Stricken Filipino City Finally Rebuilds

Ridge View Park has a fancy ring to it, a name more in keeping with modern, upscale real estate expansion in major cities across the Philippines. But in Tacloban, the site of the typhoon disaster that took place more than 15 months ago, this housing subdivision will be given to poor families whose shanties were wiped out.

Super Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, is arguably the most powerful storm ever to make landfall. It hit the island of Leyte on Nov. 7, 2013, with sustained one-minute winds at 315 kilometers per hour, making it the strongest tropical storms ever observed. But it was a 4.5 meter storm surge, more than the winds, that demolished Tacloban.

The ferocity of the storm, and the stunning damage it did as it swept across the island of Leyte, drew unprecedented international attention, Local and national agencies deployed a collective 18,177 personnel, 844 vehicles, 44 seagoing vessels, and 31 aircraft for various operations, according to news reports. Critics condemned the government both for its apparent lack of preparation and coordination among government agencies. Five days after the typhoon had passed through, survivors continued to face a lack of the barest necessities.

Thus, after the relief effort got underway, rebuilding Tacloban and the rest of Leyte became a test of the Aquino administration’s commitment to putting the hard-hit region back together.

Building a township from scratch, especially in a country whose infrastructure is substandard at best, is, linking roads to markets, putting back electricity and running water, opening schools for children. Amilah Rodil, field coordinator for the U.N. agency Habitat, said the city’s immediate solution was for a huge relocation instead of qualifying hazard areas for “no-build” neighborhoods and others needing a warning system against the typhoons that come often enough year after year.

“It might take a decade or two” to see a transformation happening, she said. “A lot of agencies have to be on the same page. It can turn out nice but the city is under pressure to show they’re doing something. There was no room to think of other solutions. When a disaster happens, the tendency is to create something new and it’s hard to do this, people just want to get back to where they were before.”

“You have yet to see if it’s going to be successful. Will people live there? Will it make their lives better?”

Ridge View Park’s rapid construction is part of a half dozen housing projects sitting on100-hectares a good distance from the city center, which in the wake of the calamity was apocalyptic wasteland. About 14,000 impoverished families are to benefit from it, according to the city hall, which is trying to catch up with a deadline for what it envisions as a new township farther away from the risk of storm surges.

Ridge View Park looks like any basic series of wall-to-wall apartment blocks, spartan in design and lacking in aesthetics, sitting on a plain with a view of rugged hills. But for the victims who will make this their homes, it will be grand compared to the squatter colonies they had been living in, shacks put together from bits of wood, ragged pieces of tarpaulin and iron sheets.

“This is beautiful because it’s made of concrete,” said Elsie Apolinar, whose husband was among more than 7,000 people who perished or remain missing from the typhoon. Her family, with three children who survived, was picked in a draw of lots organized by the local government, requiring her to pay Php200 (US4.52) monthly for the next 30 years – possibly more after a two-year period – to have the property in her name.

If all goes well, the other housing projects, with names such as Villa Diana, North Hills Arbors, Salvacion Heights, are expected to be completed by the fourth quarter of this year. That might be an optimistic timetable given the usual bureaucratic delays the government is known for and the demands of a partnership with the private sector. But “we’re getting parts of the puzzle done,” said Maria Lagman, who is in charge of the city hall’s housing division. “We’ve gone this far in spite of the problems.”

The recovery of Tacloban City has been wracked with politics, confusion, and lack of preparation on top of the shock and grief. President Benigno Aquino III had to put in place a special office to quicken the pace after government agencies tasked by law were supposed to have come up with a master plan on the basis of a “post-disaster needs assessment” report, but saddled with inordinate delays.

By late 2014, roughly a year after Haiyan struck, the master plan put together by the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Rehabilitation and Recovery [OPARR] was approved by the president, covering 175 towns and cities in provinces affected within a 50-kilometer radius of the typhoon’s landfall.

Tacloban City alone, the capital of Leyte province and a trading hub in the eastern Visayas region, needed PHP1 billion to repair damaged houses and buildings.

The OPARR however was in itself crippled by a lack of funds and relied heavily on help from private donors, mostly major companies and foundations, and aid from US humanitarian agencies. But in the process it managed to pool in from the government side about one-third of a total budget worth PHP170 billion (US$3.7 billion) to help rebuild the provinces.

“If the attitude is business as usual, nothing will happen,” said one OPARR official who asked not to be named. “Government is noted for being slow, the international community is watching and they wouldn’t want to be embarrassed.”

That done, the presidential appointee Panfilo Lacson, called by the press the “rehab czar,” stepped down, saying he had no power to achieve the massive undertaking other than coordinating efforts between government and private groups. Time is running fast for Tacloban City to lead as an example, and the housing projects that are designed to expand from the urban clutter and away from the danger zones might face obstacles as the national elections draw near by 2016, with new officials possibly changing plans that have already been started.

In Ridge View Park, Elsie Apolinar is among the first of the families to occupy one of the standard 22-square meter houses. She has turned part of it into a store selling cigarettes and provisions to the construction workers on site, and most of the time they buy from her on credit. Here she feels isolated, she said. Her friends from the old shanties come to visit her. Her children have to walk a few kilometers to be able to catch a public ride for school.

Other families have been staying in temporary wooden bunkhouses and others more have gone back to where they used to be by the shore where the storm surge claimed so many lives, having again set up their shelters from scraps of materials they could get their hands on. They have not been ordered by the local authorities to leave, perhaps while waiting for a chance of their life to be given new homes.