rain ends.

The series of loud sounds coming from the siren remind Marvin, who has global developmental delay (GDD), of his traumatic experience during Ondoy.

As floodwaters rose to the ceiling of their two-story home, his mother, Maria, hurried to bring her three children, one after the other, atop the roof. All of them obeyed willfully except Marvin. Drenched in rain and silent tears, the child had to be grabbed by the wrists and shoved to the roof. 

How Marvin would be able to save himself during a disaster remains Maria’s biggest fear as a mother of a PWD. When it comes to comprehending the idea of disasters, Maria admits her child would have difficulty.

Mateo Lee, deputy executive director of the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA), said children with learning disabilities like Marvin are not flexible to changes in routine. 

Training them to grasp the idea of disasters would take months, even years, he said. Even if the parents have training on how to handle their children during disasters, warning alerts are only sent a day or two prior to evacuation. It is not that easy to change the child’s routine),” Lee said in Filipino.

Disaster management councils, he said, must work on training rescuers on handling different disabilities and communicating with immediate families of PWDs. But it must be a constant practice, as disasters may occur anytime. 

***

 This report is based on the authors’ undergraduate thesis done under the supervision of University of the Philippines journalism professor Yvonne T. Chua. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.” 
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