From danger to death zone: Yolanda survivors still in sorry state 3 years after devastation

In Photo: A woman carries her baby across an area damaged by Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) in Tacloban City, Leyte, on November 12, 2013. Four days after one of the strongest storms on record struck eastern Philippines, assistance is only just beginning to arrive.

By Elmer V. Recuerdo | Correspondent

TACLOBAN CITY—The government’s housing project for families displaced by Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) three years ago is finally making headway, if the basis is solely on the number of houses that have been constructed.

Eastern Samar today
Eastern Samar today

But conditions on the ground see a myriad of problems that, if not addressed in the earliest possible time, the billions of pesos spent for them would mostly go down the drain. One would just wonder what the local government units (LGUs)have done to address the plight of their constituents over the last three years.

Data from the National Housing Authority (NHA) show 205,128 families from 116 cities and municipalities who were affected by Yolanda have been identified for relocation—because either their houses were destroyed or they are living in so-called unsafe zones.

Some 117,203 families from Western Visayas have been identified by the NHA as qualified for relocation, in contrast to only 56,140 families in Eastern Visayas, which is the most-battered region by the supertyphoon that devastated a big portion of the country on November 8, 2013. The government has earmarked P59.77 billion to build houses for the typhoon-displaced families.

The living conditions in Eastern Samar today
The living conditions in Eastern Samar today

Among the criteria used in the selection of target beneficiaries are the informal-settler families (ISF) should be situated within the 40-meter unsafe zones of the LGU; that the ISF has been validated by the local Social Welfare and Development Office; and that the ISF should be in coastal cities or municipalities and included in the Provincial Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Plan (PRRP), as submitted to the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR), formerly headed by Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson Sr.

Each family has a budget allocation of P290,000 for the house-and-lot package, with a 22-square-meter house that can withstand up to 250 kilometers per hour of wind-load capacity. The land development includes concrete roads and drainage system, water pipeline-distribution system, electrical-distribution system and individual septic tank.

Housing-project audit

As of September 5 this year, or nearly three years after Yolanda struck, only 11,618 houses—or 10 percent of the target—have been completed and 29,384 are considered as partially or substantially completed, per record of the NHA.

Compounding this is the slow-paced implementation, with the complaint of some residents, ranging from allegations that the houses are made of substandard materials to absence of amenities and livelihood opportunities at the relocation site.

Fisherman Narito Cuesta, 42, a resident of the worst-hit San Jose district, is among the first few who transferred to a permanent shelter in the northern villages of Tacloban. “The house looks beautiful on the outside, but when it rains, water leaks from the roof. You will also know that it is not sturdy, because when you knock on the concrete wall, it sounds hollow. There are already cracks on the wall,” he said.

Barely two months at the permanent shelter, Cuesta is now back in San Jose, where thousands of his neighbors died during the typhoon. “I am a fisherman. The place given to me is far from the sea and I have no other source of income. My family will die of hunger if we continue to live there,” he said in the local dialect.

Local housing-rights advocates, led by the Community of Yolanda Survivors and Partners (CYSP), an alliance of 163 community organizations supported by nine non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the forefront of Yolanda response, are asking the government to provide basic services, like water, electricity, schools and livelihood, in resettlement sites. They are also asking the government to conduct an audit on the housing projects to address the complaints.

“The construction is very slow and, in some municipalities, construction of housing projects has yet to start. The need is for the government to immediately review ongoing projects in view of survivors’ complaints of substandard construction, initiate an audit with survivors’ participation and immediately provide a venue for consultation with survivors. Otherwise, precious government funds are going to be wasted,” said Danny Carranza, Policy and Advocacy lead person of CYSP.

Takot ang mga lilipat na mawawalan ng hanapbuhay, at ang lilipatan ay walang tubig, ilaw kuryente, at malayo sa paaralan, dahil malalayo ang ipinatayong housing projects,” said Fara Gumalo, a survivor from Tacloban City, who represents Freedom from Debt Coalition, a member of CYSP. “Kaya nga ang nauuso ngayon ay from danger to death zone.”

But if the problem in Tacloban is the lack of social services at the resettlement sites, Yolanda-affected communities in Eastern Samar are asking if there will ever be a relocation that will be provided to them. Many municipalities have not yet identified sites to relocate families in high-risk areas and the listing of beneficiaries has to be redone due to discrepancies between the NHA figures and the number of families that need to be transferred.

Many residents are getting restless, as they are not aware if there is any plan to relocate them; all they know is that the community where they lived from the start is now marked a “no-build zone” and that, sooner or later, they will be asked to leave the place.

“The people are kept in the dark. They don’t know what the plans are for them,” said Rina Reyes, project manager of NGO Katarungan-Eastern Visayas.

“Where will we be relocated? What are our options? What exactly is the plan of the local government? These are legitimate questions that are not being answered,” says Lita Bagunas, president of Giporlos Shelter Rights for No-Build Zone Federation, a groups from four coastal villages.

She said the local government has to respond because decisions that will be done will have big impact to their families, especially on their livelihood and education of their children.

Giporlos Mayor Mark Biong admitted that, until now, no resettlement site has been identified yet, because of difficulty in looking for an area big enough to build the houses that will pass the requirement of the NHA.

Like many Yolanda-affected municipalities in Eastern Samar, many of the barangays are along the shoreline that are marked as high-risk areas. Also, most of the areas in Eastern Samar have no land titles, while the titled lands are sold at exorbitant rates due to the demand for resettlement sites.

“It is difficult to find a titled land that is 4.5 hectares big, where the 700 houses can be constructed,” he told the audience.

He said some residents volunteered their land, but more paper works have to be done, like the lack of records or the land size that does not match what is in the land title.

Biong also criticized some landowners who are taking advantage of the situation by jacking up the prices of their property. “We know that the land here costs only between P18 to P20, but now they are selling them at P150 to P200 per square meter.” In some areas in the town of Hernani, farmlands that qualify as resettlement area are sold as much as P1,500 per square meter.

He said many landowners are now dead and the heirs could not agree among themselves on the price of the property and how they will divide the money.

Biong also admitted that no final list of beneficiaries has been done yet because he does not trust the list given to him by many barangay captains. “I don’t trust the list. There are times when some who are deserving are not listed, and there are some who are on the list that are not deserving,” he said.

The initial list submitted to him, he added, only covered 360 beneficiaries, but he was able to convince the NHA to increase it to 700. “We found some houses had two or three households under one roof. We will revalidate the list to be fair with everybody,” he said.

“What we want to do is ensure first the housing project, all the departments will comply with what needs to be submitted, then we will start the assessment,” he said. The complete listing of beneficiaries can be accomplished in three months, he noted.

Biong said he wants to be “personally on top of the listing of beneficiaries” and take responsibility for any criticism that might come later. He said being in his last term in office frees him of suspicion of politicking.

Rina Reyes of Katarungan said there should be a national agency that will be on top of the situation, a body similar to Oparr but with teeth, a central body that can call meetings and censure agencies that are not doing their job.

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