The day before I left Leyte, I went for a run. My Ethiopian colleague joined me. We jogged down the side of the road for maybe a kilometer before turning onto the smaller, beaten dirt path that led down to the ocean. People gawked and hooted as this odd pair passed them. I wondered what they thought – a lanky white guy and a shorter black man, obviously foreigners, loping through their recently devastated community. We passed the school, its roofs collapsed and courtyard sprinkled with debris. I asked my running mate if that school would be included in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) rehabilitation project the International Medical Corps was starting. He doubted it, the school looked like it had sustained significant damage, and the proposal was for “quick fixes” only, schools that just need new faucets or a latrine to be declared ready for class to resume.
Quick fixes are common in any disaster-recovery portfolio, but in the Philippines, where the next storm season is only nine months out, it’s hard to hope for anything more. The international community loves the idea of “building back better,” but it’s much easier said than done. When a senior WASH program director and former civil engineer passed through our field site, I asked her if there was any trend towards connecting relief funding with improved resilience requirements. She didn’t try to hide how jaded she felt when she told me no, almost all grants for short-term reconstruction and recovery projects (lasting six months to a year) focus on returning communities to their baseline, pre-storm conditions. And by that time, we’d be right back in storm season, waiting for the next typhoon to restart the cycle.
We hit the beach and turned north, picking up the pace a little. The sun began to fall low on the horizon, and fishermen were dragging their boats up on the beach after a day at sea. They stopped to watch. Some nodded and smiled, but most looked tired. They had beached their vessels next to a ridge of sand dotted with palm wood crosses facing the ocean. As we approached, I worried if I was about to denigrate a burial site. Should I run on the inland side, or pass between the makeshift memorials and the ocean? Was I oblivious to a tradition and about to trample it? I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I’d seen locals do around churches and cemeteries. I bowed my head slightly, closed my eyes, and moved my hand from chin to chest, then from left shoulder to right, making the sign of the cross.
We passed other tributes to the typhoon on the beach – abandoned restaurants and hotels, sheet metal, lots of trash. We eventually stopped at a nice stretch of sand, took off our shoes and waded into the ocean. A group of Filipino boys came running up and watched us as we cooled off in the waves. Some looked skeptical – we had heard rumors of locals refusing to swim in the sea for fear of finding bodies in the surf. The fear was understandable, but unfounded; it was six weeks since the typhoon, and the casualties had long washed up on shore or out to sea.
The boys laughed at us as we hopped back into our socks, trying to avoid filling them with sand after our dip. They chased us down the beach until they reached their cluster of shacks. We waved goodbye and continued jogging down the beach. As I turned away, I noticed a shoe partially buried in the sand. It was small enough to be one of the boys’. I couldn’t help thinking about its wearer. Was that kid alive, chasing foreigners with friends, or was the shoe just a tiny, tragic relic of an individual that became a statistic?
We eventually turned off the beach back onto the dirt road. Outside the school some teenagers were playing basketball, dodging the divots and shooting for nothing but net on a hoop with no net. They bounced the ball at me, yelling “dunk!” as I ran towards them. I went for it, and missed. I’m just glad I didn’t break their hoop.
There are definite examples of disaster creating the opportunity for profound development (Fan 2013). I hope Typhoon Haiyan proves to be one of those cases, and there are some pretty good reasons to be optimistic. Since 2010, federal legislation has pushed local governments to invest in disaster risk reduction, compelling them to set aside at least five percent of their budget for a Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund (LDRRMF). A more recent amendment authorized local governments to use up to seventy percent of the LDRRMF for pre-disaster preparedness; the other thirty percent is reserved for response (Preparedness issues in Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Recovery). Typhoon Haiyan also spurred the federal government to invest P500 million in the People’s Survival Fund, created in 2012 to help local governments become more resilient to climate change and climate-related disasters (Ranada 2013).
However, at the international level, a meaningful connection still needs to be made between short-term relief and long-term resilience. We can’t keep hopping from one disaster to the next, throwing money at them until basic needs are met, people stop looking desperate on tv, and the international community gets bored and moves on. If we do, I’ll be back in the Philippines again next year, or the year after, running on the beach, trying not to look for shoes.
Fan, Lilianne. “Disaster as opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti.” Humanitarian Policy Group. November 2013. http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8693.pdf
Ford, Peter. “Typhoon Haiyan: Can Philippines build back better?” The Christian Science Monitor. February 9, 2014. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2014/0209/Typhoon-Haiyan-Can-Philippines-build-back-better
Nguyen, Kim. “One hundred days since Typhoon Haiyan.” Aljazeera. February 18, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/02/one-hundred-days-since-typhoon-haiyan-20142188436327673.html
“Preparedness issues in Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Recovery.” Global Disaster Preparedness Center. http://preparecenter.org/topics/preparedness-issues-philippines-typhoon-haiyan-recovery
Ranada, Pia. “P500M allotted for People’s Survival Fund, ecotowns.” Rappler. November 25, 2013. http://www.rappler.com/nation/44572-peoples-survival-fund-ecotowns-budget