Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 4 June 2014


Nation’s GDP report: slowdown, 2014. The growth of the Philippine economy on a year-to-year basis fell in the first quarter. According to the authorities, the gross domestic product (GDP) grew 5.7 percent during the period.

In the quarter preceding, the economy was growing at a rate of 6.3 percent year-on-year. The downturn in growth is not unexpected. The economic devastation brought by Super-Typhoon Yolanda was a major factor.

Yet, the nation’s overall economic performance depends on many more factors, the damage and reconstruction from Yolanda being just one of the more daunting challenges.

Six months after Yolanda’s wind. My road trip to the Visayas took me to Samar and Leyte, the places of major damage from Yolanda. Eastern Visayas, like the rest of the country, forms the first line of defense of continental East Asia against the typhoons from the Pacific Ocean.

This unkind gift of geography makes us absorb the full force of typhoons before they reach other countries. Climate change experts tell us that the mightier ones are yet to come!

Before they had names, two typhoons with identical paths visited the country with devastating impact. In October 1897, a typhoon left 7,000 dead in its wake. Another typhoon in November 1912 left 15,000 casualties.

Some scars of Yolanda are still fresh. I went to Tacloban and also travelled to other areas that were devastated.

Six months after the devastation, a newcomer visitor could not miss the extraordinary event of the past.

Piles of broken metal, GI sheets, useless car bodies; and other detritus of typhoon destruction are now gathered up as scrap by worldly merchants for recycling. It is still not uncommon to see metal and other scraps carried by tricycle transport on the way to these dumps.

Yolanda did not spare the rich and middle classes who could build sturdier houses. The evidence is still obvious on the roadside: roofless houses; deformed walls; abandoned ghost houses. But almost totally gone from sight are the roofs and possessions of thousands of poorer people who lost evertything on the day of the typhoon.

That landscape of completely destroyed housing is now replaced by the rows of housing shelters built by the government and by international development community agencies in specially designated areas.

That these are not enough is indicated by the regrowth of structures along the city shoreline of Tacloban: people and shanties are back. Some of these new structures are in the guise of shops where people trade goods in the open. But in truth, they are houses again to shelter those without homes.

Thus, the sea of poor humanity is again stacking up for the next calamity. Along with the remains of four ships that had grounded and which are still untowed, the shore is again filling with shanties, stalls and other forms of roofed shelter that would eventually house more people.

The other Tacloban scene. The lively place that was Tacloban isn’t quite there now. By nightfall, many streets are half-deserted if there is electricity.

Life has returned in the main town center where reconstruction has taken a faster pace. Restaurants are among the establishments that had re-established themselves well. Hotel rooms are scarce and most are rented to expatriate workers, mostly foreigners, employees of international agencies and NGOs.

Retail stores, small groceries and fast foods have found themselves back. Marks of damage are still found in many gas filling stations. But the main gas dealers are doing brisk business.

Trip to southern Samar: Guiuan. From Tacloban, I crossed to Samar and drove further to the southernmost tip of the island at Guiuan. This is the first landfall of Yolanda. The marks of the typhoon disaster are as evident as in Tacloban.

The way to Guiuan was an education on the destruction wrought along the way on coconut plantations and other village settlements. Before Yolanda in Marabut, coconuts trees galore strutted the hills and completely covered the view of the horizon with their wide fronds.

After Yolanda’s fury, you could see clearly beyond the hills, into new growth of shrubberies if not the horizon. Six months afterward, dead coconut tree trunks are still looking up like candlesticks standing against the sky. On the ground, many fallen tree trunks are like scattered sticks that fell from a matchbox that sailed with the wind.

If some coconut trees survived with their leaf and fruit buds still intact after the typhoon, today the crowns growing on those tree tops are still puny. These coconuts may never regain the productivity they were capable of as young, healthy trees before Yolanda.

The sound of humming of chain saws was in the air, as if produced by thousands of bumble bees. Cutting down the dead and damaged trees for coconut lumber continues. The coco lumber that has been cut down is placed on the roadside for collection by the lumber companies.

After Marabut, the next municipality is Balangiga. This town was famous for having the two bells in its belfry taken as war booty by American soldiers in 1902 after a deadly incident that marked the bloody Philippine-American war.

The town’s church was rendered in shambles by Yolanda, the roof totally gone. Now, six months after, one-third of the roof has been restored, but the church’s inner sanctum — the altar – was still open to the sky.

The churchyard had remnants of empty large tents formerly used as refugee centers by the UN agency during the height of emergency support. But the old municipal hall has been restored and more repairs are on the way. Private groups are actively helping in the restoration projects.

Normalcy returning? In Guiuan, the town on the narrow strip of peninsula in southernmost Samar, the town marked as kilometer 1,050, was the first land hit of typhoon Yolanda. The marks of past damage are still to be found around, as in Tacloban.

But a different normalcy is probably making its way back to life. On this particular day, there was a spirited basketball game in the town plaza. The audience braved the heat of the day. The players were in full uniformed gear; so, too the referees. An amplified announcer gave the play-by-play account in English as the game progressed.

The day marked one of the barangay basketball games in the municipality. There are about 19 barangays that are contesting.

Despite Yolanda’s fury and the mark it has left behind, it seems that life – including community life – must go on.

(NEDA’s Region 8 (Eastern Visayas) educated me on the damage, gave me statistics and provided logistical support for my observations.)