Philippines Typhoon: Shelter Helps Family Survive, Rebuild

New shelter

Nonelyn Sabas and her son in their new transitional shelter. Photo by Autumn Brown/CRS

By Autumn Brown

When Nonelyn Sabas’ son was born, he was very sick. The doctors were not sure if he would live more than a few days. They said that it might have been caused by her fatigue from living in a tent for the last 3 months, or perhaps it was the contaminated water she drank on the night of December 16, 2011. Nonelyn would never forget that night when Typhoon Washi triggered a flash flood that ripped through the heart of the city, killing more than a thousand and leaving tens of thousands homeless, including Nonelyn and her family.

Nonelyn was 6 months pregnant the night of Sendong and remembers everything vividly. She lived with her Aunt, Apolonia, and two little sisters in a neighborhood called Isla de Oro in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines. It is located on a large sandbar in the middle of the river. Flooding isn’t new to those living on Isla de Oro, but the torrential rains that came that night were different.

“I remember thinking that the water would stop rising soon, but it didn’t stop,” Apolonia said. “It seemed that within minutes it rose from our knees to our necks.”

Nonelyn, her aunt and her little sisters climbed onto the roof of their home, hoping to wait out the floods, but more water kept coming.

“When water would reach the roof we were on, or start washing it downstream, we would jump to a different roof. We spent the whole night going from roof to roof,” said Apolonia. This treacherous scramble for safety was especially difficult for Nonelyn.

“I was under water a lot that night. I would carry my little sisters on my shoulders and at times my head would be completely under water,” Nonelyn said.

Through the pitch-black night, one thing helped her family to remain calm—singing. As they sat on one roof, they sang hymns and other songs. They remember it being dark, but they could hear the others who were also stranded on roofs singing along with them in the distance.

“We sang and that is what kept us from going into shock,” Nonelyn said.

The night finally ended and Nonelyn’s family and the other survivors were sent to evacuation sites around the city. Nonelyn’s family made their home in a tent for the next 4 months.

“It was so hot in the tent,” Nonelyn said. “By 7:00 am, we couldn’t sit in there anymore and had to get out and find a shady place to rest. Sleeping was so difficult, because our tent was crowded and I could never stretch my legs out all the way.”

In February, while still living in a tent, Nonelyn gave birth to her baby boy. His health problems left her in constant worry. Not being able to stay in the tent during the day because of the heat meant exposing the sick newborn to outside elements, including the dust, which aggravated his respiratory problems. Nonelyn worried her son might die.

Nonelyn’s parish informed CRS’s partner, the Diocesan Social Action Center, of the special case of Nonelyn and her family. They were immediately moved up in priority to receive a transitional home built by CRS. The transitional home helps people escape the harsh living conditions of tents while they wait to be placed into permanent housing.

CRS has built 720 transitional homes to date and plans to build 500 more. Nonelyn and her family moved to a transitional home in late April and are very happy with the arrangement. Nonelyn is delighted with her new home.

“It is so much cooler here! I’m so grateful and I have more peace seeing my son’s health improving every day.”

For this family, a small wooden home became the source of comfort and hope as they finally start to rebuild their lives.

Autumn Brown is CRS’ international development fellow in Madagascar, on temporary assignment in the Philippines.

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