Anna Velas-Suarin

Adopt-a-Community: Embarking on Relief and Rehabilitation After Yolanda

An aerial view of a coastal village in Concepcion, Iloilo after Yolanda. (Photo  credits: Iloilo Provincial Administrator, Dr. Raul Banias/AFP, shared through

An aerial view of a coastal village in Concepcion, Iloilo after Yolanda. (Photo credits: Iloilo Provincial Administrator, Dr. Raul Banias/AFP, shared through

Super Typhoon Yolanda had left us wondering what hit us. Described by many scientists as among the strongest typhoons ever recorded, it caused the loss of more than 2,000 lives and is estimated to lead to economic losses of about $12 to 14 billion. (Source of data on economic losses: Charles Watson, Kinetic Analysis Corporation, as reported in International Business Times, 13 November 2013.)

Almost a week after the disaster, we hear news of bodies still strewn around on the streets and sidewalks, looting and chaos, unorganized relief efforts, and weak disaster management by both the local and national governments. While this is not the time for finger-pointing, it is important that we recognize the hard lessons from this very unfortunate event so that we can move on and start rebuilding.

What went wrong and how can we effectively manage the relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction efforts? Below are take-off points, which may, hopefully, reach the authorities fast and be seriously considered in the drawing of a plan post-Yolanda and even in long-term disaster risk reduction and management planning.

1. Understanding the science behind natural disasters (particularly those that are climate-related). It is very important that the people truly understand the science of natural disasters. Terms such as “super typhoon” or “storm surge” must be described in simple and layman’s terms (graphic, if need be) and disseminated widely particularly to those who are most vulnerable (e.g., residents in coastal communities). However, it is necessary that awareness-building is intrinsically-linked in our daily lives and not just something that we do during the typhoon season.

The first step begins in incorporating climate change and disaster response in the country’s educational system. This is slowly being done but there should be more concrete steps about it. The development of a national mentoring /teaching plan for climate change adaptation and disaster response and management should be done and such a plan must be adopted by all elementary and high schools in the Philippines. Children, young and old alike, should understand climate-related challenges and issues completely. Awareness begins the process of empowerment, which redounds to the benefit of their families (and their communities). (By the way, SEAMEO has already developed a very useful handbook on how to integrate climate change issues in the school curriculum so please visit this link for more details.)

The next step is ensuring that the LGUs (including local executives) are part of the education process. For example, after Yolanda, local chief executives (and even national leaders) had admitted to being ‘shocked’ by the sheer strength of Yolanda. They knew it was going to be strong but no one had foreseen such an unimaginable impact and dimension. As we see it now, no one thought that most of Tacloban City (and the other affected communities) will be submerged in coastal waters because of storm surge.

2. Development of a climate change and disaster response toolkit. The strategy above needs a strong knowledge management (KM) component. A communications plan that will not gather dust in government desks and shelves should be localized and widely used, like a “Bible”. A helpful material, for example, is a climate change and disaster response toolkit for LGUs, uniquely packaged based on local conditions (e.g., the toolkit of a Samar coastal community should be different from the toolkit of an upland community in Oriental Mindoro). This toolkit should have detailed disaster risk maps and complete guide to preparing for and management of disasters.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Climate Change Commission can be the lead agencies for this. It brings to mind the heartbreaking speech of Mr. Naderev Saño, the country’s climate change commissioner, during the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland. As I said in an online forum–I am currently attending a non-formal course related to climate change–“I salute him for having the courage to stand up for the people and challenging global leaders to act fast.”

His appeal should always be remembered. “I also believe that participation in global meetings is very important. However, governments should go beyond pronouncements because they carry the inherent responsibility and power to make a huge difference in equipping local executives in responding to situations that they do not yet completely grasp. In the case of coastal towns/cities like Tacloban, Palo, and Guiuan, local chief executives should be thoroughly equipped so they know how to prepare. For example, if they understood the complete picture (including the terminologies), they would automatically know that their usual evacuation sites are not really going to be safe anymore. Even the simple preparation of providing life vests, for example, for those in the coastal areas, could have saved lives. (Although it may be wiser to go to higher and safer grounds in such locations where the danger of storm surges is imminent.) Developing such tool kits is not going to cost much. They can also be developed through partnerships with the private sector. A more pro-active approach, even through small steps, will certainly mean more in terms of saving people’s lives and resources.” [Quoted material is mostly lifted from my statement in the online forum mentioned above. For more details about the course, please visit this link.]

3. Localizing disaster preparedness but remembering that the locals may be affected, too. The law on disaster risk reduction (RA 10121) mandated the creation of Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Councils and this is an important step. Yes, we have the Local Government Code (LGC) and believe in local empowerment. However, in natural disasters, the locals are the ones directly affected and they include local government employees. That means, even local executives and public servants with strong capacity and the best intents, may be immobilized also. Local chief executives and their social workers, doctors, and policemen need to deal with the loss and trauma of their loved ones, too. It is therefore, wiser not to rely on them during the first week/s of the relief phase. (See also no. 5 below.)

4. Adopting communities as entry point for relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction (3Rs). It is always easy to point fingers. In the news and social media, we hear of government officials (with the ‘support’ of the media) pointing at one another, trying to figure out who is to be blamed for what seems to be a disorganized way of dealing with the 3Rs. Even international media has apparently joined the fray. It is indeed a tempting place; where one can easily conclude who is doing what wrongly. After a while, one gets tired of listening to the witch-hunting and asks, “What can we do then?” I believe that the LGC, while still an imperfect law, has equipped many LGUs in the country already and they are the perfect source of ‘people power’ (provided that they had been been thoroughly equipped in disaster management as well).

Why not ask an LGU for example, to adopt Palo, Leyte or Guiuan, Eastern Samar? Let a “sister” LGU or a group of LGUs help either of them to recover. It need not be a single LGU/entity holding the hands of the affected communities. Help can come from private corporations or even non-government organizations like Gawad Kalinga or Habitat for Humanity. The idea is for a single unit of affected community (e.g., Guiuan) to be directly adopted and assisted by another LGU (or group of LGUs) or private sector organizations. What is happening these days is that there are so many help and pledges coming from all directions but efforts seems so scattered that many affected communities have not been adequately reached yet by basic relief goods such as food and water. This “adopt-a-community” approach will lead to more focused and directed efforts, minimizing wastes and maximizing resources. Funds can come from the national coffers (and donations). (Let us not expect the “mentor-sister LGUs” to shell out significant funds for the affected community because the LGC is still mostly an ‘unfunded’ law….but that can be a topic for another blog post!)

5. Short and long-term planning for infrastructural reconstruction. After very disastrous natural calamities, communities often have to deal with the destruction of power, transportation, and telecommunication structures. In the aftermath of Yolanda, many communities lost telecommunications facilities that it was difficult at first to ascertain the extent of the damage. Even  network reporters had to wait for several hours to reconnect to their Manila headquarters. Roads had also been blocked by fallen trees, posts, debris, and human and animal remains that it was challenging to deliver relief goods and bring medical and humanitarian services at the most opportune time. In a country like the Philippines, we should no longer have excuses such as “not expecting the intensity of super typhoons like Yolanda”. I think the line, “I did not imagine such a magnitude”, while understandable, should already be banned from our vocabulary (and mentality). We should remain hopeful and steadfast but be more realistic and prepared for the worst.

Therefore, we should expect that roads will be destroyed and become full of debris and that power and telecommunication lines will be damaged or torn down. We should already expect those consequences and, therefore, planning one day before or after a disaster is definitely not the right time. We should plan way, way ahead of the disasters. Let us be inspired by the culture of ants. They religiously and meticulously save for the rainy days; they expect the rainy days to be harsh. And the size of our brains is way way bigger than the ants’ (!).

Short- and long-term plans should include manpower component. For example, we cannot expect local engineers and policemen to clear the roads or repair the telecommunication towers! They and their families had been affected, too, remember? A disaster strikes? So what? A contingent from specific organizations (through the DPWH, for example) had already been planned (and booked on an on-call basis) since 3 or even 12 months ago. A team is ready to clear the roads on Day 1. A government/private plane is automatically assigned to them early on, during the planning stage. It will be like pushing a button, with everyone knowing what to do or where to go immediately after a strong typhoon.

Long-term planning should be based on feasibility studies. For example, can the Philippines consider putting underground cables for power and telecommunication lines instead of overhead? We expect about 11 to 25 typhoons in a year (NSCB cited that for the years 2004-2007, the number increased to 39), and yet, our power lines are all overhead. There are geological and environmental concerns that must be thoroughly analyzed and evaluated, however, underground cabling might be a more practical approach. Definitely, underground cabling costs more in the beginning but considering the costs of constantly rebuilding power and telecommunication lines, it may be a good prospect for the future. I know that there are already a few housing developers who have built private villages with underground cable network (one such model is in Tagaytay) so those cases must be studied. The Philippines is in the “Ring of Fire” and, indeed, utmost care and best technologies are needed in developing an underground cabling system.  Nevertheless, we can learn from countries like Japan–an earthquake-prone country as well–where there are already many underground cabling systems in place. (Singapore is also among Asian countries that are already utilizing underground cabling.)

Stand-alone power facilities may also be the answer to perennial power outages due to strong typhoons. Renewable energy-based systems are good candidates for stand-alone facilities because they can harness local sources of power. And they are certainly more earth-friendly!

We should also review our housing design and materials. While storm surges may ultimately drown even the strongest of houses, our shelters, in the right locations and in the appropriate design and materials, should always give us a true sense of security. Indeed, poverty prevents us from building stronger and more resilient houses. However, indigenous materials and technologies still have strong potential for providing some or most of our housing needs. Look at the stone houses of Batanes, for example. They have been withstanding the strong winds and typhoons in the northern islands.

Many individuals and professional organizations have already been advocating for the development and adoption of relevant land use plans. When developing towns and cities, local governments, particularly those in the most vulnerable areas (e.g., coastal communities) should use the geohazard maps already done by DENR (although DENR should continue to update and enhance them). Settlement areas must be in safer grounds. Relocating the most vulnerable people entails a huge investment but it is not an impossible task.  Relocation, if it is the safest and most practical alternative, must still allow people access to their sources of livelihood and income through reliable infrastructures such as roads, public transportation, warehouses, and marketplaces for their goods. I surmise that even fisherfolks–who must be close to the sea–will prefer higher and safer grounds if they are assured that they can go to work conveniently every day.

6. Deepening empowerment and promoting the right values through the media. The media (both international and national media) are doing a great job in spreading the word about disasters and their aftermath. We see excellent coverages and editorials. However, there is still too much sensationalism, particularly in the local media. Pictures and videos of hungry people and dead bodies on the street put across strong messages, but, let us not forget the good news also. There is an imbalance somewhere. The media have so much power. It needs to speak for and about HOPE also, about rebuilding, about DOING. It can motivate people to help the government in cleaning up the debris and remind them that they are strong and not helpless. That they can rebuild their communities. Alas, the media seems to devote more air time for people crying, getting angry because the relief goods are not coming, and blaming the government for not helping them. They must certainly be heard and we must empathize with their pains. However, it is not the role of the media to ‘fuel the fire’ of hopelessness, anger, blame, and self-pity. How else can one respond if a reporter asks her how does she feel after she had lost her daughter in the storm surge? Of course, she will cry. Definitely, the media should show the grim and sad pictures but they should equally encourage positive reactions and behavior and highlight the good news however small they may be. (See no. 8 below also.)

7. Re-energizing the social welfare department. With all due respect and profound thanks to the people of DSWD (who must be working so hard these days!), I suggest some re-energizing exercises and retooling programs. It seems that the department is stuck between wanting to reach out to more people and ending up being immobilized for the most parts. It is not entirely their fault. The department is contending with a government that seems unprepared for the worst-case scenario and local pressures and challenges that seem insurmountable. It may want to go back to the drawing board and think of long-term platform for the 3Rs, particularly in managing the relief aspects and then later, the initial stage of rehabilitation. For example, it can develop a ‘“food/cash-for-work” scheme where victims of disasters (who are physically and mentally ready and fit) may be mobilized (on voluntary basis) to do certain tasks such as the clearing of roads,cleaning up of debris, and planting of trees. Studies reveal that people who are experiencing post-disaster trauma and dealing with so much idle hours tend to feel depressed more. Providing them opportunities to work and become busy (as well as cash or food as compensation) can help them in rebuilding their lives and gaining back the confidence to move on.

However, a good exit strategy (and long-term economic interventions) must also be put in place to avoid long-term dependence on these temporary work schemes. The people should also be thoroughly briefed on the importance of the program not just to them as individuals but also to the welfare of the whole community.

Through this post, I am appealing to DSWD to reconsider their ‘food pack strategy’. Perhaps it is better and more practical to simply assign this task to the civil society and private sector. The private sector can easily take care of this aspect and DSWD may just be the one to coordinate the efforts or provide the relief/feeding and contact centers. DSWD, should probably focus more on becoming the guiding light amid the darkness; the triumphant voice in the middle of chaos; and the hands that will comfort the grieving and the disheartened. Social welfare ‘angels’ should talk to the people rather than hand out food packs; they should touch them and hold them. They should cry with them if need be but they should be the anchor from which they can begin sailing again. The emotional and psychological aspects, alongside the survival needs, should be part of the plans for interventions during disaster situation.

8. Even in disasters, CARING for one another should still be the order of the day. Filipinos come from close-knit families and are very compassionate people. We should hold on to those values even in the middle of disasters. Many were disappointed when a big network’s news coverage showed a cabinet secretary supposedly saying that looting is socially ‘acceptable’ during times like this (or something to this effect). I cannot remember the exact words but it put across the message that it is alright to steal and to loot during desperate moments. While we should understand the reasons behind looting incidences, it was very disheartening to hear about a government official supposedly such a remark (or allowing reporters to share that remark on national TV). Being the head of a government agency, she should be the last person to say that. She is certainly entitled to her own opinion in her private moments but saying such a remark to a reporter from a big TV network seems unnecessary (and may have consequently sent the wrong signals especially to the young people?)

Do desperate moments justify stealing and looting? It can invite long debates. I agree that we should understand (not condone) the circumstances of people in desperate situations and are hungry. However, what is difficult to understand is having one’s own cabinet secretary supposedly saying such a remark when people look up to her as a source of caring, hope, inspiration, and direction. I respect our government’s leadership but do hope our cabinet secretaries could clarify/improve their messaging and instead of justifying looting, call on all of us to give something, even a simple smile, rather than take something, which is not rightfully ours.

At the end of the day, we only have one another. Let us be instruments of goodness and kindness, despite the harsh moments in our lives.

God bless you, Pilipinas!


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