Rebuilding near danger

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Life after Yolanda, Log 6

Typhoon-ravaged Esperas Avenue in Tacloban's Magallanes district. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Along Esperas Avenue in Tacloban’s Magallanes district. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

TACLOBAN CITY—Taking a turn off the main roads leads to another image of this recovering city.

The streets around downtown now hardly look like they were struck by 2013’s worst natural disaster. But beyond the city center, it’s as if Tacloban has yet to get back on its feet after Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda.

Behind the two-storey buildings along the highway hide the receding ruins of has-been houses. The alleys there have long been swept clean, thanks to an NGO’s cash-for-work effort. Yet the debris have only been kept off the streets. From the street curbs to the nearby coastline, a stretch of wreckage and discards still lies half a kilometer wide.

Debris and damaged houses in Magallanes district of Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

This is Magallanes District. The area runs parallel to Real Avenue, where most of the traffic to downtown passes. Magallanes is not just one but a couple of adjacent communities, barangays identified just by their numbers. We asked around for the worst-hit areas in Tacloban, and they pointed us to Brgy. San Jose near the airport, and to here.

A walk through Magallanes can be sobering. There are crumpled vehicles and mounds of trash. Atop one heap is a scarecrow of sorts. It holds up a placard: “We need new house.” The air is quiet, only broken by the echoing clash of scrap iron and the bang of hammers.

Skeletons of lumber, steel, and stone remain of the structures that bore the brunt of Yolanda’s storm surge. In years past they shielded the sea from view. Now the sea looms over the crumbs of concrete strewn throughout the bay.

A dummy waves a placard written with "Please help. We need new house" above the debris of Magallanes district in Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

“Please help. We need new house.” (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Walking here is viable by day, unthinkable at night. Magallanes is just a block away from the restored electric lines. But there are hardly any homes to tap into them, much less any street lights to benefit.

The residents are scarce on the street. Some lounge by small sari-sari stalls, making small talk. At a corner, two half-naked boys chase and splash each other with tubs of water. Their mothers are nearby, cleaning up at the kitchen of a hulled-out house. One of them glances at the kids with a smirk and jokes to us: “Can you take one of them with you to Manila?”

Two boys splash each other with water at Magallanes district in Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

You’ll find the others closer to the shore, carrying planks, hauling metal, and sawing through upraised wooden beams. Right beside the sea, houses are rising again.

All this time, the people haven’t left. But who knows for how long?

Alternatives

We’ve heard much about the temporary shelters, a.k.a. bunkhouses, that the government has been building to take in survivors. A number have already moved there. Never mind for now the allegations of overpriced costs and dumbed-down makes. At least they now have separate spaces, tenable toilets, and communal kitchens.

It’s supposedly the alternative to returning to the coast or remaining in U.N.-donated tents. The bunkhouses, however, are merely transients until more permanent homes are built miles away from the coast.

Wrecked multi-purpose court at the seaside of Magallanes district in Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

One month after Yolanda, the city council banned houses from being built within 40 meters from the shoreline. The intent was to avoid lives being purged again by storm surges of future storms. “No build” signs soon sprang up in the coastal areas–among them, the barangays in Magallanes.

But Taclobanons near the sea–more than 30,000 families–won’t easily be convinced to abandon the places where they lived and loved. The ban, however, does not cover commercial constructions. A part of downtown, after all, directly faces the ocean.

“Isn’t 40 meters too short?” we asked colleagues at ABS-CBN Tacloban. Didn’t Yolanda’s storm surge rush even farther inland?

“Have you seen Tacloban on a map? It’s already small and surrounded by water,” they told us. “If you restrict building any more than 40 meters, no one might be able to live here anymore.”

The seaside bordering Tacloban City's downtown. (Shot by Chito Concepcion)

Beside Tacloban’s downtown, the sea. (Shot by Chito Concepcion)

And it’s not just a dilemma for this city. The “no build” zones in both Leyte and Samar were, after all, President Benigno Aquino III’s mandate to the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources and to local governments after the storm.

Some members of fishing communities have cried foul over it. How could they recover if they are kept away from their sole source of livelihood?

Indeed, where could they go, and how could they start over?

Not much choice yet

Even before Yolanda, Tacloban already mulled relocating residents in danger zones. Alongside a plan to develop Tacloban airport, the LGU allocated 10 hectares in Barangay Kawayan, some 15 kilometers north of downtown, for affected locals.

Now, Kawayan has been brought up again in the search for a safer and permanent site for Yolanda survivors. In the works to move there as well are the University of the Philippines Tacloban campus and the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center.

People rebuild shelters at Magallanes district in Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

However, no building or site development has yet to begin in Kawayan.

The residents have no choice, for now. Until they are moved, it’s either the bunkhouse or back to what’s left.

Lola Alicia and her family went for the latter.

We chanced upon them one morning at an alley just behind the local port office, living in wooden shanties covered by plastic tarp. Their belongings littered the inside as if just unpacked, while soft drink bottles and soap sachets were displayed outside waiting to be bought.

Alicia boiled eggs for breakfast as one of her sons watched. Close to her, a neighbor was having her hair cut by another. Afar, we saw the smoke of burning trash.

Lola Alicia, a resident of Tacloban City who returned to rebuild her family's home after Typhoon Yolanda. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Crumbs of concrete debris from a nearby old structure blocked the road from vehicles. It was inside that building that Alicia and her relatives fought for their live as floodwaters reached past their heads. She’s in her seventies and says it’s the first time she faced a storm this fierce.

“If it weren’t for my son, we would not be alive,” she said, pointing to the chubby preteen boy watching her cook. “He used a piece of Styrofoam to float and told us to do the same.”

After all they’ve been through, they chose to return and rebuild their shacks beside the rubble.

An old structure destroyed by the flood waters in Tacloban City. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

“We’ve been here all our lives,” Alicia said. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

City Hall also has no choice and is letting the illegal rebuilding be, for now.

“The residents know it’s temporary,” said Tacloban Vice Mayor Jerry Yaokasin. “Anytime, they know that by the call of the government they will be moved.”

Yaokasin’s only fear is that the development of the relocation site could take years, as it did in other typhoon-hit areas. There, the bunkhouses have practically become permanent shelters and the tent cities still tent cities.

“We hope it will not happen in Tacloban,” he said.

Tacloban City resident gets a hair cut from a neighbor. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

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