After Haiyan: School Disaster Risk Reduction Strategies in the Philippines

Photo by Daniel Lin

In response to the increasingly tumultuous climate scenario, schools all over the Asia Pacific region are making efforts to create procedures and mechanisms to best prepare them for when natural disasters occur. Last month, I traveled to the Philippines to attend the Experts’ Meeting on Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development in Asia-Pacific hosted by UNESCO and SEAMEO INNOTECH. During this time, I had the privilege of going to observe an elementary school in Manila where I witnessed something incredible.

Commonwealth Elementary School, located in the Quezon City district of Metro Manila, has a student population of over 9,000. Yes, you heard right: nine thousand students in one school. Perhaps this number might not astound you…but to put this into perspective, 9,000 is more than the total student population for most of the Pacific Island countries and territories that I work with!

What makes Commonwealth Elementary School truly special, however, isn’t the size of the student body (which, in Manila, is not uncommon). Rather, this school is nationally recognized for having the best emergency/evacuation plan in the Philippines. The following are photos from the a live demonstration of the evacuation drill:

Peering through the window at a classroom before the evacuation drill begins. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Once the emergency bell rings, every student immediately gets down and puts on their head covers. These are meant to provide some protection from falling objects, but also provide cover from rain and sun during an evacuation. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Once the evacuation procedure begins, teachers lead their classes out of classrooms and off school grounds. All teachers and select students have been trained in First-Aid. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Evacuating such a large student body can quickly turn into chaos if it is not executed properly. At Commonwealth Elementary, even amidst the urgency, there was no sense of chaos. All students moved at a brisk, yet orderly, pace. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Photo by Daniel Lin
Once outside of school grounds, each class occupies an area on the sidewalk surrounding the school. Even though this was merely a drill, I got the sense that the students at Commonwealth Elementary fully understood (with firsthand experience) the very real dangers associated with natural disasters in their country. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Photo by Daniel Lin
After the evacuation drill was complete, students took time to pose for the camera and be kids. These moments serve as a salient reminder of why safety and preparation are so important for all schools. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Commander in Chief: Mr. Rudolfo B. Modelo is the principal of the school and a big reason why Commonwealth Elementary is viewed as a model for other schools in the Philippines.  He credits his staff for putting in countless hours of their time outside of normal working hours  to ensure the success of this endeavor. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Throughout all of the activity and frenzy of this drill, it is easy to lose sight of the objective at hand: to successfully evacuate a school of over 9,000 students in an orderly and timely manner. From what I had witnessed, I was already impressed by how seemingly organized and coordinated the process was. Every individual – from the youngest students to the teachers – seemed to know their role and where they needed to be. But what really blew me away was how quickly all of this happened. From the start of the drill to when the last person left the school grounds took just over 4 minutes! Thinking back to my elementary school days in the US, a typical fire drill would take twice as long to evacuate a school with 1/10 as many students.

Sufficed to say, one day, if disaster strikes, it is likely that such an evacuation will not be orderly and calm. However, it is the hope of Principal Modelo and the rest of his staff that when panic sets in, instinct will take over – an instinct that has been formed through careful safety planning and extensive safety drills.



Meet the Author
A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University