TACLOBAN/MANILA, Philippines — Lorna Per, 19, was pregnant when super typhoon Yolanda’s powerful storm surge swept into Leyte, claiming her husband as he tried to protect her from being swept away.
“My world turned upside down. I still remember very well the dirty, murky water drowning my family and my neighbors. Many have died and been left homeless. How can one forget November 8?” Per said as she held back her tears, recalling the horrific day one year ago.
Yolanda affected 171 cities and municipalities in 14 provinces and six regions, destroying or damaging more than a million homes, leaving more than 6,000 people dead — at least by the official count — and a thousand more missing, and displacing some 4.1 million.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, in a report released in September, said Yolanda caused the largest displacement in the world last year.
Even as government, caught unprepared by the magnitude of the disaster, struggled to cobble together a credible response, the international community and aid organizations, both foreign and local, swiftly mobilized, sending huge amounts of aid and manpower as millions of dollars were pledged towards relief and recovery.
Despite this, a year on, progress on a large enough scale remains hard to come by in the provinces struck by Yolanda.
And for many, the search for loved ones lost to the storm continues even as they struggle to rebuild their lives and communities.
This is not to say no work has taken place.
Signs of recovery dot the landscape.
The Tacloban public market is bustling again a year since Yolanda (photo by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com)
Yet this pales when one considers that a year after, close to 1 million people remain in makeshift shelters and bunkhouses “dangerously exposed to future typhoons,” as the international aid agency Oxfam noted in a report.
Thousands remain jobless or have yet to regain their means of livelihood, especially farmers and small fisherfolk.
In many places, the rubble from damaged homes and infrastructure has yet to be cleared.
Even the government has acknowledged that rehabilitation seems to be taking too long even if officials maintain that things are right where they expected them to be a year after Yolanda, given the complexity of the problems the country faces.
Rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson said the signing of the P167.9-billion Yolanda Comprehensive and Rehabilitation Plan by President Benigno Aquino III, 10 days before the first anniversary of the disaster, would help speed up the rehabilitation work.
The 8,000-page, eight-volume masterplan was submitted to Malacanang by the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR), which Lacson heads, on August 1.
“It did not come out of thin air. It was borne out of horizontal integration of national agencies that OPARR organized into five clusters each headed by a Cabinet Secretary and the vertical integration of data contributed by the different local government units across the Yolanda corridor,” and made possible through an innovative top-down/bottom up approach which was not tried before,” Lacson told Interaksyon.com.
The plan lists the funding requirements for the following areas of work:
Infrastructure — P35,148,634,408
Social Services — P26,406,233,815
Resettlement — P75,678,683,100
Livelihood — P30,631,237,230
Lacson, a former senator and national police chief, lamented that many people see the rehabilitation effort as a half-empty glass.
“It’s ironic and unfortunate that what we hear from our fellow Filipinos within and outside the Yolanda corridor are negative commentaries and at times cruel criticisms,” even as “foreign observers like those from the United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and other international NGO’s who have had vast experiences in assisting rehabilitation efforts in other calamity stricken countries around the globe have consistently commended the rehabilitation and recovery efforts of the Philippine government as topping even Banda Aceh in Indonesia which is considered as the role model by the international community in reconstruction and rehabilitation.”
Lacson’s claim was backed by the Asian Development Bank which, in a recent forum, said rehabilitation efforts in Eastern Visayas were “moving faster” than that in in Aceh, Indonesia, when it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami 10 years ago
Stephen Groff, ADB vice president on East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, estimated that reconstruction in Yolanda-devastated areas could take four to five years, which he said is the usual amount of time it takes for areas in similar situations to recover.
A temporary shelter in Barangay Sto. Nino, Tacloban City (photo by Imelda Abano, InterAksyon.com)
Local and international aid organizations have pledged to continue supporting the rehabilitation process.
Luisa Carvalho, United Nations Country Team resident and humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, said, “building back better will be a complex and long process, particularly the rehabilitation of human settlements and the restoration of livelihoods.”
The UN Humanitarian Country Team served roughly 3.7 million people with food assistance; 82,000 mothers given feeding counsel; 23,000 pregnant and lactating women with prenatal and postnatal care; almost 1 million people with rehabilitated water systems; 350,000 with new or rehabilitated latrines; 570,000 households with emergency shelter; 162,000 households with emergency employment; 102,000 people provided information on prevention and management of gender-based violence in emergencies; 20,101 young people provided with information and services on health and protection; and 100,000 farmers with agricultural seeds and tools.
These were done in partnership with national agencies, local governments, donors, private sector, and civil society.
Carvalho said 4,900 temporary learning spaces were created, 545,000 children received learning materials, and public health outbreaks were effectively prevented.
The French business community also reaffirmed its commitment to complete two reconstruction projects in Northern Cebu early next year.
The France-Philippines United Action, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, has built 74 disaster-resilient houses on a 5,488-square-meter site in Barangay Agujo, Daanbantayan, Cebu. The houses will be handed over to selected families before Christmas.
According to the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAITH, www.gov.ph.faith), the government’s online information portal for international calamity aid and assistance, total foreign aid pledged have reached P73.307 billion (P45.109 billion cash, P28.198 billion non-cash).
Of this amount, the government has received P17.248 billion broken down into: P1.195 billion, total cash received by government; P1.269 billion, total non-cash received by government; and, P14.760 billion total received by non-government organizations, multilateral groups, and others.
Aid too slow?
Given this huge amount of assistance, why then has help been slow in reaching survivors, lawmakers, especially those whose constituents were battered by the typhoon, have been asking.
“Judging from what I have been reading, there has been too much delay. Between the time of devastation and today, what we have seen thus far are plans and blueprints. The Executive must begin implementing,” Deputy Speaker Giorgidi Aggabao said.
With the rehabilitation masterplan finally approved, he said, government should now be making “bold moves” to show tangible benefits to the people, especially in terms of permanent housing and jobs.
AKO Bicol party-list Representative Rodel Batocabe stressed the need for improved response time and government agencies’ absorptive capacity to carry out the rehabilitation work.
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, a staunch Palace ally and a stalwart of the ruling Liberal Party whose province was one of those that bore the brunt of the disaster, asked the Aquino administration to further intensify the programs for creating livelihood and permanent housing for the victims.
“The rehabilitation and reconstruction of public infrastructures are going on,” he said. “What should be given extra push are livelihood projects such as small agri-business, fishing, and farming, among others and resettlement.”
“Sadly the situation in the Yolanda areas has yet to normalize (and) a lot of the victims have yet to regain their footing as government’s best plans have yet to gain traction,” Abakada party-list Representative Jonathan dela Cruz said. “It will probably take sometime before the residents of the affected areas get back on their feet and move on.”
But Gabriela party-list Representative Luz Ilagan described the government’s response as “another disaster.”
“From the very start, when politics reared its ugly head, the survivors were doomed,” she said. “It’s been a year and yet many of the dead are not yet buried! Should that not have been the priority? Even the accounting of the casualties is a victim of P-Noy’s strange and stubborn refusal to accept the truth that the deaths reached more than 10,000.”
She described relief operations as selective and in disarray and said, “Only the valiant efforts of private groups saved the day.”
Proof of this “ineptitude and politicking,” she added, were the rotten relief goods that somehow ended up being distributed to survivors but for which no one has been punished.
Besides this, Ilagan said, “today, many survivors need counseling. Many have no income. The promised bunkhouses are cheap, flimsy and inadequate. They also suspiciously cost a lot. A dismal failure. Even with the appointment of a rehabilitation czar, what can he show as performance? Where did the billions of donations go?”
Makeshift homes rebuilt in a ‘no-build zone’ on the Tacloban shoreline (photo by Imelda Abano, InterAksyon.com)
Restoring livelihood, providing safe shelter
While acknowledging there has been “substantial improvement” in infrastructure since Yolanda struck, Evardone said government needs to intensify its efforts to provide permanent and safe housing to survivors and restore their sources of livelihood.
Yolanda practically wiped out the coconut trees in the Eastern Visayas provinces it struck, depriving residents of their main source of living.
“Coconut trees do not grow in a month or two. It takes five to seven years to grow one. Meantime, what will the farmers do?” Evardone said in a phone interview.
The free vegetable seeds given to farmers as an alternative source of livelihood did not amount to much because of the lack of markets for their produce.
“Nakatambak na iyong mga gulay nila, ang problema, hindi naman nila lahat maibenta. May pagkain nga sila, wala namang pera (The vegetables were already stocked but the problem is they could not sell it all. They had food but no money),” Evardone said.
And while the Philippine Coconut Authority distributed coconut seeds, many of these were of poor quality.
As for housing, Evardone said: “It’s easy to give them (survivors) GI sheets so they could build their homes, but their homes are still sitting in the same dangerous spots, vulnerable to another storm surge.”
Questions of land ownership, exacerbated by the destruction of property and records, and the lack of public land where the survivors can build new homes, are thorny matters that the government should be addressing, he stressed.
Evardone lamented that some unscrupulous landowners jacked up the prices of their properties on learning that government was interested in buying these.
Ground zero, Tacloban
Like Per, more than 25,000 people in Leyte’s capital, one of the worst hit by the disaster, continue to live in makeshift shelters, bunkhouses and tents as they try to rebuild their lives.
Mayor Alfred Romualdez said many lessons have been learned from the Yolanda experience, among these that collaboration between and among local government units and the national government is vital in the event of such disasters.
One of the ships swept ashore by super typhoon Yolanda in Barangay Anibong, Tacloban City. Work to dismantle the vessel is ongoing. (photo by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com)
“In a disaster as enormous as Haiyan (Yolanda’s international name), there were competing priorities. Coordination and preparation are two important things we need to consider. The national government must understand that in the case of Tacloban City, I admit that there was a lack of manpower, lack of provision of services and emergency operations considering the big population of the city at that time,” Romualdez said.
Asked about the priorities of the local government now, Romualdez said they drafted a nine-year Tacloban master plan prioritizing a more resilient economy, sustainable environment, a holistic approach and planning in all agencies, integrating urban planning and sustainable programs.
According to the Tacloban master plan, the city already had a complex and growing housing problem long before Yolanda.
The previous housing backlog, estimated to be 17,859 households, worsened after the typhoon destroyed or damaged 54,231 houses in the city, at least 10,000 of these belonging to poor families and informal settlers living along coastal areas hit by the storm surge.
But to date, only 400 permanent houses have been constructed.
Aron Agner, camp manager of the bunkhouses provided by the National Housing Authority in Sagkahan for 315 families, or 1,457 people, said while the government has been providing relief goods and other basic services for the survivors, many of the families still complain of overcrowding, limited sanitation and lack of livelihood.
“We have been trying to address the needs of the families who are now living in bunkhouses but we admit that the assistance has not been enough, which is why some of them decided to go back to their houses in the coastal communities,” Agner said.
Although the national government imposed a 40-meter “no build zone” from the shoreline, many makeshift shelters, tents and houses have been rebuilt in these areas.
“We cannot blame those people as most of the families live in the fishing communities here. But eventually, they will be offered permanent housing to move them out of the danger zones,” Agner said.
Rebuilt houses and makeshift shelters in Barangay Anibong, Tacloban City beside a sign designating the area a ‘no-build zone.’ (photo by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com)
The NHA is planning to construct about 205,393 permanent houses within the next few years.
“Rebuilding takes time,” Andrew Martin, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) in Tacloban, explained. “Most people prefer to have permanent houses, but it will take a long time so it is better to give them a better solution that is giving them an option to stay for a few months in bunk houses or transitional shelters.”
He stressed that the provision of basic services from various UN agencies and donors was considered in building the transitional houses, which are made of coco lumber. The provision of livelihood opportunities is for the local government to act on.
Blame game no more
Mayor Romualdez admits that should another massive storm hit the city and nearby provinces again, the outcome could be much the same as Yolanda unless the local and national governments collaborate and a fuller understanding of disaster risk management is acquired.
“It will be very difficult for us to cope, but the good thing is we have learned our lessons and people are now more aware and it has created a culture of resilience,” Romualdez said. “This is not the time to point fingers or blame each other. I cannot avoid politics but I think we should push for good politics as our mandate and accountability is to the people we serve.”
The mayor said he had been pushing for the creation of a separate disaster agency to address disaster preparedness of cities and provinces, a place for scientific data bank, capacity building for local government units and an office focused on disaster efforts.
However, Gerry Arances of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice blasted the rehabilitation efforts in Yolanda-hit areas.
“After one year, without a clear people-centered rehabilitation plan, tens of thousands still living in tents and bunkhouses, no substantial economic activities and sustainable jobs, among others, we can fairly say that what the government has done is add more insult to injury for our kababayan who have suffered the wrath of typhoon Yolanda and are still continuously suffering (because of) the ineptness of this government,” Arances said.
Climate Walk for Yolanda
Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Sano, who has embarked on a 40-day “climate walk” dedicated to the victims of typhoon Yolanda with members of nongovernmental organizations under Aksyon Klima, said they hope to draw underscore the urgency of addressing climate change.
The group marched from Luneta in Manila and will end their long walk at the San Juanico Bridge in Tacloban City on November 8.
“The walk will also chronicle stories of the experiences of people on the ground facing climate impacts. After the walk, we will bring the voices of the most vulnerable to the international climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru in December to alarm the world on the devastating impacts of the changing climate in vulnerable countries like the Philippines,” Sano said.
“Climate change is the defining issue of our generation,” he stressed. “We will be measured by how we respond to this crisis. The world must find the courage and muster the political will to avert this crisis.”
An electric jeepney drives past a house under construction in Tacloban City. (photo by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.com)
Slowly but surely
Lacson said the combined efforts of the government and nongovernment sectors have resulted in the completion and still ongoing construction of more than 9,000 housing units, which he acknowledges is a “low 4.5 percent accomplishment for the resettlement cluster.”
Nevertheless, the rehabilitation czar explained, “This is not without a cogent reason. One of the biggest challenges that we face is finding suitable sites or multi-hazard free locations to resettle the big number of houses previously situated in the unsafe zones.”
Lacson said now that Aquino has given the go-signal to implement the master plan, the National Housing Authority is prepared to build all but 40,000 of the more than 200,000 housing units in safe zones for Yolanda survivors.
Completion of almost all the housing units is targeted by June 2016.
Lacson said he is also working to ensure zero leakage in the use of Yolanda funds through eMPATHY, or the Electronic Management Platform: Accountability and Transparency Hub for Yolanda.
“Consider this — a mere one per cent leakage from the P167 billion would translate into P1.67 billion in wasted taxpayers’ money,” he said.
He said eMPATHY will be a mechanism to capture and monitor all the 18,600 projects, programs and activities listed in the master plan from the time these are awarded to completion.
Completing about 80 percent of the rehabilitation plan by the end of the Aquino’s term in 2016 will be an achievement for Lacson.
“It is definitely realizable or can even be exceeded. Why? I will base my projection on the observations shared by foreign observers who saw and participated in other rehabilitation efforts in many parts of the world that were hit by similarly huge disasters,” he said.
“They are almost one in saying that the Philippine government is addressing the rehabilitation efforts at a much faster pace than what they saw and experienced in the other countries that they had been to,” Lacson added.
But for the hundreds of thousands of Yolanda survivors who remain without adequate shelter and livelihood one year after their lives were shattered, nothing can be fast enough.