ST. BERNARD, SOUTHERN LEYTE–The sky darkens, rain pours, and in a few minutes, it is dry again.
Possibly another day without a story for Manila, but it is good news for the temporary residents of this elementary school-turned-evacuation center.
This is the town of St. Bernard in mid-January, when floods and landslides since the beginning of 2011 led to at least 3 deaths and displaced hundreds.
But we already reached none of the rains that sent us here 650 kilometers from Manila and 5 hours south of Tacloban City.
Heads turn each time a downpour seems imminent, and return to business when it soon fizzles. With no breaking story, our local reporter Sharon Evite sought out how the evacuees were coping.
“Ganyan na ganyan din ang panahon noon.”
Locals tell us this was almost the same atmosphere 5 years ago on February 17, an event they are now taking pains to prevent. Late morning that day, a portion of Mt. Can-abag bordering St. Bernard broke off and buried the entire barangay of Guinsaugon.
The area had been wet from constant rain since December 2005 and had just begun to savor a dry season then. Two mild earthquakes were pointed as the catalysts that led to more than a thousand deaths.
As a result of the national prominence it gained from the landslide, St. Bernard has become a logical location to cover a natural calamity affecting the Leyte-Samar area.
Guinsaugon, now known here too as “ground zero,” is merely a spot to visit, with a cross-marked memorial erected for the victims. Even visitors are still cautioned as they come.
The over 150 survivors of the landslide have moved to New Guinsaugon, a village farther from the mountain and nearer the entrance of St. Bernard.
They live, attend classes, and worship in buildings pitched in by corporations, international aid agencies, government, and humanitarian organizations.
One of them, Dominador Granada, lost his 2 kids after the 2006 landslide entombed their schoolhouse and killed over 250. A pastor, he has taken a leadership role in the community.
He tells us that at least, the ground shook during daytime, or else everyone else in Guinsaugon would have been killed.42524
Some of the residents still go back daily to ground zero where they have left rice fields to tend–their only source of livelihood.
While the people in New Guinsaugon have moved away from the danger zone, they live with reminders of it when bad weather strikes.
Our satellite team had set up at a concrete-laden part in the middle of the village, with access to the nearby school should we go live.
As we watched transient housewives wash the day’s laundry or cook meals, we heard a teacher’s loud voice teaching civics lessons in a mix of Tagalog and Bisaya.
Classes have to go on, even as the rooms are shared with the displaced residents of Barangay Tambis, which was submerged in floods.
The New Guinsaugon officials allowed us to sleep in their barangay hall at night, and set aside an area where we could wash and cook.
Morning to afternoon, high schoolers in groups of 10 to 20 held classes in English, Science, and Arts at the same covered area. The teachers would arrive via motorcycles and use manila paper or makeshift chalkboards as visual aids.
The teens were from Tambis National High–700 now scattered among 5 evacuation centers. And the teachers were working double-time to keep them in step with the school year.
So 17 of them make the rounds of the 5 schools from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The English teacher, Daisy Merto, says classes hadn’t started since January 2, when the rains came.
She says she had to escape her flooded house by a window. The water had reached her waist.
“E suweldo na namin (it’s our payday) next week,” says Daisy’s co-teacher Winchieve. “Nakakahiya naman sa gobyerno. Binabayaran kami (It would be a shame to the government if we do not work. They’re paying us).”
The teachers do not get any allowance for their trips. Some are lucky to have motorcycle rides, but others have to walk or commute.
As we talked, a teacher-trainee from the college next town was reading a spelling exercise to the students.
“She’s graduating too, so she’s rushing her OJT,” says Teacher Winchieve.
Irregular schooling is one thing the local government wants to avoid as it moves to relocate the barangays near Mt. Can-abag.
The area, only next door to the Pacific Ocean, south of the volcanic Bicol region, and in the neighborhood of the Philippine Fault Zone, is no stranger to calamity.
Loose soil covers most of Southern Leyte, made more volatile by typhoons or low-pressure-area rains.
St. Bernard Mayor Rico Rentuza, who came to office a year after the landslide, tells ABS-CBN’s Evite that relocating is a one-time investment that will pay off:
“Less worry, less risk, less disruption of classes.”
When we left St. Bernard for Manila on January 21, the sun shone piercingly over the town. The Tambis residents were finally allowed to go home after cleaning the schools they stayed in.
It’s a sigh of the relief for the teachers, who initiated the teach-ins to make sure the fourth year students still graduate on time.
Teacher Daisy says of the calamities they’ve gone through, “Spices of life lang yan. Kayang-kaya yan ng mga taga St. Bernard (They’re all spices of life. St. Bernard residents can sure surpass them).”