Philippines: To rebuild or to move?
Children have started going back to school, markets are again being loaded with fresh fruits and the smell of construction hovers above the cities. As shredded trees are beginning to sprout new leaves, people are slowly returning to their hometowns in the central Philippines where one month ago, Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) ripped through and left more than 4 million people displaced.
Since then, aid efforts are slowly transitioning from the initial response phase to long-term recovery. With 15 million people affected, one of the major concerns in this period is how to prevent future disasters from causing devastation on such a scale.
Moving families from “danger zones”
Augusto D. Corro, Municipal Mayor of Dan Bantayan in northern Cebu Island, says relocation is the only durable solution that will protect his barangay (neighborhood) from future hazards. He is planning to build houses for 200 families in three areas on higher grounds away from the shorelines that he considers danger zones.
“In my barangay, 43 per cent of the people live under the poverty line. For them to have real homes, closer to the center, is not only an option, it is a necessity”, Mayor Corro said. Currently, there are around 5,000 informal settlers in 15 coastal danger zones in Dan Bantayan alone.
“Our animals are here, our fields are here”
Despite these concerns, some families in the region have other things on their minds.
“We don’t want to move”, says Rebecca Piñar. In the outskirts of Bogol, she lives in a remote community with 31 families tucked behind downed trees and corn fields. More and more of her family members appear through the narrow gaps between collapsed huts as she explains that the Typhoon destroyed most of their homes. Haiyan forced them to live together in the few remaining cottages that were strong enough to resist the storm surge and chest-high floods. She still prefers living amid the ruins of their former lives to relocating.
“We own this land. Our animals are here, our fields are here. We live here and nothing is going to change this,” she says.
The challenges of relocation
Medellin’s Municipal Mayor, Ricardo R. Ramirez, explains that relocation plans need to factor in the culture of the people.
“If you tell them to leave but if they can’t see the boats they use to go fishing, if they can’t see the fields that they harvest – they won’t go,” he says.
While some residents might resist moving from their former neighborhoods, others are hesitant about moving into temporary shelters.
“Filipinos do not like to live in tents,” says Mayor Ramirez. “They would rather live with their extended families for weeks and weeks as opposed to moving into temporary shelters. What they need is construction materials to rebuild their houses in order to soon lead a normal life again.”
Life in evacuation sites
While some families debate whether to rebuild or move, the 500,000 families whose houses were completely destroyed have few options. After Haiyan struck the Central Visayas region, Cebu City received a large proportion of the affected families from Tacloban and Leyte. Tinago Evacuation Center, the largest of the six in Cebu, hosted 600 people shortly after the disaster. It currently accommodates 200 people, as many of the displaced have found shelter with their extended families or gone back to the sites of their former homes.
“The first four batches of people to arrive right after Yolanda looked horrific. They arrived here while still being surrounded by the smell of death,” says Barangay Captain and camp manager Joel C. Garganera.
The camp will remain until the last evacuees go back home. Some of them anticipated their return too early, and went back to Tacloban to find the conditions still unlivable, forcing them to return to Cebu’s evacuation centers. Eleven-year old Joseph came all by himself, as the only survivor of his family. He clung to a basketball net and saw his siblings washed away.
But among such tragic stories, there are moments of hope.
Barangay Captain Joel tells the story of a couple who came to the shelter, shattered at the thought of having lost their two children, until they were reunited with them in Cebu. He tells of four babies born right after the typhoon in the evacuation center, who were all named Yolanda. Joel speaks of birthdays being celebrated, of karaoke nights and of children laughing in a donated playhouse, where – just for a moment – they can feel at home.