St. Bernard Disaster-Ready Model After ’06 Landslide

October 1, 2012

By Tarra Quismundo, Philippine Daily Inquirer

This report was first published in print in issue in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 30 September 2012


St. Bernard, Southern Leyte – When a 7.6-magnitude quake hit the Visayas and triggered a tsunami warning in the Pacific coast a month ago, some 7,000 residents from coastal barangays here evacuated to higher ground within 12 minutes. 

In the fast and orderly retreat to safer ground, everyone was spared from harm. 

Scarred by a deadly landslide six years ago, this fourth class town of 27,000 residents has emerged as a “flagship” example in disaster preparedness, response and mitigation, its early warning system and community-based readiness program now a model for other vulnerable towns to emulate. 


“Where we fall, we rise.”

“Where we fall, we rise.”, said town Mayor Rico Rentuza in opening the national disaster risk reduction and climate change conference here on Friday. 

“We are not a rich town, but we are rich in hazards. Name all the hazards, we have them.. We want to build a culture of preparedness. With all the things we implemented in St. Bernard, we are already experiencing the impact of more efficient emergency response and coordination,” Rentuza said before an audience of fellow government officials and civil society groups that gathered to learn about his town’s experience. 

Once rendered “helpless” by a landslide that killed more than 1,000 residents in 2006, this town of survivors has integrated disaster risk reduction into their daily lives. 


Early Warning Systems

Barangays on the town’s Pacific coast man state-of-the-art early warning systems round-the-clock, ready to immediately dispatch alerts through loudspeakers installed in hazard-prone villages. All around town are disaster preparedness posters and signs. Evacuation routes are marked.

Volunteers plant mangroves along the coastline to build a natural shield from flooding. Young people regularly go to disaster-preparedness camps. And the town government, supported by both local and international agencies, is in a constant state of readiness – that is, ready to sustain the program even when left to stand in their own feet. 

“As a first-time visitor in Southern Leyte, it is rewarding to see how St. Bernard has been fully involved in community based disaster risk reduction project since the results of its investment are manifested in the successful outcomes of drills and actual evacuation,” said European Union Manila head of delegation Guy Ledoux, addressing the forum.

“I would say that regarding disaster preparedness, St. Bernard is certainly flagship. It is the most successful project and we are now [looking] to share the success in disaster preparedness of St. Bernard,” an impressed Ledoux later said in an interview. 

He also noted how the Philippines has come a long way in disaster risk reduction efforts compared to its neighbors in the region. 

“We are proud to recognize that the Philippines is ahead of its Southeast Asian neighbors as it has adopted a policy framework on disaster preparedness and local government units have been trained in implementing this framework,” Ledoux said. 


International Assistance

Through a modest P10-million assistance over five years, the European Union and other partner agencies, including CARE Netherlands and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), have helped build the town’s capacity for disaster risk reduction. 

International funding helped the town create its local disaster risk reduction office, which maintains a sophisticated, Filipino-made early warning system in eight high-risk barangays. 

Designed and operated by Filippino scientist Reginald Juan Mercado, devices that detect multiple hazards such as flood, earthquake, landslide and tsunami, among others, are hooked to barangay stations that could readily issue warnings through loudspeakers whenever necessary. 

While monitored by a nerve-center based at the town hall, this decentralized system makes for factor dispatch of information, Rentuza said. “They don’t have to wait for me to issue the warning,” he said. 


“We have a long way to go. This should be a lifelong process and practice.”


Colorful Houses

The town has also designated evacuation sites in every sector. This way, residents already know where to run when emergency comes. 

Incidentally, one such site is the uphill resettlement site for survivors of the Guinsagon landslide. Permanently relocated after the 2006 landslide, some 268 families (1,023 people) now reside in the new village, living in colorful concrete homes built by the Red Cross, Gawad Kalinga and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. 

“I am proud to say that from tragedy, we are now host to evacuees from Barangay Tambis Uno,” said New Guinsagon village chief Beauty Omela Cabacungan, referring to one of the town’s vulnerable barangays. 

“Our secret to still surviving is our faith in God and the prayer that whatever problem happens, we offer it to God, for we all know that God will provide,” said Cabacungan in welcoming Ledoux and other visiting officials to her village on Friday. 


Lifelong Process

“The St. Bernard experience is a good example of how local communities with the support of civil society and organizations and collaboration with local government authorities can spearhead collective action along disaster risk reduction,” Ledoux said. 

Much needs to be done, conceded Rentuza, as he gave assurance that the local government will not waver in disaster risk reduction efforts. 

“There is still much to be done. And it requires commitment, focus, time… We have a long way to go. This should be a lifelong process and practice,” Rentuza said. 

The European Union has been a steady humanitarian partner of the Philippines as part of its global effort to provide financial and technical aid to disaster-prone countries. Between this year and 2013, the EU has allocated P130 million for disaster-preparedness initiatives across the Philippines.

(Photo credit to Gregorio Dantes Jr.)


To access a soft copy of this story, please click here.