The Purpose of the Visit: Tacloban

“What’s the purpose of your visit?”
“Where are you going to?”
“Manila and Tacloban.” This answer gave the Filipino immigration officer pause.
“You want to see the devastation?”
“I want to see what’s been rebuilt of the devastation.”

Officer B. looked around, casually making sure no one else official was within earshot and hesitated for a moment. Then he lowered his voice and said, “You want me to tell you the truth?”


“Ten percent. Maybe. That’s all that’s been rebuilt. That’s how slow things get done in Asia.” Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added, “as long as we have this government….”

I left Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila resigned to come to Tacloban and see nothing but a wasteland more than a year after Super Typhoon Haiyan, known here as Yolanda, hit the island nation of the Philippines in November 2013 killing more than 6,000 people.

Four days later I was sitting in a pristine Western-style coffee house — part of a chain — in downtown Tacloban talking with Jacques Palami, the young owner of a very hip bar-in-a-truck called Na Ning. He came back from abroad to do some good after his family home was destroyed by Yolanda. He parked the truck on a vacant lot in the city center, let a pop-up kitchen open next to it and is making loads of cash while creating a handful of jobs for his fellows.

Na Ning, Tacloban City Center.

We’d been discussing charitable organizations and the major impact they’ve had on the area. I’ve seen some of the hardest hit slums already and when I asked if the government, on any level, is actively participating in the recovery process with these NGOs he says, “they’re participating,” and makes air quotes with his fingers. He’s the first person of several who will tell me that the government seems happy to let the organizations do the heavy lifting so it can wash its hands of the matter. More than a couple wondered aloud where the billions of dollars in international aid has gone. Up to the pope’s visit in January 2015, there were still tent cities lining the road to the airport. The government did manage to level them before His Holiness saw the blight.

One Tacloban City Council member told me how helpless the council really was at the height of the emergency in the days following the storm. Since council members don’t represent districts, officially their hands were tied because orders came only from the executive branch of the city government — the mayor. “And he’s a high school dropout,” the councilor said. “If you study law here you become a lawyer, not a politician. He was against a curfew [after Yolanda] because we don’t have enough space to detain people in cells, as if you arrest people for violating curfew instead of just sending them home.”

So, the NGOs came and those that deal with more than initial disaster response are still here. When I hopped into a jeepney that happened to have one other caucasian in it he asked who I was working for. It dawned on me that if you’re white and in Tacloban, it’s taken for granted that you’re a foreign aid worker or volunteer; occasionally media, but they largely cleared out for good after Typhoon Ruby threatened to tear the place apart again in December 2014 barely a year after Yolanda. During the news cycles of both typhoons, you could swing a cat and smack a journalist or reporter. The driver that took me into the city from the airport had been Anderson Cooper’s driver during Yolanda coverage. And that I am, technically speaking, media was in the back of my mind the whole time.

I spoke to a woman who echoed the sentiments of not a few locals when she said that she’d felt exploited by all the news coverage, the constant circus of crews with cameras and microphones looking to interview devastated people mourning their losses. She gets angry when people want to talk statistics. 

“These are not statistics to us,” she said. “They were people. Friends, family, neighbors.” There is no one I talked to who has not lost someone. I filmed the opening standup to the episode on a stretch of the coastline where shacks had been rebuilt among the enormous ships run aground by Yolanda that are still there. A young woman came down to watch and when she agreed to answer a few questions on camera, she began by telling me her mother and her sister died in the flooding from Yolanda. I felt like an ass with the camera in her face, but she seemed not to mind. 

The hull of a ship among shops in Barangay 68, Tacloban, Philippines.

Which is the flip side to feeling exploited. Though the callousness of media coverage turned some people off, willingly talking about their experiences openly with strangers is a regular occurrence. The city councilor said it was an integral part of how Filipinos heal. “You don’t do that. You go to therapists, but we don’t.”

“Locals don’t mind sharing stories,” said Mike Ball, project director for All Hands Volunteers, one of the NGOs sticking around for the long haul of recovery. “They are proud to say they’re survivors.”

For its part, All Hands, which will feature prominently in the episode, knows that there is no simple solution to the problems in Tacloban. The group, founded by an American and based in Massachusetts, has moved its focus from disaster relief in the first days to transitional shelters for those in the No Build Zones along the coastline and, recently, to rebuilding permanent homes for the poorest of the poor in one neighborhood.

I toured several of the transitional shelter sites with Mike. The problems of land management for the sites, ownership issues, and relocation of hundreds of families is a complicated ball of knots. The government was willing to give land for relocation, but that meant moving thousands of people from the coastlines in town to well north of the city, away from jobs for the few that were lucky enough to have them before Yolanda. We’re talking about the poorest people in the worst shanty towns.

“It’s not as if there were jobs before and now there aren’t,” Mike said. “Most of these people didn’t have them before.” Now, for those few who are bread winners, the commute into town can take an hour-and-a-half. People who made their living or subsisted by fishing now live too far from the ocean. Drinking water is trucked in and though there is electricity being installed in some sites, most don’t have it yet. There was no plan to put it in initially because these were transitional constructs, meant to house people for a year or two until a real solution could be found. But that’s not how they’re being built.

Each home All Hands builds is made to last at least six years and some within the group see them lasting a lot longer. There’s a feeling that they’ll have to last longer because the government entities have an out of sight, out of mind philosophy. The mayor of Tacloban toured one site after Ruby hit in December and apparently was thrilled that the shelters stood up so well to another typhoon. He can rest easy that all these people can stay where they’ve been put though that’s not what the sites are meant for. It’s likely that some families will never move out, effectively creating new shanty towns in the end.

Some organizations focus exclusively on livelihood development for the people that have been moved, teaching fishermen carpentry or other trades but, as one native Filipino who is volunteering with All Hands pointed out, some of these internally displaced persons have been in the same family business for generations and family continuity is very important in this society.

At one site, Mike and I saw a government representative giving a presentation to the community on economics. Time after time I spoke to residents of these new not-so-temporary villages and each one said that the biggest problem now is that there is no work though they are much happier in these places than in the tent cities that popped up in the wake of the storm surge that wiped out their shacks. 

All Hands Volunteers Leyte project director Mike Ball and me
after a day of volunteering and touring sites.

In a Herculean effort to bring more than simple housing solutions to the game All Hands has begun a pilot program in one existing neighborhood — known as a barangay — that searches out the neediest families affected by the typhoons and builds new homes for those that apply and meet certain criteria. This approach eliminates the issues of relocation, loss of livelihood and community. 

A new home made of concrete and wood costs about $5,000. That’s more than the transitional shelter made of the same material, but compared to the costs of relocation with the possibility of those sites becoming new slums that will eventually be wiped out by the next super typhoon, the cost is marginal.

Volunteers from all over the world do backbreaking
construction work, many for moths at a time.

And there will be other typhoons. Ruby was, as one aid worker put it, a good dry run for the area. She was afraid the city had become complacent and although Ruby — a weaker storm — did take a few lives, it was an effective test of preparedness. It forced people to exercise emergency procedures that weren't during Yolanda. Everyone evacuated in time and things worked as they should, letting many of the locals, volunteers, and aid workers I spoke with know their incredible effort has been worth it and that Tacloban is not a wasteland.

Volunteers work side by side with local carpenters that are hired by All Hands.


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