Yolanda: Notes on a Disaster
Twenty-three years ago, Typhoon Uring (international codename: “Thelma”) turned Ormoc from a peaceful port overlooking the Camotes Sea, to a wasteland of despair and death. The flash flood of 1991 gave way to the most haunting images left behind by Typhoon Uring: entire houses flattened by floodwaters, and streets ravaged by rubbish and debris. Almost 5,000 people died from the flash floods. An estimated 3,000 were declared missing, and P600 million worth of property were damaged by a storm that was, for a time, deemed the worst of them all.
Perhaps the most haunting images of all were rotting bloated corpses: like statues etched in blocks of impure marble and clothed with tattered rags, it seemed that the sculptor wanted to capture drowning and despair in their most literal forms.
And here we are, in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (international codename: “Haiyan”). Most storms hit the same places in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard. The Eastern Visayas region – Samar and Leyte in particular – is no stranger when it comes to typhoons. Yet at the same time, the region is no stranger to the poverty and vulnerability that comes with generations of underdevelopment. Eastern Visayas is a place of extreme wealth in the hands of a few, and despondent poverty for the multitude.
The chatter in Philippine social media today spares no barbs for the Aquino administration, international humanitarian agencies, and even reporters from here and all over the globe. Everything from politics to donation protocols to media coverage was put in the spotlight. The images of hope – a street child donating a peso, a dirt-poor 80-year-old woman donating a half-open packet of milk to those starving in Leyte, lone helicopter pilots doing airdrops on their own, ShelterBox volunteers – are often shadowed by the criticisms of an angry public, mostly spared from the devastation of Yolanda. “Donations are not being distributed fast enough,” one says. “Politicians are hoarding donations for them to put their names on the bags,” says another. That storm of opinions, brewing and swirling in Twitter and Facebook, did in words what Yolanda did in gales and storm surges: to shake the very core of our being.
Yet the devastation caused by Yolanda was just the exclamation point to the tragic story of Eastern Visayas: mired in hardship and poverty for decades, perhaps even generations. Samar and Leyte became the poster provinces of rural poverty in the Philippines. Yolanda barreled through the Visayas and not only uprooted trees and destroyed buildings and claimed lives: it also exposed the extent of poverty and underdevelopment in a place that needed aid and support way before the strongest typhoons of this year started brewing.
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In Carmen Navarro-Pedrosa’s controversial book, “The Rise and Fall of Imelda Marcos,” she tells of the story of a young, impoverished Imelda living in a Quonset hut in Tolosa, Leyte: a hut that could not have withstood either Uring or Yolanda. The American-style Quonset huts may be a thing of the past, but Leyte is far from being a place of bungalows and white picket fences, much less the towering condominium buildings and gated subdivisions of Metro Manila. In this poor region, the housing of the poorest of the poor would be more like huts, light materials, thatch, and/or good old nipa: a far cry from Imelda’s ancestral “shrine,” or the villas of the wealthy and the powerful that have made Leyte the stronghold of their political and economic power.
Eastern Visayas – Samar and Leyte in particular – is also home to some of the most influential and wealthiest political families in the Philippines. Samar is governed by the Tans, and Leyte by the Lims and the Romualdezes. The names matter, of course, only because while the bashing of government takes place, these families are the most prominent symbols of its existence in Samar and Leyte.
And yet despite the wealth of its leaders, the region is home to some troubling government statistics on poverty. According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, Eastern Visayas ranks fifth in terms of poverty incidence in the Philippines. Despite the abundance of fertile land and open seas and the growing market for tourism, Samar and Leyte still remain portraits of the wide gap in resources and access even among the poor. Leyte alone has two domestic principal airports (Ormoc and Tacloban, the latter named after a Romualdez), seven seaports, and just 52 doctors to a population of over one and a half million people. Almost the entirety of Eastern Samar, for example, has a huge proportion of households with income below the poverty threshold.
The vestiges of “development” and “affluence” can, to their credit, be found in the major cities of Eastern Visayas. If not for the SMs and the Gaisanos, Tacloban and Catbalogan would be just that: flourishing towns by the sea, with the world-class San Juanico Bridge between them. Yet this closeness to the sea also means closeness to disaster, especially with the dozen or so typhoons battering the Philippines every year, and these provinces bearing the brunt of the damage when the storms make landfall. And yet even at the height of disaster, the specters of patronage still rear their ugly heads into those who desperately need help. Help is here, but in the form of aid “sponsored by (insert name of politician).” Or that the suffering many is out of touch with the people, especially in times like these. Or the blame that trickles down the bottom of the ladder faster than aid or development, and the ultimate responsibility “rests” on the hands of the barangay captain whose own house has been destroyed, or whose life was claimed as he did his best to move his constituents to the safety of the barangay hall.
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“A lack of preparedness” is a common theme throughout the aftermath of Yolanda, whether it’s from a visibly irritated President Aquino, or the “influencers” in social media fuming over the lack of action in terms of humanitarian aid, or whatever could be gleaned (or misinterpreted) from Anderson Cooper’s coverage for CNN. As Yolanda peeled and tore away at the billions of pesos worth of “road widening and improvement” made possible by the ruling classes of the Philippines’ fifth-poorest region, it’s easy to see where the lack is really coming from.
Simply put, a lack of preparedness is a lack of development. When you’re caught unprepared, it’s because you’re underdeveloped. Without a network of paved, passable roads, aid cannot be delivered to the remote rural communities destroyed and devastated by 2013’s strongest typhoon. Humanitarian assistance cannot be efficiently deployed in domestic and community airports not built to handle a disaster of this magnitude. Policemen cannot restore law and order in a devastated place when they themselves were devastated by the typhoon. And this lack of preparedness manifests itself in the summary of allocations for 2013: Eastern Visayas had the smallest budget for all regions in Visayas, despite its susceptibility to typhoons. At P56.5 billion, it gets just about as much as the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and less than half of the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Could Eastern Visayas have been prepared better to withstand Yolanda? That’s a question we cannot answer, but what we can answer is the extent of preparedness that could have come with the sustainable development of a region in much need of aid: not the humanitarian sort, but one that comes with development. Could aid have been delivered faster and more efficiently with a network of paved, well-built roads in Samar and Leyte? Yes. Could people have had the chance to better prepare themselves with stocks of goods and resources to survive the immediate effects of typhoons if there was enough employment and economic opportunity to go around? Indeed. Could disaster education have been available if all children had the chance to go to school? Certainly. Could public hospitals have had enough doctors and healthcare personnel to attend to the needs of the wounded and in need of care, while having enough supplies in a building that could withstand the worst that calamity has to offer? Absolutely. Twenty-three years ago, Uring should have taught us that these are precisely the needs of the poorest, most typhoon-prone region in the Philippines. But a marginal decrease in poverty, and the seeming inability of people to bring relief to remote towns and communities, shows that development has been marginal, if not superficial.
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I’m not suggesting that sturdy airports, strong roads, more accessible healthcare, and linking communities together to provide more economic opportunities for everyone would have solved the problem completely. They would have, however, enabled a faster distribution of aid, hastened recovery and rebuilding, and more importantly, increased the quality of life for everyone. That way, Samar and Leyte would not have become the poster provinces of calamity, poverty, and desperation.
If anything, that’s what we should be railing about. The ability of government and humanitarian organizations to deliver aid to areas devastated by Yolanda is hampered by decades – if not generations – of economic underdevelopment brought about by a multitude of factors. It’s a wound that cuts to almost everything from literacy to education to employment to housing to disposable income to disaster preparedness. It’s a wound cut by the knives of political patronage, dependency, backward policy, and the perpetuation of top-down development that does little – if not nothing – for the poor.
These days, social media is a hotbed for criticisms against President Aquino for not doing enough. As President, he is not blameless. He should be at the forefront of the reforms in policy and redistributing resources in Eastern Visayas, in particular. But generations of underdevelopment and poverty can be pinned down not only to him, but to every President, Vice President, Senator, and Representative who has ignored the imperative to prepare the most vulnerable people in the country for the worst through a national plan and execution for sustainable development.
It becomes our responsibility as citizens, though, to watch over the rebuilding of Eastern Visayas, and the most vulnerable communities of the country. Let it not be said that they continue to live from the crumbs that fall from the table of those who benefit the most from economic policy as it stands. While the immediate justice of aid and relief is immediate and necessary, the sustained – and true – justice of economic recovery and sustainable progress is essential.
Preparedness for disasters of this scale can only come as a consequence of good development. If Uring was a hard lesson learned in environmental degradation, Yolanda is a more difficult lesson in equitable development.
Yet if there’s anything worth chewing on, maybe Yolanda was the calamity. Maybe underdevelopment was the long-brewing disaster.