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Snake Slaying …

We’ve had a couple of interesting jobs going on this week, broadening the menu of work available again now that our volunteer numbers have increased. In the run up to Holy Week numbers dropped off as people went on break and volunteer turnover was high as short term volunteers wanted to wait and arrive after April 9th to avoid spending a big part of their time idle.

Getting back into the swing of things this week a team set out on Monday morning to begin clearing the scrub and brush on a two hectare site that CRS is going to build transitional shelters on. The plot looked like prime snake country and the team were nicknamed the snake slayers. Armed with rakes and machetes the 7 All Hands volunteers made a valiant start hacking at trees and bushes.

The the Mormons showed up. CRS had asked the local LDS church to provide a handful of people to help us and make sure we were able to finish within the 6 day deadline. Turns out there was some miscommunication and the 8 we were expected turned into a crowd of 80! 80 yellow vested local volunteers appeared armed with all manner of useful tools and the newly massive team got down to business. Needless to say with so many hands on deck the job was finished before the end of the work day. Two hectares completely cleared! Big thanks to the LDS team and our volunteers for a job well done in just 20% of the time we thought it would take.

Just one more amazing feather in the Project CDO hat. Help us do more by voting for us in an online review here. The winner will get $2500 towards their project – in All Hands terms that would mean 125 more volunteer days and if the story above doesn’t show you just what that could achieve, nothing will!





Midday in Cebu, a Filipino island a few hour ferry ride north of Project CDO. Click for original image.

As you can see the Philippines has some glorious weather if you want to lounge on the beach sipping Mai Tais. Digging trenches or running wheelbarrows under this unforgiving sun is a different matter entirely. Even repeat volunteers who’ve come here more-or-less straight from Haiti, not known for its cool weather either, are finding it tough to keep racing through the work at their usual pace. For anyone on their way in: pack plenty of rehydration goodies, especially the one’s in tablet form which go a long way. For all those already here and working their hearts out: slow down, put a hat on, drink drink drink and drink some more and know that CDO needs you healthy and happy so maybe take five in the shade! The trench will still be there when you get back.

Day 1 – Kumusta Volunteers

Project CDO has opened its doors to its first official volunteers. The All Hands old hands were out in the field
flying the flag as new volunteers started arriving at the base. The team hauled and scrubbed and bucketed and gutted. Back here at the house forms were being signed, papers were filed, the copier was humming, both bathrooms were occupied. Later the showers were full of mud and muddy people, the tools have been cleaned but have happily lost that new tool lustre after a day’s hardcore typhoon response. And even more people should arrive over the next couple of hours.

Not only are things happening on the volunteer side. Word is spreading about who we are, what we do and how we do it. The family who lived in the house our team went to today came out in force to help with the clean-up operation and many more stopped by. Impressed by what they saw they requested our help with cleaning their own houses.

Projects are in the pipeline, partnerships are coming together, relationships are bearing fruit, friends are being made, associations developed. There is the sound of new boots being stepped into and clean (not for long!) shirts being pulled on and the smell of willingness to work like you’ve never worked before is in the air.

The project has come to life.

Assessment Day

Protected from both wet feet and the hot, tropical sun, today we set about finding homeowners who need volunteer assistance ready for the influx of willing workers on Friday. Paddling around a flooded subdivision of Cagayan de Oro we found a hive of activity. People were busy doing what they could; hauling mud to the street in buckets, hosing down floors and cars, fishing possessions out of the soupy mess the water left behind, washing and bleaching water damaged bedding.

We found plenty of people who’d be hugely grateful for assistance with removing warped, moldy wooden ceilings, wall panels and kitchen cabinets as well as hauling ruined possessions, scrubbing dirty floors and pulling up rotting lino. Many people in this community are elderly and cannot manage these things themselves. Others are physically and mentally exhausted having been working to get back into their homes for a month. In the coming weeks our volunteers will be able to work with these families and restore these buildings to a livable condition, helping people out of emergency and temporary shelters and enabling them to go home.

I hope everyone who’s applied is looking forward to coming home smeared in filth and smelling of sludge – it’s going to happen!

On the Ground

It’s always all go at the beginning of a project and Cagayan de Oro is no different. Volunteers will start arriving next Friday and before they do we need to have somewhere for everyone to sleep, work for them  to do, paperwork to be filled out, tools to work with, vehicles to ride in, food to eat … the list goes on and on. Not only this but we have to make sure that we have enough volunteers to do the work but not so many that people end up sleeping under the kitchen table!

Right now I am sitting under a tin roof on stilts sheltering from the rain (good job I brought those hot pink wellies) and updating the information sent out to arriving volunteers with new details about where we’ll be living. Later I’ll head home to check my inbox for volunteers confirming their travel details and tomorrow we’ll be making a start on fitting the base out to house 30+ people.

The need here in this community, and those surrounding it, is huge. Over 5000 homes in CdO were completely destroyed in the flash floods in mid-December and many of those made homeless are now being moved into large tent camps. Although this is better than the overcrowded evacuation centers it is obviously not a permanent solution. We are planning to assist local organizations in the construction of permanent housing which will be sold, through interest-free loans, to families who lost their homes.

Many evacuation centers were set up in school gymnasiums and accommodation needs to be found for those still housed there before school can start again so we can also help to put up some of the hundreds of tents that are still to arrive from Manila and the UK.

And, as has become something of an All Hands specialty, we will be clearing the muck and debris that was swept into homes along the river bank. While low-quality wooden houses were simply washed away, many concrete houses survived structurally intact and now stand uninhabitable. Using techniques honed on projects across the world, volunteers will remove the mud, flush the house with water and clean all affected rooms, helping people to get back into their homes and get back on with their lives.

Come the 20th I hope to be enough ahead of myself that I can pull on my fetching pink wellies for real and head out to get filthy and tired and sore for a great cause: helping a family go home, one bucket of mud at a time.

What About Turkey?

Turkey’s eastern Van Province was rocked by a 7.2 earthquake on October 23rd, leaving 604 people dead and 28,000 houses uninhabitable. Following severe aftershocks this week that caused further collapse many people are afraid to return to buildings which are not damaged for fear of further seismic activity.

I haven’t managed to find a single organisation accepting unskilled or unaffiliated volunteers (as usual) but there is certainly much to be done. Turkey sits on two major fault lines and has experienced many large and devastating earthquakes in its history. Having been spared for a decade the country is well prepared with stocks of tents and other relief items. Neighbouring countries have also offered equipment and experts to assist the community. Heavy equipment has moved in quickly and with a particularly young local population, labour is on hand as and when the rubble clearance begins in earnest.

Given that Turkey is well developed and that the response to this disaster is well-coordinated and well supplied, it seems like the local community could support a handful of experienced and intrepid volunteers wanting to start digging through the rubble that the machines can’t reach. Much has been made, and rightly so, of the potential negative impact that unsolicited volunteers can have on local resources, including housing and food. Remembering that temperatures are well below freezing at night, a decent tent, some water purifying tablets and a giant sack of Pasta ‘n’ Sauce should ensure that you’re not a burden on this particular disaster-impacted area.

Pack a wooly hat and a shovel and let me know how it goes!

Water Water Everywhere

Working in disaster response you tend to keep an eye on the weather, in particular the extreme kinds – tornados, typhoons, hurricanes – that might mean you’re picking up sticks and moving to the other side of the world again. In the last few months pretty much everything I’ve seen has been about drought or flooding. Working with predominantly unskilled volunteers with little experience on the ground and focusing on the often-overlooked necessity of manually clearing individual homes, a drought response is not something All Hands is traditionally going to undertake. The areas currently affected, in the Horn of Africa, are too unstable for lightly-travelled responders, and the need is for distributions of food and other items – a highly complicated and emotionally difficult task.

Responding to a flood is not straightforward either. Firstly you have to wait for the water to go down. There is not much you can do to help people demolish, repair and rebuild their homes if the area is still waist-deep in water. Once the water is gone however, All Hands can really come into its own. Time and again, volunteers have shoveled and scooped and wheelbarrowed huge amounts of mud from houses, drainage systems and businesses, helping the local community to return to some semblance of normality.

From the mudslides in Gonaives in 2008 – where the mud was so all-pervasive that a new vocabulary was created to accurately describe the different consistencies of mud and ensure the correct tools were taken to deal with it – to the crawlspaces of homes in Japan where volunteers spent hours in the dark scraping out mud and debris swept in by the tsunami wave to prevent the health issues that would arise from mold and rotting vegetable matter, volunteers have returned to base after work smeared head to foot in filth and grinning ear-to-ear.

There is pride in doing what others will not do, but that needs to be done; in helping one family to finish in a day what might have taken weeks; in working so hard it hurts, with mud in your eyes and weeping blisters patched with duct tape, because what you’re doing needs to have been done yesterday. And it’s a good job so many amazingly willing, fantastically hardworking people are drawn to help others who’ve been affected by disaster because in the last two months there has been flooding in the US, Taiwan, Cambodia, India, Mexico, Russia, the Philippines, Uganda, Lao, China, Guatemala, Kenya, Vietnam and Thailand. Lace up your boots; there’s work to be done.

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