TACLOBAN, Philippines – As soon as Agaton made landfall in Eastern Samar and distress calls started popping up on social media on Sunday, April 10, youth leader El Jan Pongos called up his contacts and started organizing a network to conduct relief operations for those who were hit hard.
“It was very, really, urgent. We really needed to start. If we would start the next day yet, there might be a brownout or we might have difficulty releasing information about the donations,” Pongos told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.
By night, AGATONe (Agaton + One) was formed. The emergency relief campaign eventually became a collaboration of at least 11 different organizations as various networks started reaching out to organizers on how they could help.
“The moment we posted the official pubmat for the donation drive, people were trying to connect with us,” he said.
Although his residence in Palo town, also in Leyte, was spared from the onslaught of the storm, Pongos said what drove him to volunteer for those who had lost everything was his own experience of growing up with practically nothing.
He had been working with communities for years, and having built a network of contacts, he felt it was his responsibility to connect people and help.
“We who have all the chances to do what we want, [we have] a big privilege but a big responsibility,” Pongos said. “Every time there’s a disaster, every time there’s a call to help, you feel the responsibility to act on that.”
Being no stranger to disasters, local volunteers and groups in Leyte were among the first to respond to calls for aid as Tropical Storm Agaton induced rainfall, floods, and landslides that killed, stranded, and displaced residents in the province.
So far, volunteers in Tacloban City and Baybay City have distributed at least 2,400 food packs, almost 500 hygiene kits, and other essentials to affected communities, evacuation centers, and hospitals in the province.
At the Leyte Provincial Hospital, survivors of a major landslide in Abuyog town were given clean clothes, blankets, sleeping mat, undergarments, bottled waters, and biscuits.
In Baybay City, volunteers served rice porridge and distributed food packs and water bottles.
Paying it forward
For nongovernmental organization worker Helena Claire Canayong, responding to calls for help was her way of paying it forward – she was Super Typhoon Yolanda survivor.
“Everybody knows about what happened during and after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda’s international code), and we just want to give back the good things given to us during those times,” said Canayong, director of operations for Volunteer for the Visayas (VFV), one of organizations taking part in the AGATONe campaign.
She assumed her position in the NGO in February 2013, nine months before Super Typhoon Yolanda barreled through Eastern Visayas and brought death and destruction in its wake.
“When Typhoon Haiyan happened, we still had our foreign volunteers with us. Though they suffered the same, we suffered more because we have families here,” she recalled.
A mother of two, Canayong said her children was with her at the time, but she had to bring them to her cousins in Cebu so she could continue her relief work in Tacloban City.
“I was missing them, but it allowed me to work properly on the ground,” she said.
Founded in 2004, VFV is a Tacloban-based NGO focused on child welfare, community development, education, and public health through its social welfare programs. It is also open for international volunteers who are interested in helping with their projects.
Canayong said psychosocial sessions are being conducted for children victims of Agaton.
“We’re gathering toys, coloring books, and such that [volunteers and children] can use during psychosocials,” she said.
Beyond elections, partisanship
Efforts to give aid also went beyond elections and political colors.
After presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s grand rally drew a mammoth crowd in this city on April 9, the night before Agaton made landfall, some of the audience who came from different parts of the region found themselves scrambling for ways to go home.
They waited under a heavy downpour on a Saturday night. There were no more commercial vans at the time, and hotels were fully booked.
Twitter user @palamisalami opened his doors to Uniteam supporters upon learning that many still needed food, dry clothes, and shelter.
“My guests arrived just before I could take down my Leni tarps. Was tempted to be in-your face pink, but it was important to make sure they felt safe,” he wrote on Twitter.
He said his sisters sent over mattresses and blankets while friends bought dinner.
“Over hot meals and coffee, we talked about everything – religion, tourism, weather. Everything but straight-up politics…. One guy started chanting ‘Let Leni Lead!’ as if to please me…. I told him, no matter the color, it’s only human to want to help another human,” he added.
Robredo People’s Council (RPC)-Leyte volunteers have also been raising funds and gathering donations for Agaton victims.
Jan Barrera, a supporter of presidential candidate Vice President Leni Robredo, said that “kakampinks” have been conducting humanitarian activities even before the 2022 polls.
MovePH, Rappler’s civic engagement arm, has a running list of organizations accepting and distributing donations for Tropical Storm Agaton victims:
Brynch Bonachita is a Visayas-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.