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Prepared to make a difference

Australian volunteers who were on the ground when typhoon Haiyan hit are coming to terms with the devastation - and continuing to help Filipinos prepare for future disasters.

For Australian volunteers in the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan has been a stark reminder of why they chose to pack up their lives and leave their loved ones to volunteer overseas.

Red Cross currently has 20 Australian Volunteers for International Development in the country working with Philippine Red Cross, government agencies and partner NGOs.

From Tacloban to Canaman, each volunteer has been touched in some way by the super typhoon, driving home the very real importance of the work they are doing to help people prepare for natural disasters.

In the days since typhoon Haiyan hit Venessa Wells has been packing relief goods enroute to the disaster's epicentre - Tacloban city - and helping worried family members to find their loved ones. Her colleagues at Philippine Red Cross in Albay province are working around the clock to provide the basics - water, sanitation and food - and carry out needs assessments within devastated communities.

Fortunately Albay province was spared the worst. And although it was not in the typhoon's predicted path, local preparedness measures were no less extensive.

The province is home to Mount Mayon - one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines. Communities living at the base of the volcano are vulnerable to landslides brought on by extensive rainfall. So in the days before the disaster the Albay-Legazpi City Red Cross Chapter worked closely with the provincial government and local emergency services to evacuate more than 14,000 families from vulnerable areas.

Before the typhoon hit Venessa had been working with local staff on the implementation of disaster risk reduction and management legislation for the province. The legislation is an important tool that allocates responsibilities to organisations involved in disaster management, from the prevention and preparedness stages through to relief and recovery.

"Philippine Red Cross has a significant role in this field, we have a responsibility within the act to not only work with government but also with communities to ensure that they are prepared for disasters," says Venessa.

In the province of Camarines Sur, urban planner Michael Arman is working with the Municipal Government of Canaman to ensure disaster risk reduction is incorporated into local development. This area also escaped any major destruction, although local authorities were quick to warn residents days before Haiyan hit due to the expected wind and rain.

"Through the remainder of the week I saw people out pruning trees and stocking up on water… the fact that they were so well prepared is a small good news story in a sea of sad news stories around this typhoon," says Michael.

Canaman is particularly vulnerable to flooding and typhoons.

"We're located along the Bicol River, so the real threat around typhoons and storms is that we get the downstream flow from the river, we get the urban runoff from nearby Naga city, we get water run-off from Mount Isarog and storm surges coming up the river from San Miguel Bay. That confluence of four key factors presents real vulnerability when it floods, and it's just really hard for the water to go anywhere because the entire municipality is flat and low-lying," says Michael.

Adding to that challenge, some of the most flood-prone areas are also home to some of the municipality's poorest residents.

"The people who are most vulnerable in terms of their geography are also those who are living in houses made of nipa palms, without the resources to strengthen their homes."

For the past eight months Michael has been working with his colleagues at the municipal government to incorporate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into development and planning processes.

"What that really means is taking things like the land use plan and building approvals, and running a disaster and climate change filter over those processes," says Michael.

"In areas we know are flood prone, we're changing the zoning and developing strategies for the municipality to help relocate those people."

The local government is also planning on providing communities with information about different construction techniques and building materials, to help them build more durable homes. These combined measures have the potential to help a large number of families in the event of future disasters.

In Carcar City on the island of Cebu, typhoon Haiyan swept through as a category three storm, bringing torrential rain and frightening winds. Menaka Radhakrishnan has been based here with a newly-formed branch of Philippines Red Cross for the past six months.

"For about 30 minutes it was pretty intense. I had thought about where I'd hide and what I'd do if water came into the home," Menaka says.

Carcar escaped the worst of the storm while the neighbouring island of Leyte and the northern areas of Cebu were completely devastated. Had things gone otherwise, the new Red Cross branch meant that help was much closer to home. Already volunteers have completed disaster preparedness and first aid training.

"These volunteers really are the eyes and ears of the organisation and the simulation at the end of the two-day training is very much a realistic account of what could happen during a disaster, including responding to the wounded," says Menaka.

From implementing legislation to urban planning to training volunteers; these are just some of the projects Australian volunteers are working on with local organisations in the Philippines, ultimately helping to save lives the next time a disaster hits.