Feature: Quake survivors in Surigao struggle to recover from tragedy

  • March 17, 2017

The province of Surigao del Norte has been an idyllic paradise for both locals and tourists due to its myriad of attractions that include powdery white-sand beaches, captivating waterfalls, enchanting rivers, fascinating caves, and its world-famous “Cloud 9” waves in the surfing capital of Siargao.

But a 6.7 magnitude earthquake that occurred last February 10 has seemingly turned some parts of the province, especially Surigao City, into a war zone with bridges broken in two, damaged buildings and torn-down houses. The largest earthquake to have hit the province since 1879 (source: Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) and the series of strong aftershocks also left scores of Surigaonons in bad shape: shaken, lost, and afraid.

The Philippine Business for Social Progress has partnered with volunteer doctors from the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP), in conducting psychosocial support to quake survivors to help them recover from their traumatic experience.

More than 300 survivors that included adults and children from the towns of Surigao City and Surigao del Norte underwent psychosocial support that consists of group activities, individual sharing, psycho-education and referral for treatments.

Last week, volunteers from the University of San Carlos in Cebu also conducted psychosocial support sessions in Surigao, in partnership with PAP.

A horrible ordeal

Jeffrey, the seven-year-old son of Jemalyn Lopez was among those who developed post traumatic stress due to the strong quake that struck their city at 10 ‘o’clock in the evening and damaged their wooden house.

“My seven-year-old son doesn’t want to return to our house. He is not crying but he is afraid until now as he continues to experience flashbacks of that ordeal,” shared Lopez who is three months pregnant with her third child.

Their family was asleep when the earthquake struck at 10:00 p.m. on that fateful Friday. They suddenly woke up to see their house moving sideways. She was shaking from nervousness while her seven-year-old son bumped his head on the wall.

“We were trapped inside our house. My five-year-old son was crying because he got stuck between the door and plywood wall which was bent like paper. We could not open the door because it was already damaged. When we were able to escape, we had difficulty crossing the foot bridge. My plan was to jump in the pond but my husband stopped us because he was afraid we would sink. When we reached beyond the shoreline, my children and I were shaking.  Then we went as far away as we could from the shore,” she said.

The family of Lopez has temporarily repaired their house but it is still tilting sideways, and there is still the danger of collapsing. They are in dire need of  construction materials to rebuild it into a much stronger structure.

Dominador Tabara, Sr., a 58-year-old barangay officer left his eight children momentarily after the earthquake struck to check on his neighbors, as part of his duty. In the long run though, he was the one who got affected by the quake and is suffering from post traumatic stress reaction (PTSR).

“I was not nervous at that time but up to now I can still feel my head shaking everytime I stand up. My family was lucky because our cement wall did not fall on us. For the meantime, I replaced our wall with tarpaulin so that we would not get wet by the rain.  When time comes, I will replace it with a wooden wall,” Tabara said.

Immediate intervention

Volunteer psychologist Olivia Therezah Pajente-Pelagio said many of the quake survivors need to undergo Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPS).

“We do this during recovery stage. We talk about the disaster and their reaction to particular situations. Then, we do debriefing but we don’t force them to share (right away). We wait until they are ready.  Psycho-social support involves recalling the experience that is why we must have stay-in psychologists in case somebody needs immediate intervention.  One participant shared that they were in a wake during the quake. The casket fell on the ground. They crawled going back to their house.  Now, they feel paranoid everytime a large vehicle passes. It is a normal reaction for such situation. It is called Post-Traumatic Stress Reaction (PTSR). If the condition reaches six months, it will lead into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Survivors have different coping mechanisms.  Some may leave.  Some may not know that they are already hurting others or becoming violent. We are avoiding that to happen that is why we are providing psychosocial support,” said Pajente-Pelagio.

Psychologists also saw the need to conduct psychological education in some survivors who thought it was already the end of the world.

“Other survivors already lost hope. The first thing we should do is teach them how to cope with the situation. I think it is important to enhance their information about earthquake. What is it?  Where did it come from? Others thought it is already the end of the world. We need to educate them about tectonic plates and realignment of the ground. They need to understand that there will be aftershocks. Not all earthquakes can destroy houses. These are natural things. Having the correct information would enable people to potentially react better in an otherwise traumatic situation.  After sharing, we have to give them psychological education,” she added.

PBSP continues to mobilize resources for the transportation and other logistical needs of volunteer psychologists and other groups tapped to provide psychosocial support to the quake survivors. It also helps the Department of Health in searching for communities that need psychosocial support. (Philippine Business for Social Progress/PIA-Caraga)


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