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Generating light and hope

In a disaster zone, Habitat’s mobile emergency response unit offers lifesaving power

By Soyia Ellison

BOHOL, Philippines (Dec. 1, 2013) — Even in times of calamity, there are moments of joy.

Three days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, Jean Adelaide Piezas gave birth to a boy she named Zach. (Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison)

On Nov. 11 — three days after Typhoon Haiyan raged across the Philippines and 27 days after a deadly earthquake rocked the island of Bohol — Jean Adelaide Piezas gave birth to a boy she named Zach.

All around her was chaos, but looking at her son for the first time, her only thought was, “He’s perfect.”

Zach was born in the town of Clarin, in a tent hospital put up by Habitat for Humanity Philippines, which also lent the hospital a generator so that doctors and nurses would have light and power to do their lifesaving work.

“We were so blessed that the team from Habitat was still here and had a generator,” said Clarin’s mayor, Allen Piezas (and Jean’s distant relative).

HAMER to the rescue

Like many towns on Bohol, Clarin lost its medical center to the earthquake that struck on Oct. 15. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 200 people on the island and damaged or destroyed more than 71,000 homes. Bridges collapsed, roads crumbled and hospitals and other buildings cracked. Many residents were left without electricity, safe drinking water or food.

The crew of Habitat for Humanity’s mobile emergency response unit — known as the HAMER — worked with Philippines Navy Seabees to put up tent hospitals in eight towns in the aftermath of Haiyan. (Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison)

Habitat for Humanity was one of the first organizations on the ground after the earthquake, deploying staff members to assess damage and sending in its HAMER truck to help with repairs. The HAMER — pronounced “hammer” and short for Habitat Mobile Emergency Response — is filled with construction tools, including a generator, and exists for just such crises. At the request of the national government, Habitat and the HAMER worked with a battalion of Philippines Navy Seabees to put up tent hospitals in eight towns.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck, knocking out power that had only recently been restored, the HAMER was in Clarin. The HAMER generator not only powered the hospital, it also made it possible for residents to charge flashlights and cellphones.

Seven pounds of perfection

The generator made all the difference for 18-year-old Jean Piezas, who was well into labor when she arrived at the makeshift hospital at 6 a.m. on Nov. 11. A second storm system was dumping rain on Clarin, and Piezas was terrified. These were not the conditions she had imagined for the birth of her son.

“I was quite frightened that the baby wouldn’t come out normal,” she said. “It was my first baby, and there was no electricity.”

But five hours later, she gave birth to seven pounds of perfection.

“I am very thankful that there was a generator available,” she said. “I would have been at risk with no power and no light. I would have been frightened that the baby might not live.”

‘We really needed electricity’

Nurse Maria Cleo Beth Dave was in the delivery room that morning. In addition to seeing to the arrival of Zach and at least one other baby, during the three days Habitat was there, she and her coworkers treated accident victims, asthma sufferers and children suffering from diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water.

“The generator was very helpful,” she said. “We really needed electricity, especially for deliveries and emergencies.”

Piezas is already back in college, where she is studying business education. She and Zach live in a tidy, two-room house with her in-laws while her husband works at a water filling station nearly four hours away.

Her dreams for her son are much like any new mother’s anywhere. Someday, she hopes, Zach will be “a very successful man.”

When her son is old enough, she said, she will tell him the story of his extraordinary birth — after the earthquake, after the typhoon, in a tent, with lights powered by a generator provided by a shelter organization named Habitat for Humanity.