A family’s bid to help Bantayan Island rise from Haiyan

Pia Ranada

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A Facebook page set up by a Cebuano family coordinates relief efforts for the isolated island devastated by Typhoon Yolanda

PANIC-STRICKEN PARADISE. Who would've thought disaster would strike a beautiful paradise of white-sand beaches and clear blue waters like Bantayan Island? Photo by Bibi delos Reyes

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Bantayan Island, an island in the Visayan Sea famed for its postcard-worthy beaches and fragile marine sanctuary, has been brought down to its knees by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

Yolanda’s winds blew away roofs, destroyed its ports and cut off power and communication lines, rendering the island completely isolated. Roof-high waves terrified locals and destroyed infrastructure and property.

Now that the storm has passed, locals are trying to rise from the devastation. But many of the problems persist while new ones have sprung up. The island remains off the power grid while Globe and Smart network signals were brought back late November 12. However, signals are unstable inside many barangays.

“It’s like a jungle there,” said Gail Roska, a volunteer from nearby Cebu City, about the Bantayan Island she saw when she accompanied relief goods to victims.

“It’s totally wiped out. You can’t believe it. You can’t imagine how they (locals) can possibly recover from this,” she told Rappler during a phone interview.

When night descends on the island, the darkness is absolute because power has not yet been restored. Around 90 to 95% of houses have no more roofs, many are completely obliterated, said Roska, condemning hundreds to homelessness. 

THE AFTERMATH. The strong winds of Typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan) tore roofs off houses in Bantayan Island. Photo by Bibi delos ReyesThe municipal hall and concrete buildings still standing are being used as evacuation centers but even the situation in these places is hellish.

“Evacuees are packed like sardines. Many are crying or screaming for help. When you go there, you can’t breathe at all,” recalled Roska.

Those unable to squeeze into the evacuation centers have put together make-shift homes using wood debris and tarpaulin.

Aside from the 1,250 goods delivered to Bantayan Island locals, the only sources of food are coconut trees (the ones still with fruit) and chicken poultry houses that were destroyed by the storm. One of the island’s major industries is poultry. Chickens from the many poultry houses there are now being sold–dead or alive–for P20 to P25. 

Most main roads are passable but fallen trees and big debris delay travel time, Roska said. Their trip to deliver goods from seaside town Santa Fe to Bantayan proper took 45 minutes instead of the usual 10.

The family behind ‘Bangon Bantayanons’

Governments all over the world, international organizations and multinational companies have mobilized to bring relief to devastated Philippines. But one Cebuano family proves no one is too small to make a difference when disaster strikes.

In a span of 36 hours, the Roska family became a major mobilizer of relief efforts for Bantayan Island simply by making a plea through Facebook.

Bangon Bantayanons (Rise People of Bantayan Island), a Facebook page put up by 29-year-old Gail Roska on November 9, coordinates relief operations from different parts of the world, posts updates on the island’s situation and makes regular call-outs for donations and volunteers.

RISING FROM CALAMITY. A family from Cebu City turns their home into a command center for relief goods. Photo courtesy of Bangon Bantayanon

The initiative, which is being driven by 11 other Roska family members and their friends, has collected P82,610 in cash donations and around P20,000-worth of in-kind donations as of 5 pm on November 12, bringing the total to P100,000 collected in 4 days.

“Bantayan Island holds a very special place in the hearts of our family for the last 4 generations,” said Roska to explain why her family decided to devote so much time and effort to mobilizing relief. 

“Many of us are taking time from our day jobs to work on this mission. We haven’t had much sleep.”

Aid has been coming in not only from Cebu and Manila. Donations from the United States, Europe, United Arab Emirates and Canada is being sent to the Roska family home in Cebu City, now a “command center” for Bangon Bantayanons. Some family members are helping from their homes outside Visayas. A cousin in Manila is collecting relief goods from the capital. Another family member in California is making the appeal in the US.

“We even take shifts,” said Roska to explain how they are able to man the page 24/7. “Those in California man it from dawn then they turn over to the Cebu team.”

Bangon Bantayanons’ call for volunteers is receiving such overwhelming response that they’ve had to limit volunteers to 50 a day. These volunteers mainly repack relief goods and bring them to Bantayan Island using trucks borrowed from other volunteers. 

A boost to their efforts, the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary has offered its ship to deliver goods collected by Bangon Bantayanons.

MOBILIZING. Volunteers in Cebu City repack goods to be delivered to Bantayan Island. Photo courtesy of Bangon Bantayanon

Through Bangon Bantayanons, hundreds of relief packs with water, food, clothing have made their way to typhoon victims in the island.

Bangon Bantayanons was able to deliver goods on November 11 using trucks borrowed from volunteers. The trucks travel to Hagnaya Port in the northern tip of Cebu. The vehicles carrying goods and volunteers are then boarded on a barge which takes them to Bantayan Island within an hour. Bangon Bantayanon volunteers are set to return with more goods on November 16.

While volunteers have already been mobilized for Bantayan town proper, Roska said their next target is to bring goods to the hard-to-reach barangays of Sante Fe and Madridejos towns. 

They are now in talks with the Santa Fe mayor to bring in a generator to power the town’s water refilling station.  

To donate in kind and in cash or volunteer through Bangon Bantayanons, visit their Facebook page. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.