Bicol is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the country. Not only is the region regularly assaulted by typhoons, it also has to deal with the eruption of active volcanoes. How is the region dealing with these disasters? Are Bicolanos prepared to handle these disasters that they face each year?
Good thing there are people like Juan Blenn I. Huelgas, a Bicolano who has made it his advocacy to use his skills to establish safer communities. After graduating with top honors at the Ateneo de Naga High School (where he was also awarded Most Outstanding Student of Naga City), Blenn went on to UP Los Banos where he got his Bachelor of Science degree in Development Communications.
Blenn chose to focus on the field of disaster management where he eventually became a respected specialist both with NGOs and the Philippine Government. His impressive list of accomplishments include becoming the Founding President of the International Network for Emergency and Disasters in Tokyo, Japan, and World Convenor at the International Plenary for Cultures in Crisis at Guadablanca, Mexico. Blenn has so distinguished himself in his field that he is now a renowned national and international resource person, trainer, advocate and practitioner in disaster and development management.
Currently Blenn is involved in two jobs: as MDG Localization Consultant and Disaster Management Specialist for the UN-Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) and as Disaster Management Officer for the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
His present work takes him back home to Bicol where he is helping implement the Luxembourg-Funded Integrated Shelter in Albay. The project is in response to the typhoons that hit Bicol in 2006, particularly Milenyo and Reming. It aims to provide technical assistance to the government agencies and private organization in addressing the permanent shelter concerns of Albay.
Blenn is also spearheading a project that is focused on strengthening the capacities of 10 major cities in doing hazard risk and vulnerability assessment which will be compiled into guidebooks. “Two of the cities are Naga and Sorsogon. In Naga, we focused on assessing poverty in the context of disaster threats especially typhoons and flooding while in Sorsogon City we focused on assessing women empowerment in disaster situations,” he explains.
Remarkably, in his 17 years experience in disaster management, this is the first time that Blenn is handling projects in Bicol. As a local, it is an advantage for him as he is familiar with the terrain of the area and the culture of the people he has to deal with. Unfortunately, he also has to deal with local biases. “It sometimes takes a lot to convince people that you are Bicolano and that you can help them,” he laments.
Despite the challenges though, Blenn is still optimistic about helping his fellow Bicolanos. “I am actually more conscious now to include Bicol in the programs that come my way,” he says. Being familiar with the needs of the region, Blenn would like Bicol to focus on disaster preparedness and to eventually be the lead in this area of disaster management. “I’d like to see (the local government) developing policies that considers disasters in the process.” He also encourages Bicolanos to not just accept disasters to be a part of their fate but that they also need to be ready to face the effects of these disasters.
A man for others
While working as an international consultant entails traveling all over the globe, disaster management is not a glamorous job. Aside from the physical rigors of his work, Blenn also has to contend with its emotional toll. “It is not easy dealing with dead and decapitated bodies or with people searching for family members buried under rubble and ashes,” he says. But while he believes that disasters bring out both the best and the worst in people, in his case, he says that it makes him a better and stronger person. Helping people rise literally from the ashes and ravages of natural disasters makes his work worthwhile. “It makes me be the man for others that my Christian and Ateneo formation instilled in me,” he reflects.
Blenn hopes that in the course of his job, ordinary Bicolanos will eventually change their attitudes towards disasters. Instead of depending on others like the government, they should be able to help make better livable places for themselves. “They should be more aware about their own safety rather than relying on others to provide for them,” he ends.