Planning August/September 2015

Back in Time in the Philippines — and Forward

The nation is struggling with the aftermath of typhoons.

By Isabel Cañete-Medina, AICP

I was on a plane headed for Tacloban. It was the summer of 2014, and as we approached the airport, many of the passengers were straining to see what they could of this devastated city in the eastern Philippines. All I saw was a line of broken trees along the coast and several pieces of construction equipment sitting on airport property. Three days before, my flight had been canceled because the airport needed runway repairs.

Nine months earlier, in November 2013, I had watched in horror as television reports of the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan (known as "Yolanda" in the Philippines) were broadcast worldwide. This was the worst typhoon ever recorded in the Philippines; it killed more than 6,300 people and caused more than $2.8 billion in damage.

The worst hit areas were in Leyte and Samar, two islands where I spent childhood vacations. I remember riding a bicycle and motorcycle around Tacloban and visiting downtown shops, attending fiestas, and visiting every house on Navarro street in Calbayog City (because we are somehow related to almost everybody in that part of town). I spent lazy summer days with my cousins running around my aunt's farm near Pinabacdao.

It was heartbreaking to see what had happened to all the islands in the path of the typhoon. I wanted to help with the relief efforts, but personal commitments couldn't be dropped at a moment's notice. All I could do was donate to charities and volunteer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs through my involvement with GISCorps. But finally, last July, I was back in Tacloban, a mid-sized city of 221,100 people.

When I landed there, my cousin's son, Jason, was waiting for me. Aboard the van, Jason asked, "We go for a tour, Tita?" (Tita is a derivative of the Spanish word, tia, meaning aunt). "Sure," I replied. Instead of beautiful beaches and interesting sites, however, this was going to be a tour of places of death and destruction.

First we drove along the coastline. This area was badly affected by the storm surge; it is where the most fatalities occurred. I could see trees snapped, trees uprooted, and the floor slabs, columns, and walls of houses washed away. A lot of debris had been pushed to one side of the street or piled at random. Five men were making fishing boats under a tent — part of a livelihood project sponsored by Oxfam International.

Farther down the road, a group of private beach houses had been destroyed; a car had toppled inside one of them. Later, Jason pointed to a badly damaged building, the Vicmar Resort Hotel. Past the hotel, I saw an area lined with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) tents — the "tent cities," as people call them. I had read several news reports about people still living in tents because the government was not building enough housing for displaced residents.

As we drove back up the coastal road and turned onto San Jose Road, Jason recounted how the son of a family friend drowned inside his van along this stretch. We then turned onto Real Street. In both roadways bodies had been piled high while government agencies undertook recovery efforts. There were photos and videos of typhoon survivors walking these streets with their faces covered to avoid breathing the stench in the air.

I saw damaged structures, destroyed houses, and tons of debris. But I also saw a lot of rebuilding going on: houses with new roofs, buildings being repaired, new structures going up. It seemed that people were finally ready to move on with their lives. As we reached the Astrodome, I remembered pictures of evacuees huddled together in this building.

We made a slight turn and entered the Magallanes area, where the fishing port is located. As our van squeezed through a very tight street, I saw a sign saying "No Build Zone," but somebody had graffitied an "X" over the word "No." Behind the sign were newly constructed shanties seemingly defying the government policy. As we passed through, I noticed that the local fish market was bustling with activity.


The author poses with her children in front of one of many ships that were washed ashore during the height of Typhoon Haiyan


At the center

From the fish market, we drove up to Magsaysay Boulevard. I looked up the hill on my left to see the Tacloban city hall. Jason told me the building was now fully functional, but the open-air amphitheater and other structures on Magsaysay Boulevard remained heaps of metal and broken glass and concrete.

Soon I saw the headquarters of the Philippine Red Cross, and on its fence a sign welcoming the organization's foreign members. Many foreigners were staying at the Leyte Park Hotel across the way. With the arrival of foreign aid agencies in Tacloban, a mini-industry has sprouted up to cater to the needs of foreign aid workers, a boost for the city's economy.

From here, we entered downtown Tacloban, the city's central business district. The last time I was here, in 2006, I walked around the port area with my cousin looking for the best binagol, a local delicacy made from taro and steamed in a coconut shell. Today the downtown didn't look much different from what I remembered. There was very little debris in the streets, and businesses seemed to be coming back. Jason said, though, that only about 150 businesses had renewed their business permits.

From downtown Jason took me to the Anibong District — one of the city's coastal communities — to see the ships. I braced myself, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The hull of a ship was sitting right next to the highway, and it was enormous. It dwarfed everything around it. It reminded me of a scene in the movie Day After Tomorrow, when a ship floated from the Atlantic Ocean onto the flooded streets of New York City. It is unbelievable that, as urban planners, we must now prepare for this kind of disaster as part of climate change — large cargo ships plowing through our communities.

Although it had been nine months since Typhoon Yolanda barreled through the city of Tacloban, and rebuilding efforts had been under way, in July 2014 the city was still in shambles. I had seen many pictures of the destruction, not only in the news, but from friends and family. But during my tour, it was still shocking to see the damage brought by this unprecedented storm — shocking and very, very sad.


Official view

During my trip to Tacloban, I made an appointment with Roberto V. Muñoz, the executive assistant for infrastructure for the city of Tacloban. He is in charge of infrastructure planning for the Tacloban Recovery and Rehabilitation Plan.

While waiting for him, I was seated in a large but sparely decorated room with some maps and posters on the wall. I was told that most of the planning work was being done downstairs in coordination with various international agencies and consultants. The city has an in-house planning staff of about 10 employees. For the development of the plan, the city was working in partnership with UN Habitat.

During our conversation, Muñoz said that the plan had been submitted to the national government in March 2014. That plan contains the national policy mandating no-build zones within 40 meters (44 yards) of the coastline, but that policy was being modified, Muñoz said, because of questions about properties located within the 40-meter zone. A revised policy is likely to delineate areas into safe zones, unsafe zones, and no-dwelling zones. As of June, updates to the city's zoning ordinance were still being discussed in the legislative chambers.

When I asked about people continuing to build in no-build zones, he said that the city government was telling people to wait before they rebuild because the zoning designations were still in process — and because new and rebuilt structures might have to be removed once a revised zoning ordinance is implemented. The city was trying its best, he said, to dissuade people from rebuilding in unsafe areas.

We then talked about the lack of housing. Muñoz informed me that the TRRP had designated areas in the northern part of the municipality, where new housing will be built. "As you know, recovery can be a slow process," he said. "It was the same thing with Hurricane Katrina." It will take years before the infrastructure and the permanent housing is in place, he said, but meanwhile, the city is coordinating with the national government, various NGOs, and aid agencies to speed up the provision of temporary housing for typhoon survivors.


Recovery has been slow, and despite the risk of another disaster, some residents are resettling along the coastline for lack of better options


What's next

Would the city's development pattern change significantly after Typhoon Yolanda? Muñoz said that it would continue to follow the future land-use plan that was included in the city's comprehensive land-use plan for 2013 to 2022. The airport and downtown areas would remain where they are. One change, though, is that the city will now be pushing for more urban expansion in areas north of the city that have been identified as safe areas. For danger and high-risk zones, planners proposed controlled, low-density growth.

To reduce disaster risk, the city's recovery plan was proposing environmental and infrastructure strategies that would make the coastline more resilient to storm surges, such as replanting mangroves and building levees. Muñoz said the city was finalizing the TRRP so that the national government and aid agencies could disburse the funds needed for reconstruction.

After that brief meeting, I left city hall feeling confident that the city was indeed hard at work in making plans for reconstruction and recovery. I had read through the TRRP and other official reports, and they contained many sound approaches to climate change resiliency. As in all planning endeavors, the question is how much will be implemented.


The Yolanda survivor

On a visit to one of the tent cities, we happened to meet a typhoon survivor whose family had built a new home right on the shoreline. Her family had one of those UNHCR tents but next to it had built a one-room shanty. They used tarp and plastic materials from various aid agencies, scrap metal sheets and plywood, wooden posts and beams, round concrete footings, big planters, a patio umbrella, and shells for decorative effect.

What struck me most was the family's resiliency and resourcefulness. By building this house, they were saying, "We are ready to move on with our lives. We want our home back." Still, it was heart-wrenching to see a sign boarded on the wall of their makeshift toilet room that said "We Need Help."

During my conversation with this survivor, I asked her why her family and others were rebuilding near the shore, where dwellings are officially prohibited. She said the government had not offered any housing and they were still living in tents. I told her about the temporary housing settlements being constructed up north, where typhoon survivors would be relocated. Would she want to move there? She said that the replacement housing up north was too far from jobs, and she had heard that water was scarce and that the area gets muddy when it rains. She added that public transport was hard to come by in the north settlement area.

I asked her if she would resettle elsewhere if decent housing were available. She said that of course she would, but until those options are available, her family will be staying where they are, trying to get on with their lives.

As a professional urban planner, I was struck by this dilemma. To make good plans, planners need to be thorough in order to do things right. Also, a city's recovery from such a catastrophic event will require time and money. But as a citizen, I feel that there must be a way to meet the current needs of the survivors. Governments, and especially relief agencies, know how to meet food, water, and medical needs immediately after a disaster strikes. The next step may be for organizations to get better at providing post-disaster recovery aid and assistance.


Learning from the past

Another typhoon tore through the Philippines in December 2014. Super Typhoon Hagupit spared Tacloban but landed in the eastern part of neighboring Samar Island. This time the nation was better prepared. Although there was still considerable infrastructure damage, very few people died. National and local governments quickly evacuated residents and deployed the resources needed for immediate disbursement of relief supplies. Citizens followed evacuation orders. Nobody wanted a repeat of Yolanda. Many were able to return to their homes as soon as the typhoon had passed.

On my visit to Tacloban last summer, two days before my scheduled return to Manila, Typhoon Glenda — packing winds of 112 mph — was heading straight for the city. The storm ultimately lost power, but that night I stayed awake listening to the howling wind. I felt uneasy, but then thought to myself, in a month I will be flying back to Chicago, and these people are staying here.

Every year some 20 tropical storms make landfall in the Philippines. Yolanda survivors have been very brave. But if climate change continues, they will have to be even stronger and more resilient.

Isabel Cañete-Medina was born and grew up in the Philippines. She has a MURP degree from the University of Miami School of Architecture and an MDesS from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is the cofounder and managing principal of cmQue, inc., a transportation planning firm based in Evanston, Illinois.



Images: Top — The author poses with her children in front of one of many ships that were washed ashore during the height of Typhoon Haiyan. Bottom — Recovery has been slow, and despite the risk of another disaster, some residents are resettling along the coastline for lack of better options. Photos by Isabel Cañete-Medina