The strongest typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines, November 8, 2013, damaged over a million houses and left over four million people homeless. Bayanihan, the Filipino spirit of helping each other, literally builds homes and communities in this Yolanda-stricken area.
By DABET CASTANEDA
JARO, Leyte – Thirty eight-year old George Gonzaga lost his home to Typhoon Yolanda.
George was making a living in Manila when super typhoon Yolanda made landfall in his hometown in Barangay Uguiao in this town. When news that Typhoon Yolanda would hit Eastern Visayas came out, George said, he worried about his wife, Elvie, and their only son who was nearly two years old then. Their house was made of light materials and was vulnerable to any type of disaster. He kept on monitoring his family from afar and told his wife to find shelter somewhere else.
Protective as he was, George kept in touch with his family through his mobile phone but only until 5 in the morning of November 8. “I could no longer contact them,” he recalled with a heavy tone on his voice.
George’s worries were not unfounded. Elvie and their son did try to find shelter in the neighborhood but Yolanda spared no home in their village. According to Barangay Captain Nelly Batis, only 32 of 258 households in Uguiao remained standing after Yolanda.
“A plywood fell and covered us,” Elvie described her and her son’s fate that day, an almost tragic moment that saved their life.
It took three days for George to come back home to check on his family. George admitted to losing all hope then. “I was expecting the worst,” he said. “When I arrived at our village, it was as if it was erased from the map. Where houses used to stand, there was nothing. People were in a state of shock,” he recalled.
George and his family lived with neighbors for the next several days until he found materials from the rubble and tried to build a house. “I gathered nipa, tarpaulins, anything that could be used to build a shelter for us,” George said.
Despite the survivors’ will for self-help and the massive reconstruction efforts from the national and local governments, international non-government organizations and the United Nations, the needs in areas worst hit by Yolanda were still tremendous.
The Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CDRC), a disaster response NGO, which mostly caters to communities hardly reached by government and international NGO’s assistance, surveyed the Yolanda stricken areas in Eastern Visayas and found out that the levels of support given to damaged areas were varied. Its project manager for its shelter project in Jaro Leyte, Mikhail Valle, said most of the assistance were directed to coastal areas where destruction was most visible.
Meanwhile, Valle added, hinterland municipalities such as Jaro have been left unattended. “As a result, many people in this town and in similar areas also strongly affected by the typhoon, complained of not getting any, or only little assistance,” Valle said.
George and his neighbors breathed a sigh of relief when news came that this town was identified as one of the areas for a shelter project for Yolanda survivors.
Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe (DKH), a social service agency of the German Protestant Church, together with its local partner, CDRC and its regional center, the Leyte Center for Development (LCDE), identified 200 household beneficiaries in Jaro (six barangays: Rubas, Uguiao, Canhandugan, Tinambacan, Bias-Zabala and Burabod) and its neighboring town, San Isidro (three barangays: Biasong, Basud and Crossing).
Households identified were the poorest of the poor, those who housed senior citizens, with female heads of the family, with many children and those with persons with disabilities, Valle said. “Houses to be built will be given for free on one condition – that a member of the family would lend his or her services for free to help build other houses in their community,“ Valle explained, pertaining to their bayanihan concept of rebuilding communities devastated by Yolanda.
George and Elvie shared this commitment in rebuilding their home and their community as well. George works four days a week for the project while Elvie works for two days. Their home was one of the first 10 of the 58 houses to be constructed in Barangay Uguiao.
Although they already live comfortably in their new home, they continue to lend their services to complete the 58 houses in their village. “Just because the construction of our house has been completed it doesn’t mean we would stop working. How about the others? Other people also lent us a hand,” said George.
An Oxfam report released a month after Yolanda in 2013 revealed that “Eastern Visayas was already the third poorest region of the Philippines, blighted by poor infrastructure and struggling agricultural and fishing sectors. A third of Tacloban’s homes only had wooden walls. Almost 2 million people earned less than $2 per day, with many rural women the poorest of all – despite the fact that the Philippines has reduced inequalities between men and women, according to one global report this year, more than any other country in Asia.”
“This poverty was predominantly rural,” the Oxfam report read, “although with increasing numbers of poor people in urban areas as well. It is most widespread among farmers (46 percent of whom were poor) and fishing communities (45 per cent), and crucially linked to the lack of access to land. Among the 16,300 coconut farmers in Eastern Samar, more than half have no secure access to land. The Philippines government has been enacting plans to distribute land to poor farmers – but distribution rates in the Eastern Visayas region are the lowest nationwide, and particularly dismal for coconut farmers.”
The Oxfam report explained that poverty among farmers and fisher folk could be attributed to low producer prices set by big traders, weakly enforced laws (such as those preventing companies fishing in municipal waters reserved for small scale fisher folk), environmental degradation (such as loss of mangroves, which serve both as ecosystems for marine life and physical defences against tides and storm surges) and poor rural infrastructure. International demand for coconut, for example, has increased but the benefits have not trickled down to poor coconut farmers because they have no means to process and add value to any part of their raw product.
Rice traders often set market prices that exploit small producers while lending money to them at high interest. Workers in service jobs – often women – earned low incomes because of informal terms of employment that offered little protection or benefits. Indeed, gender inequality in access to land and other resources, and participation in the workforce, has made rural women the poorest of the poor in Eastern Visayas, the Oxfam report added.
The land problem in Eastern Visayas would echo louder after Yolanda.
Valle explained: “Majority of the population in these barangays do not have the capacity to rebuild their homes without external help as most of them lost their income due to Yolanda, too. They had to make do with the available materials from their destroyed homes in order to rebuild or repair their houses. Those who could no longer salvage any materials had to stay with relatives or neighbors temporarily. Others had to resort to loans to buy a few repair materials. Some had to settle for plastic sheets for walls and roofs. Several are still living in tents.”
After thorough survey of the beneficiaries, LCDE and CDRC realized that 80 percent did not have their own land where their houses can be built on. Project coordinators had to negotiate with landlords and government officials for support to the shelter program and the beneficiaries.
In Uguiao, Brgy. Capt. Batis allowed the project to build 23 houses on a 2.63-hectare lot, which her family owns. The contract stipulates that the beneficiaries are allowed to use the lot for 15 years with an option to extend. Beneficiaries, in turn, pay P30.00 ($0.68) a month as rent.
Structures to last a lifetime
The houses built for the shelter beneficiaries are permanent structures that would last up to 50 years, Milo Contapay, an engineer, said.
The 20 square-meter houses designed by DKH, were modelled after similar DKH shelter projects in Pakistan and Haiti. “The housing models in Pakistan are typhoon and flood proof while those from Haiti can resist lateral forces like earthquakes. Wood used are kiln-dried and treated against termites and were imported from Germany,” Contapay said.
Contapay explained that the core house was specifically designed to be extendable on all sides. Its interconnecting design makes it sturdy enough that even a super typhoon cannot lift its roof. “If the wind is strong enough to lift the roof, it could already lift the whole house,” he explained.
To adapt to the Filipino culture, Contapay said, the house design was given a Filipino touch by using amacan (bamboo wood) instead of plywood. Windows were also made to open upwards similar to that of the native nipa hut.
Meanwhile, George could not contain his happiness now that he and his family have a roof over their heads. “Even if I work for years till I grow old and have grandchildren, I could not afford to have a house this sturdy built for my family. Now I feel secure that even if I am away because of work, I know that my family is safe whatever calamity hits our village,” he said.