Typhoon Yolanda, Tacloban, and Research 101

I spent a week with my family in Montana before I departed for the Philippines and they selflessly cleared much of their schedule to spend time with me and help me pack. My parents had a million apprehensive questions for me about how I would manage a safe, healthy, and happy life abroad. Despite all their eagerness about my trip, one day my mom excitedly told me about a special she had seen on the Weather Channel about Tacloban City and – did I know?? – it had recently endured a very very big storm.

I tend to live my life in a flurry, and even my closest friends and family can’t see the research through the whirl. So, here’s the low down on Typhoon Yolanda, Tacloban, and a little about where I fit.This is a one-stop catch up, and in future posts I’ll write assuming readers are in the know.

Tacloban City is an urbanized and quickly growing city on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. The 2010 census reported  well over 200,000 Taclobanons, with a growth rate of 2.16 percent. It’s an industrialized, fast-paced city and unlikely to feature on a beach fanatic’s dream Philippine destinations list. You might have heard about it on a History Channel special about WWII. Just south of the city, in Palo, MacArthur made a historic landing in the Battle of Leyte. But, like my mom, myself, and much of the world, you likely first heard of Tacloban in 2013, when a record-breaking storm descended upon the city.

Storm path
Typhoon Yolanda’s path (adapted from this New York Times article)

On November 8th, Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan) sustained winds over 190 mph and pushed in a storm surge topping 15 feet. Typhoon Yolanda doesn’t fit into the hurricane classification system you’re likely familiar with – it was a category 6. Make no mistake, such a storm would be a terror for any American city.

boat ashore
The aftermath: a storm surge deposited boat, where dozens of families once had homes

Those of us who study disasters are adamant that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Academics are known for parsing words to the point of nausea, but here it matters. Natural disaster implies we can do as little about disasters as we can to change the hours of sunshine in a day. In truth, disasters erupt when nature collides with features we, as a society, are responsible for: haphazard urban planning, structurally weak infrastructure, and socially, economically, or otherwise vulnerable communities. Tacloban was struggling with all three prior to the storm.

Growth for developing cities is rarely graceful. As in many other rapidly growing Asian cities, people were moving to Tacloban faster than the city’s budget, urban planning and infrastructure could keep up with. Thousands of people were living in informal settlements, homes built with makeshift materials on some of the most undesirable property (re: prone to flooding or storm surge, without sufficient wastewater management, etc.). The situation had gotten so crowded that, even prior to the storm, the city government had begun plans to develop plots of land north of the main downtown center and relocate residents of cramped, informal communities.

After the storm, development of the north shifted from an interest to a priority. Informal communities suffered some of most intense damages. Families with toppled homes were moved into transitional shelters as soon as possible to await permanent homes in the north. Over 15,000 families, 40% of the city’s population, are targeted for permanent relocation. I want to really emphasize the magnitude of Tacloban’s relocation undertaking: imagine 1) you’re tasked with designing and scheduling the development of a new city for over 80,000 people 2) on a limited, sometimes unpredictable, budget 3) working as benevolently as possible in the best interest of the most affected people 4) during the confusing, frustrating, and contentious time that is post-disaster recovery, while you’re simultaneously trying to manage numerous other recovery needs 5) with a goal to do it better than it’s ever been done before, holistically integrating advanced infrastructure (not just houses) and livelihood opportunities. You think, 6) build quickly, to promptly move families out of transitional shelters and before international aid dries up but 7) not too quickly! Haste makes waste.

Ladies grabbing their daily due of water

Or, in the case of one Tacloban North community, wastewater overflowing into streets when the storm drains flood. In some communities too-small septic tanks are connected to too-small storm drains, resulting in wastewater contaminated streets during heavy rain events. Even without flooding the tanks are releasing untreated waste into the area’s rivers, a major problem that the city wants to fix immediately. Wastewater, a dirty little hobby of mine, will be the focus of my practicum during my first two months here. An even bigger issue is water. Families currently line up to receive their rationed portion of water trucked in by the city, a delivery that does not come on the weekends.

This sounds bad, and it’s hard to write it in a way that doesn’t entice you, the reader, to immediately start blaming someone. NGOs ignorant of local processes?? An inept government?? But there is no easy place to pinpoint, no single nucleus of failing recovery, and no single creator of successful recovery. Relocation and the construction projects necessary to complete it are extraordinarily complex, and each decision ripples through the system with both intentional and unforeseen consequences, good and bad. The City Housing Office employees leading it though are compassionate, dedicated, and tireless humanitarians. The city has currently paused the movement of new families until the most pressing issues are resolved, a task that takes coordinating responsibility and budget with numerous government and nongovernmental organizations.

After the practicum, I’m sticking around for three more months to dig into research specific to my graduate degree. Instead of just critiquing outcomes, I hope to get into the nitty-gritty of how and why relocation decisions were made. Especially decisions made in the name of, or which will have a large impact on, risk reduction. Some of the most trying, but under studied, aspects of relocation planning are infrastructure management and construction – think back to streets flooding with wastewater – so I’ll approach system issues via civil engineering.

If you’re interested to learn more about Tacloban City’s relocation story and an aficionado of academic literature, I suggest a forthcoming book chapter by Kanako Iuchi and Liz Maly, featured in Coming Home after Disaster: Multiple Dimensions of Housing Recovery. Kanako wrote her dissertation on resettlement and I’ve read it over numerous times… when she randomly stopped in to visit the City Housing Office I was pretty starstruck. Liz and Kanako kindly left me with a copy of the chapter, it’s absolutely worth a read. Keep an eye out for it.

For broader knowledge on the recovery process, especially insight into stakeholder participation and NGO coordination, Aaron Opdyke is a stellar reference.


2 thoughts on “Typhoon Yolanda, Tacloban, and Research 101”

  1. I love how you write – I feel like (for the most part of my understanding) I am there seeing this. Keep ’em coming – Be safe – We love you hon!!


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