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Philippines: Tacloban to call typhoon summit

11 December 2013

By Denis McClean

Tacloban – The City of Tacloban which accounts for almost 50% of the dead and displaced in the Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) disaster, is to hold a summit inviting mayors and other public representatives to come to the city to talk about the lessons learned for disaster risk management.

The announcement comes with recognition by the city authorities that there were several barriers to compliance with evacuation procedures despite many sweeps through the most exposed neighbourhoods – or Barangays as they are known in the Philippines – by teams of local volunteers and officials led by the Barangay captains.

Three days before Typhoon Haiyan struck, a meeting was called by the City Mayor, Alfred Romualdez, of all 138 Barangay Captains to be briefed on the coming storm and they were all instructed to order their constituents to evacuate. The meeting was reportedly attended by about 75% of all Barangay captains.

Interviews with Barangay captains in three of the worst-affected coastal neighbourhoods on the shoreline, Barangays 68, 70 and 88, confirmed that they made strenuous efforts to persuade their neighbours to evacuate. However, they met with opposition from people living in concrete houses, on higher elevations, those who were simply reluctant to abandon their homes and those who did not believe there was any significant danger.

Another element was that all three captains came away from that meeting without any clear idea of what a storm or tidal surge might mean beyond the usual calamity visited on their neighbourhoods whenever they are struck by typhoons winds and heavy rains.

Emilita S. Montalban, (48), Captain of Barangay 88, which had the highest mortality rate with an estimated 1,000 dead out of the total 6,000 lives reported lost to date, confirmed that many poor migrants and fishermen in her neighbourhood lost their lives because they were reluctant to leave their homes.

The Vice-Mayor, Jerry “Sambo” Yoakasin, an independent politician, has been a visible figure in the response effort and is now turning his attention to rehabilitation.

Mr. Yoakasin said: “We intend to hold a summit for all people in government and especially the cities that have the same geography like our city and to share with them our experience.” It would be a frank and open engagement, sharing both successes and failures. The Vice-Mayor also said it would be an opportunity to launch the rehabilitation plan for the region.

He welcomed the support of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) for such a meeting and has requested materials on the “Making Cities Resilient” Campaign and its Ten Essentials which have been adopted by over 1,600 municipalities around the world.

The Vice-Mayor said one contributing factor to the loss of 3,000 lives in Tacloban was that people did not understand what a storm surge was and there was a need to explain it to people “in the vernacular”.

Mr. Yoakasin said if people had been warned of a possible tsunami they would have understood “but our problem is that a tsunami can only come from an earthquake so that is the wrong choice of words so we have to use another word which is a storm surge and I don’t think any one of us has ever experienced a storm surge in our lifetime until November 8”.

Another factor was that many people did not believe a typhoon was on the way because the weather was so nice the day before.

“It was so sunny and when the government went around and told them that they need to evacuate some of them were even laughing because it was just so sunny and they wouldn’t believe that a super typhoon was coming,” he said.

Vice Mayor Yoakasin takes credit for introducing a city ordinance on forced evacuation a few months ago but says it was misinterpreted in the local “political” context.

He said people thought it was “forced eviction instead of forced evacuation and they thought we were doing this because we want to get rid of the settlers near the coastal area”. Tragically, many of those migrant workers died.

He also remarked on the fact that a high number of men perished because they stayed behind to protect their property after ensuring the evacuation of their families.

Vice Mayor Yoakasin is taking a long hard look at how to transform the housing market in Tacloban with the introduction of new affordable housing which is both typhoon and tidal surge resistant.

Yesterday he met with the architect and urban planner James Jao to discuss what Mr. Jao describes as “environmentally friendly and economically affordable” homes featuring elevated living areas on stilts and aerodynamic roofs to withstand typhoon winds.

Mr. Yoakasin said: “We are not victims of Typhoon Yolanda. We are survivors. And we can be victors if we move forward together and re-build in a smarter way.”