Tacloban Mayor strives to transform city

Mayor Romualdez describes to Ms Wahlström the progress made at one of the city’s transitional shelter sites.
 
By Andy McElroy

TACLOBAN, 4 March 2014 – The Mayor of the worst-hit city of the Typhoon Haiyan disaster believes the city’s future prosperity depends on “transformational development” that rebuilds communities and not just houses.

Tacloban Mayor, Alfred Romualdez, says it is vital that pre-existing disaster risk is addressed and new risks are not created as the city’s recovery gathers pace.

Mr Romualdez outlined his vision for a resilient city as he escorted the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Ms Margareta Wahlström, on a tour of areas that bore the brunt of the super typhoon.

‘’Tacloban has seen typhoons before but never this strong,’’ said Mayor Romualdez who sported an “I Love Tacloban” T-shirt as he showed Ms Wahlström several sites where major recovery efforts are well underway.

‘’If it has happened before it can happen again and indeed I expect typhoons to become more frequent so it’s about time this city and the entire eastern seaboard of the Philippines started planning and looking ahead and anticipate the fact that climate change is here and is happening and we have to prepare the next generation for this.’’

Less than four months after Typhoon Haiyan – known in the Philippines as Yolanda – there is clear evidence of progress: large tracts of debris have been cleared; impressive numbers of transitional shelters have been built and several more are being constructed; school children are back in the classroom; and crucially the spirit of the citizens has been bowed but not broken.

During preparations for the 8 November typhoon, the Mayor identified the vital need to protect critical infrastructure as best he could. He ordered all ships to be moved out of Tacloban Bay to protect the San Juanico bridge, which links the island of Leyte to neighbouring Samar.

He regards it as one of his best decisions: ‘’If one of those big ships had smashed into the bridge bringing it down it would have cut our lifeline …. We would have been completely isolated.’’ Water tankers were also pre-positioned in the city and were immediately in action after the typhoon.

Communication infrastructure fared less well. The town’s telecommunications was wiped out hindering badly the initial emergency response. The Mayor has prioritised this as a key aspect of his resilience agenda.

The capacity of the Tacloban authority itself has been decimated. Several key staff were among the casualties. For instance, this proud city is currently unable to field a fire brigade to protect its citizens.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that of shelter. Thousands of families remain in tents strewn along the coastline behind signs proclaiming ‘Notice to the Public: No Build Zone’ within 40 metres of the waterfront.

The transitional shelters need to be just that: transitional. As time passes, there will be an increasing need to establish the planned new, safer communities, in proximity to existing settlements.

Some families have begun to rebuild in the “No Build Zone”. The Mayor takes a pragmatic approach seeing the phenomenon as further evidence for the need to establish alternative communities – that are both attractive and resilient – sooner rather than later.

There has been a lot of discussion nationally on what the 40-metre No Build Zone means. The release of the upcoming national recovery masterplan is set to clarify the issue. ‘’We have to be careful about the 40 metre no-build zone; that does not mean that you can build 45 metres from the waterfront and be safe,’’ Mayor Romualdez said.

On one point, though, he is clear. In the event of a warning of another disaster the Mayor said all exposed communities would be evacuated, forcibly if necessary.

A 95-hectare zoned area in a safer location for 20,000 families has been mapped out. It includes a buffer against flood and storm hazard, public spaces, infrastructure, including roads, utilities and light industry. In general, across all typhoon-affected areas, the issue of land use and ownership remains complex.

The Mayor sees business as key to the recovery. He acknowledged that the restoration of power supplies – currently back to 50 percent of the need – is crucial to revive the economy.

Street vendors and local farmers and fishing enterprises continue to struggle to get back on their feet. Across Tacloban, signs hang outside the damaged premises of small-scale businesses thanking customers for their patience during ongoing closure for repairs.

Business activity is estimated at less than half the pre-disaster level, which has serious implications for the whole of Leyte, as Tacloban, with a population of 238,000, is the island’s main economic hub.

Ms Wahlström was encouraged by the pace of recovery. ‘’It is impressive what has been achieved in a relatively short period of time after such a major disaster,’’ she said.

‘’The eyes of the world were on Tacloban in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and the city now has an excellent opportunity to build the resilience of its citizens and the municipality as a whole and at the same time provide a global example of transformational development.

‘’Of course there are challenges and, as is often the case, the issue of capacity and financial resources at the local level will be critical.’’

In Tacloban City, 2,614 bodies have been recovered and 701 people are listed as missing. A K9 dog search team is still recovering the remains of 10 to 15 bodies a day within the city limits.

Typhoon Haiyan destroyed more than 30,000 homes and damaged over 23,000. It destroyed 80 classrooms and damaged another 633. Tacloban’s road to recovery will be a long one.
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