Pinas to Paris: Zero: Saving Lives

Special report


Saving Lives

Sara Isabelle Pacia Matikas Santos

November 26, 2015

IN THE STORM-WEARY province of Albay lie two coastal villages that not only face the Pacific Ocean, but also each other across open water.

On one end of the Albay Gulf is the village of Cawit in Manito town. The land it stands on juts toward the sea, cut off from the mainland by a wide river behind it. Cawit’s residents, almost all fishermen, can pinpoint an exact spot several meters from the shore where some of their tallest trees used to stand. There, they say, mouths and fingers pointing, was where the old coastline was. Soon, they fear, their homes will be swallowed up by the sea, too.

Directly across is the village of Buhatan in Sto. Domingo town, nestled in between two bodies of water and a hilly area to the west. It is smaller than Cawit in size and in population, but its beach is littered with torn plastic and empty bottles from neighboring towns, washed ashore during the onslaught of storms. Residents lament how the trash piles up faster than they can clean up. On most days, they admit, it’s easier to leave it all be.

When a typhoon strikes, both villages are threatened by floods and storm surges. For the villagers in Cawit, any chance of survival means crossing a rickety bamboo bridge to reach Manito town proper; for those in Buhatan, the chances lie in seeking shelter inside sturdier houses situated on higher ground.

Cawit and Buhatan villages not only face the Pacific Ocean but also each other.

It is August when visits Cawit and Buhatan, a month known by residents as a time of rain, a precursor to the storms that will hit the Bicol region beginning September.

But 2015 is different. August has brought instead a pervasive El Niño, the global climate phenomenon associated with severe drought, sparse rains and–potentially–the formation of stronger typhoons caused by a warmer Pacific Ocean. This year’s El Niño, which began in May, is already the most powerful ever recorded.

READ: Intense: Stronger Storms

How these factors will affect the already-vulnerable Philippines has yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: When that time comes, Albay province–Cawit and Buhatan villages included–knows it will be ready.

No deaths

Despite bearing the brunt of at least five powerful typhoons a year, despite living near Mayon Volcano, one of the world’s most active and destructive, Albay’s 1.23-million residents (2010 census) contribute greatly to the province’s goal of “zero casualty,” or no deaths, during major disasters.

The list of the most destructive storms to have hit Albay is a familiar litany: “Sening” (international name: Joan) in 1970, “Sisang” (Nina) in 1987, “Rosing” (Angela) in 1995, “Loleng” (Babs) in 1998, “Reming” (Durian) in 2006, “Glenda” (Rammasun) in 2014. Of the six, four were categorized as supertyphoons, with wind speeds over 220 kilometers per hour.

Albay has proudly boasted zero deaths during major disasters since Rosing in 1995—except for Reming in 2006, which left more than 600 people dead and more than 400 missing because of mudslides.

BACKSTORY: Albay achieves zero-casualty goal in 2014

To keep over a million people safe for so long is no easy feat. A lot of the credit is due Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, the face of Albay’s zero casualty policy, who in his first term as governor prioritized disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM), and has continued to advocate for greater action against climate change on the national level in the Philippines.

But while the country knows the governor as Albay’s Mr. Zero, another individual has contributed to the zero-casualty goal long before Salceda’s election. This man’s decades-long career in DRRM (something Salceda acknowledges and depends on) has earned him the moniker Mr. Disaster, but the locals know him simply as Cedric Daep, head of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (Apsemo).

“When Cedric Daep speaks, we spring to action,” more than one local told

READ: Meet Cedric Daep, Albay's Mr. Disaster

Seeing that Albay is exposed to almost all natural disasters, in 1995 Mr. Disaster conceptualized a self-sufficient department under the Albay local government tasked with implementing DRRM programs in the province. In the same year, the provincial Sangguniang Bayan institutionalized that department, now known as Apsemo, as “a permanent countermeasure” to the disasters that stunt Albay’s development.

Along with assistant head Jukes Nuñez and a permanent staff of 13, Daep’s priority in Apsemo is not only to prepare Albay for the numerous disasters it faces annually–severe flooding, storm surges and landslides wrought by typhoons included–but also climate change adaptation, the long-term goal of the office.

All this begins with the province’s zero casualty program, which relies on three key features to work: an early warning system, evacuation procedures and communication protocol between all stakeholders.

The first time sat down with Daep in Apsemo’s office at the provincial capitol, he was quick to correct a brochure on hazards Pagasa recently distributed. Blue ballpen in hand, he encircled the words cyclone–“We don’t get cyclones… We should be consistent and use only ‘typhoon’”–and mudflow–“This shouldn’t be lumped together with landslides…. They’re very different”–among other mistakes.

Fifteen minutes later, Daep put down his pen and shook his head. “I will call Pagasa later,” he said, adding that it was necessary the brochure should be corrected because inconsistencies in weather and climate terminology could confuse the public.

Apsemo, which will turn 21 in January 2016, has taken it upon itself to stop the spread of misinformation. The staff started within their ranks: To expand Apsemo, Daep studied meteorology, volcanology and seismology, among other disciplines. One staffer was assigned to learn hazard and risk mapping, so the office could update their maps on their own. Updating these risk maps, Daep said, was a necessary step in preparing for the potential disasters.

In 1991, before Apsemo’s creation, Albay invested in hand-drawn risk maps of more than 700 villages distributed between the province’s 18 cities and towns. Almost 25 years later, the maps now include more data, but the basic information remains the same. From these maps, Daep said they were able to pinpoint which areas were in danger of which hazard, and how many families could be affected per hazard.

Handdrawn risk maps of Cawit and Sto. Domingo villages, created in 1991 before Apsemo's institutionalization

Since 2006, Apsemo’s budget has increased from P27.7 million to P70.2 million. Apsemo is divided into five divisions: plans and operations, research, education and training, traffic management and administration.

Daep points to Apsemo’s institutionalization as the key factor that helped Albay implement its “zero casualty” policy for many years and, in the process, gain worldwide recognition in DRRM for its successful programs.

“The core reason behind Albay’s [preparedness] is the institutionalization. There is a clear institution to handle the situation and a clearly identified point person who will stay even if there is a change of governor,” Daep said.

Disaster risk reduction, he added, should be “apolitical.”

Because Apsemo is an institution separate from the governor’s office, Daep, Nuñez and the rest of the staff are not replaced after every local or national election, allowing them to implement long-term plans not only in disaster risk reduction but also in climate change adaptation.

Preemptive evacuation

One such plan Albay has mastered under Apsemo is “preemptive evacuation,” in which residents living in danger zones are evacuated to safety even before Pagasa hoists storm signals over the province.

Three days before a powerful typhoon will hit the Bicol region, Daep is already in a meeting with Governor Salceda, Apsemo assistant head Nuñez and Albay’s mayors, vice mayors and municipal disaster risk reduction and management officers to discuss the local government’s action plan. The group holds at least one meeting every day, depending on the strength of the incoming typhoon, as well as additional meetings once the typhoon has weakened.

In these meetings, risk maps are reviewed and food and shelter provisions are accounted for. Salceda and Daep do not surprise their staff with emergency requests, as everyone is already aware of their role in ensuring zero casualties.

“[It is already] defined and identified who are the people responsible for activities during the calamities so that … when you order them to execute their action plan on response, everything is automatic, just like a well-coordinated orchestra,” Daep said.

“In one action, everything is accomplished in a few minutes or a few hours,” he added.

Photo: Manito Central School in Manito town, Albay.

A few hours is no hyperbole. Daep and Nuñez hold daily briefings for media to make sure no misinformation is spread. Classes are canceled in all levels even without a drop of rain outside. Albayanos are given a day to buy canned goods, candles and other provisions necessary to survive the coming storm. Whole villages are preemptively evacuated in half a day.

Evacuees also receive incentives in the form of food when they arrive at their designated evacuation centers. The governor’s office provides 1.5 kilograms of rice per family–regardless of size–while the mayor’s office provides the ulam or viand of the day. Provisions are enough for the evacuees to stay in these centers up to three days.

Apsemo and the Albay provincial government have together orchestrated a well-oiled, efficient DRRM machine. What keeps it all running smoothly is Apsemo’s extensive information campaign conducted during the other 350 days Albay is spared from calamities.

Daep said it was extremely important to go down to the village level when communicating to people the importance of disaster preparedness and the basics on climate change. “The No. 1 problem why people don’t understand is lack of information and awareness. So the answer is education,” he said.

“In Albay, we started training the potential victims, not much on the responders. Because the responders are there to help and have to wait for a victim before they help,” he added. “But the potential victims, if they are trained, that will make the job of the local authorities easier because even without intervention they can act on their own to save themselves.”

On average, the institution tries to hold three sessions per village, making sure that not only the village council is trained but also members of the community who could facilitate preemptive evacuation without waiting for local authorities or first aid responders to help. Apsemo also closely coordinates with the provincial government and nongovernment organizations to involve more people in their participative campaign.

Cawit was one of the first villages to be trained on preemptive evacuation. Today, coastal villages have also been trained for tsunamis, as well as earthquakes. Buhatan village in Sto. Domingo town, Albay, even represented the Philippines in the 2006 Exercise Pacific Wave, a worldwide tsunami drill facilitated by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Two dozen countries lining the Pacific Rim also took part in the drill.

BACKSTORY: 6,000 take part in Legazpi City drill

These systems were put in place by Apsemo, which Daep said was a unique entity in the entire Philippines. It was the first independent DRRM office in Asia, and a precedent to Republic Act 10121, or the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, which created the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

Apsemo’s efforts in systematizing DRRM have earned local and international recognition, such as the 1999 best Asian model of disaster management award from Asian Disaster Management Center, the 2008 Galing Pook Award from the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and hall of fame status for winning the NDRRMC’s Gawad Kalasang Award three years in a row (2009 to 2011).

Daep is also a regular at various conferences abroad to share the reduction and preparedness measures Albay has put in place. Countries have also sent representatives to the province to train at Climate Change Academy (CCA), the only school in the world dedicated to DRRM and climate change adaptation.

The Apsemo office is housed in an old, two-story building situated in the middle of Albay's provincial capitol. Daep said the building was set to be renovated in 2016 in order to house more offices.
Inside the Apsemo office. Behind Daep's desk are the various awards Apsemo has garnered for their approach to DRR. On Nuñez's file shelf hang IDs and lanyards from the multitude of seminars he either delivered lectures to or participated in.

DRRM is part of Albay’s identity

Equally as impressive as Apsemo are the people they protect–the Albayanos themselves, who initiate the evacuation when they know a storm is already heading their way.

In the Philippines, many government authorities have repeatedly encountered problems with residents who refuse to evacuate despite repeated warnings of an oncoming storm. Residents sometimes have to be physically forced to leave areas in the direct path of the typhoon or are flood-prone because they worry about their homes and livestock.

But not in Albay, where disaster preparedness and a zero-casualty mindset have become an integral part of the people’s identity and culture, thanks to the information campaign Apsemo conducts.

Due to lack of resources, the villages of Cawit and Buhatan have had to be resourceful. Their alarm bells are made of old oxygen tanks provided by the local government, rung using any medium-sized rock when the need to evacuate arises.

“The residents of Albay, through continuous prodding, have made [preparedness] a part of their system. It is already inculcated in them that when there are anticipated calamities, they should all move,” he said.

To empower Albayanos, Apsemo has provided the village officials of Cawit and Sto. Domingo with simple early warning systems–an alarm bell, megaphone and rain gauge each–and has taught them how to read the amount of rainfall. When a storm is on the way, the village officials themselves can read the gauge and sound the alarm once it reaches a certain level to call for evacuation.

“We don’t have to knock on their doors. It is already understood that they will evacuate. [They have] self-discipline because that is their training. They just have to wait for the alarm bell,” Daep said.

Cawit village chief Bibiana Dado said she was proud of how cooperative Cawit’s residents have been. “Even if there is no go signal from our mayor, because of the forecast we village officials make an effort to evacuate the people, to bring them to the evacuation center,” she said. “We don’t want blame for the casualties.”

Buhatan village chief Melva Balea echoed similar sentiments, adding that residents in her area are well aware that they could die should they choose to be stubborn. “During typhoons, our village is really not safe. We leave if we have to leave, if our lives are important to us,” she said.

Throughout Albay, it is not uncommon to hear residents say they don’t want deadly typhoons to happen again.

For Dado, the typhoon that comes to mind is 1987’s Sisang. “There was a lot of [rain]. All our houses were washed out,” she recounted. “I don’t ever want to experience another Sisang here again.”

For Balea, it is 2006’s Reming. Buhatan’s residents thought they would be safe on higher ground, away from the coast, but they did not realize how loose the soil would become because of the torrential rains. “Seven died,” Balea recounted, “because they were trapped in a house made of cement.”

Manito Mayor Caesar Daep is proud that his townsfolk have taken to the trainings very well, especially since they are the ones most affected by floods when typhoons strike. “[Everybody is] conscious of risk reduction and they are like brothers. When one village rings the alarm, others will follow. They are closely knit,” he said.

Sto. Domingo Mayor Herbie Aguas, too, is especially thankful his townsfolk are not difficult when it comes to disaster preparedness. “I’m so lucky in my town that every time I write or give orders during storms… they really follow. They’re not hard to talk to,” he said.

Even the indigenous people in the area have been trained on how to be safe from disasters, making sure local traditions are also respected. “What we do is that our training brochures are in Bicolano so they can understand what they have to do,” he added.

Aguas also credits Sto. Domingo’s low casualty count to his officers, who make up for the 4th class municipality’s lack of funds with their experience and puso, or heart.

One such person is Sto. Domingo’s municipal DRRM officer Edgar Balidoy, who trains the town’s farmers on climate change and how it affects their produce. Training, he said, came in phases. “One year, we teach the science [behind climate change],” and next year’s topic can cover “preparedness mode,” or how to mitigate climate change by planting more trees and cleaning up the town’s canals.

“Surround yourself with hard-working people, rescuers, those who are good at their job and have the heart for DRR. You can’t go wrong,” Aguas said.

As long as there is heart, he added, funding would no longer be a roadblock to DRRM and climate change adaptation. “I don’t make lack of money an excuse in DRR,” he said. “In the first place, it’s how you approach saving your people. There are a lot of things you can do for free: Tap the province, ask NGOs (nongovernment organizations). It’s how you network.”

Among the organizations Albay connects with is the Philippine Red Cross, which regularly participates in Albay’s DRRM planning sessions and supplements

Another NGO that has supported Albay’s DRRM efforts is the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which has worked with the province since 1990. Their most recent project together was the building of six schools meant to house evacuees during disasters. With typhoon-resistant roofing and reinforced walls, these schools are equipped with a proper kitchen, separate bathrooms for males and females, and water sanitation devices.

Don’t be surprised by stronger storms

But Daep acknowledges that Albay still has more to do in order to truly be resilient to natural disasters. More than ever, he cites the need for continuous learning and trainings for the whole community, Apsemo included. Continuous education, he stressed, is key to saving more lives in the future. “Studying approaches to disaster risk reduction is never-ending because there will always be changes,” he said. Filipinos shouldn’t even be surprised if provinces previously safe from typhoons are hit, or if other disasters batter unlikely areas. It’s why, Daep said, he particularly takes note of other regions’ or countries’ experiences with disasters and how they cope, only so he can adapt them in Albay–just in case.

“The most important takeaway is that we learn from their experience what we have not yet experienced here in Albay. That’s a very big thing,” he said. This learning exchange is what CCA hopes to instill in its participants, especially after visiting different areas in Albay–usually in Sto. Domingo, only 15 minutes north of Legazpi City–at the end of every session to see what kind of DRRM practices have been put in place and tailored to specific towns. The Apsemo chief, however, cautioned other provinces and countries against fully replicating Albay’s DRRM, as no one plan is 100-percent appropriate for all areas. “We cannot say [Albay’s disaster risk management] is absolutely correct. We need to do some modifications to make it appropriate [for others],” Daep said. The same can be said about Albay’s current projects on climate change adaptation. “You have to adjust depending on what is needed.”

Instead, what Apsemo knows it can provide is supplemental information that can help others to formulate their own plans suited to their needs. What works in Albay, he said, won’t necessarily work for other provinces.

To know what these needs are, Daep said provinces must first know what the problems are in their areas and the hazards they need to address. To emulate Albay’s successful disaster risk reduction program is to know which disasters can happen where, and plan out the next steps from there.

In provinces in Mindanao, for instance, Daep said all discussion on DRRM had to be preceded by a peace and order plan. He recalled that before Pablo, officials he lectured to in Mindanao insisted that he talk only about peace and order, as it was their priority. It was only after Pablo that he was able to expound on DRRM and climate change adaptation.

Context, Daep said, is always key to creating successful DRRM plans. What works in Albay won’t necessarily work in Davao Oriental or other provinces because of their differences, whether it be political, geographic, economic or cultural.

Daep also stressed the need for experiential knowledge in order to truly drive the point of DRRM home.

At CCA, Daep and Nuñez end every training session by bringing the participants to nearby Albay towns in order to showcase their successful DRR practices. The field trips, Daep said, are important when training people in DRRM. “If [the participants] don’t have experience to validate what you are teaching them, they still won’t follow 100 percent.”

From DRRM to CCA

Apsemo’s duties do not stop there. Daep is aware that the life-saving measures the institution has put in place now will not be enough to save more lives in the future if Albay will not properly adapt to climate change. After all, typhoons batter Albay only 15 of 365 days a year, so what’s there to do while waiting?

Apsemo needs more than ever the cooperation and participation of all sectors. “We cannot do it alone. Even if we do it within a period of 50 years or 100 years, without the participation of other sectors, we cannot do it,” Daep said.

Governor Salceda’s “Team Albay” is one way Apsemo has been partnering with local agencies. Composed of doctors, engineers and other trained medical personnel, the humanitarian group has served as an avenue for Daep and Nuñez to teach Filipinos the science of climate change and disaster preparedness, alongside medical missions and other humanitarian assistance provided.

Aside from Team Albay, Albay has also partnered with national government agencies on a number of projects. An example is their current partnership with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on mangrove reforestation, the strengthening of indigenous varieties of produce and container gardening. CCA also incorporates the importance of protecting the environment in climate change adaptation in its modules.

Team Albay does not restrict itself to the Bicol region, sending help to other provinces in need, such as to Bohol in October 2013. AFP PHOTO
Climate Change Academy, situated inside Bicol State University, is the first of its kind in Asia.

But is this enough to truly adapt to climate change?

Jessica Dator-Bercilla, Christian Aid senior advocacy and policy officer for Asia and the Middle East, questioned whether the Philippines–Albay included–is devoting enough effort and time to combat climate change, especially considering the country’s vulnerability.

“The Philippines is [focusing only on] disaster preparedness. But we’re not addressing the root causes of vulnerability,” she said. “Each year we’ll have a lot of people to save because we’re not giving attention to their plight, to the impacts of inequality that render our people more vulnerable.”

Inequality, Bercilla stressed, worsened Filipinos’ vulnerability to disasters.

In the Disaster Risk Framework, risk equals hazard, in this case natural disasters; exposure, in this case how prone the area is to destruction caused by a disaster; and vulnerability, in this case the people’s ability to cope with a disaster. Humans cannot control hazards, but if the goal is to save more lives in the future both exposure and vulnerability must be addressed.

As of 2014, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that 25.8 percent, or more than a quarter, of Filipinos still live under the poverty line. The percentage is higher, if you ask the people directly; an average of 54 percent of Filipinos surveyed by independent outfit Social Weather Stations in 2014 said they were poor.

“If [the Philippines is] already doing climate change adaption, we should have already thought of what plants to plant in 2030, in 2050. We’re not yet there. We’re still at the phase of saving lives for the next hazard. We’re still at the phase of building resilience,” she said.

Can PH achieve zero casualty?

If there is one thing Daep wished the national government would do, it’s that national agencies should go on the ground more in order to see the situation local governments are facing. He also said the national government should not only strengthen the institutional capacity of provinces so as priority can be given to DRRM.

In 2010, the President signed into law Republic Act 10121, or the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, which created the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act also requires every city and municipality to appoint a dedicated DRRM officer. But five years later, this provision has yet to be properly implemented. Even in Albay, dubbed the center of Philippine DRRM, only Balidoy of Sto. Domingo town is a designated officer solely for DRRM. His counterparts in Albay are still wearing two hats.

Such implementation on the national level must be pushed if the whole Philippines hopes to catch up to Albay’s zero-casualty record. To achieve this, Daep again stressed: “Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation do not require any political boundary. What is really needed is for all sectors to be in.”

Today, Albay has blazed the trail for prioritizing DRRM and its leaders remain at the forefront of climate change adaptation. Its future as an agent of change rests on the shoulders of Albay’s future leaders and, of course, Apsemo.

In another interview with, Daep joked that he’d retire from government and pour his energy into consultancy, given the workload, time and immense patience needed to to train Albayanos on DRRM and keep them safe from disasters.

“But will I give up or will I continue?“ Daep answered his own question with a wry smile on his face: “No, because this is our job, so we need to do our job.”

Note: The Inquirer Group is covering the historic climate change conference in Paris, which starts Nov. 30. This special report is part of the Group's PINAS TO PARIS campaign.