Reflections on 4ICUDR

Mid-October I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction in Wellington, New Zealand.

The conference venue, photo kindly borrowed from Architecture Now

I hope the original conference founders forgive me if I get this wrong, but the conference series began in the early oughts as a collaboration between American and Japanese researchers, expanded to Taiwan in the next round, and the third conference was held in Boulder two years ago. For the 4th, New Zealand researchers jumped into the mix, which was really special because many of the local presenters were able to speak from their recent experience with the Canterbury earthquakes. On top of the diversity in nationalities, I really loved the eclectic mix of practitioners and academics at the conference. There was a troop of fellow engineers as well as accountants, public policy folks, sociologists, economists, psychologists, public health experts, and even a law professor.

Me, likely talking way too fast

I presented on the initial analysis of interviews and observations from July and August in Tacloban City. In this phase of research, I’m really digging into understanding the institutional environment influencing relocation and construction decisions. In the same session another graduate student, Sam Penta from the University of Delaware, presented on her work to analyze post-disaster decision making and it was really fun to connect with her on our varying strategies. Her advisor at the Disaster Research Center, Tricia Wachtendorf, predicted research partnerships between us once we’re grown up academics with PhDs in hand. I’m totally on board. Sam is great, and I really loved the conference-wide emphasis on feedback and networking for young researchers. There was clearly a tradition of long-lasting relationships founded at previous ICUDR events, and I’d be thrilled to join the family.

There were a few presentations that have stuck in my mind, I’ll share them briefly in case any fellow hazard nerds find inspiration like I did. First, Tricia presented on a little-known part of 9/11, the waterborne evacuation of hundreds of thousands off of Manhattan Island. It was organic and spontaneous, smartly coordinated by the Coast Guard but lacking any pre-arranged plan. Working with James Kendra, also from the Disaster Research Center, Tricia found that many of the responders gravitated to help in “the only way they knew how”, acting off their expertise and identity as mariners. She compared it to a puzzle so large that individual actors could not know what the picture looked like and only had the means to stitch together a few pieces, but they trusted that others would be working on the puzzle pieces they couldn’t see and solve. For instance, ferry operators had no idea what would happen when they dropped people off in New Jersey, but it turned out a legion of bus operators was standing by to handle that piece of the puzzle. I thought it was a great analogy for emergency management, but I also realized that after an emergency, during long-term recovery, improvised and unassisted puzzle construction slows. In long-term recovery, actors can no longer operate under the assumption that random and unknown others are also working on the puzzle. Coordination is hard and requires purposeful, habitual, communication. I’d also argue that for successful recovery, the best outcomes will be derived from a shared picture of the puzzle while the individual actors work on their few pieces.

James Kendra also had a presentation, a bit of an off-the-cuff reflection of the needs and growing trends in the disaster research field. The biggest need in disaster research? More. Simply more. James cited a shift in hazards, changing recovery strategies (re: relocation, holla!), degradation of infrastructure and critical interdependencies as drivers for more disaster research. He also responded to common criticisms of disaster research, particularly critiques of the researcher’s impact in the emergency environment. He shared stories over his decades of disaster research that pushed back on negative myths and demonstrated researchers are not in the way, they don’t consume scarce resources, and they are not manipulating interview participants who are too distraught to provide informed consent. He argued that quick reconnaissance research should be kept informal and low impact, and in doing so is not a drain or detriment to the response effort.

Dr. Kendra delivering his thoughts on changes in the disaster field

Dr. John Hopkins, a Scotsman uprooted to New Zealand, provided an impassioned argument “in defense of red tape” from his perspective as a lawyer and law professor. He explained legislative controls, the bureaucratic processes that counter executive discretion, exist for good reasons and those good reasons don’t disappear during disaster recovery. Rather, in the exact moment we may most direly need good governance structures, we come to label those structures “red tape” in the way of swift and valiant recovery actions. I was intriguing because I’ve found the degradation of several conventional regulatory processes in Tacloban City has had unintended and unfavorable consequences on the quality and timing of the relocation project overall.

My favorite presentation was by Dan Neely, a community resilience manager for Wellington. He talked about the city’s efforts to draft a post-disaster recovery framework now, in the pre-disaster time. The average reader might not be so impressed, but I was elated. Wellington’s plan is rare and wonderful. Thinking about the recovery environment ahead of time allows for an alignment of expectations. It’s an opportunity to decide power distribution depending on the scale of the disaster and put careful thought into communication and coordination. Honestly I failed to take good notes on the talk because I was just wrapped up in listening.

There were many, many more stellar researchers and plenty of newcomers like me. The executive director of EERI, Jay Berger, is extraordinarily kind and noticeably took time to reach out to all the young researchers. I was stoked to meet economist Ilan Noy, who recently published an article with World Politics Review that I really loved. Keynote Dr. Kimiro Meguro shared lessons from Japan and emphasized the need to act smartly in a disaster regardless of how your location is coded on a hazard map; “some people misuse hazards maps as safety maps.” John Vargo from Resilient Organisations kindly invited me to dinner with several New Zealand researchers. I found a kindred spirit in Marc Azotea because he’s also from the Philippines… then I remembered oops no, I’m not a Filipina I’ve just been surviving on adobo and kinilaw the last few months. Marc moved to South Korea for his graduate studies even though he doesn’t speak Korean, mastering civil engineering and a new language at the same time!

I made many of them promise to try their best to attend the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado next July—hopefully I can keep my end of the deal and attend as well!

Resilience Legalese

Today I joined representatives of numerous City Government offices, UP Tacloban, the Coalition of Yolanda Survivors, several regional governing bodies, UN HABITAT, and leaders from existing resettlement sites in a “writeshop” for a proposed “Resilient Human Settlement” legislative bill. This baby’s on the national policy stage, but the technical working group behind it, largely facilitated by Oxfam, recognizes the extremes endured in Tacloban and the resultant experiential knowledge owned by the local actors, so the city got a bit of extra attention. An Oxfam coordinator began the session noting existing laws are not capable of meeting the challenges of 21st century storms. “Haiyan changed the old…it’s the new normal. As far as climate change is concerned we are on a new page right now.”

Divided into huddles based on our respective offices – I’m still an adopted member of the Local Government Unit – we critiqued the working draft of the legislation and provided feedback. Our collective suggestions, broken down by section of the bill, culminated in this:

2016-08-11 14.20.59

Readers of previous posts must think I’m in the Philippines spending an unusual amount of time writing bite-size reflections on small slips of paper. Not exactly the pictures you were hoping to see me post while living on a beautiful island, huh? But don’t give up reading just yet!  Today’s session was a six hour microcosm of what motivates my dissertation. By the end of the post, I hope to convince you that there’s a story worth investigating on these little slips of paper.

I mentioned we were divided into homogenous teams, each stacked with players from complementary offices and organizations. Members on my team, that of the Local Government Unit plus an National Housing Authority representative (and two wonderful French urban planning friends I invited along), were, and still are, all highly integral in making decisions for Tacloban’s recovery. They’ve seen the reconstruction and relocation progress from a very specific vantage point. And although I obviously wasn’t around for any of it, after seven weeks with the city government I’ve built a blurry but functional pair of LGU-glasses that I put on in moments like these. I say this because I did actively participate in today’s session, but I believe my input was a fair reflection of the general concerns being voiced in the city government camp. As I continue to make my case about why today is so intriguing, I don’t believe my intervention skewed the outcome.

My team worked in a disjointed fashion, uniting our ideas on the wall first instead of open discussion. Nevertheless, when it came time to present, coherent and cohesive themes emerged.

2016-08-11 11.38.42
Can you pick out the comments I contributed?

A good number of our paper strips addressed creating a Department of Human Settlements, not just the coordinating interagency body suggested by the act under deliberation. My team members have all been subject to imposed and ineffective coordinating agencies, and they were loathe to get behind the development of another one. Apparently there is a law in Congress right now proposing some sort of a housing and human settlements department. My teammates stressed if that’s so and it passes then 1) independently progressing with this bill and not tying it to that department is a waste and 2) we need to ensure that department is holistically designed and equipped with the multidisciplinary individuals necessary to live it out.

We also were caught up on the bill’s fuzzy definition of short and long-term timeframes and what’s expected in each. Ma’am Mariya Lagman of the City Housing and Community Development Office (my LGU alma mater) gave a wonderful soliloquy about the need to un-vilify mid-term options. In fact she spoke movingly several times, I’ll jump back that later. The government team was the only one to speak on mid-term solutions in detail, singularly stressed that noncompliance penalties need to be added, named the most ‘missing’ agencies from the act, and was alone in questioning the role of assigning NEDA to the primary leadership position. Not to rag on NEDA (the National Economic and Development Authority), they’ve been wonderful partners and pivotal in planning Tacloban North, but is NEDA really the government agency with the most expertise in disaster recovery? And if recovery is not what it was designed to do, could we do even better with an agency constructed for recovery?  – Which brought us back to a healthy suspicion over the proposed housing settlements agency.

I know, I’m not able to lend you my LGU-glasses over the internet, so you may be a bit muddled. Here’s what I took away: Our team had largely high-level critiques. Coordination is a huge, sticky, tricky task, and not one that can be solved with the wand-wave of a new law. The seven pages of the act were much too vague for actual implementation, and lacked the muscle of consequences to enforce its holistic intentions.

Now let’s look at the 2016-08-11 13.13.15notes coming out of the teams comprised of community representatives. Those speaking most directly for project beneficiaries were either nominated representatives from relocated communities themselves or leaders in grassroots organizations for Yolanda survivors. They are some of the best types of people on the planet, with an unparalleled level of selflessness and drive to improve conditions for the urban poor. Here’s a selection of what their papers said:

2016-08-11 11.41.00

The community-minded teams expressed issues as experienced by the communities themselves. When community teams said M&E, they meant monitoring of every concrete pour because they are the ones who must live in these homes. The community teams alone emphasized gender equality, livelihoods, and ownership. The community teams also mentioned creating a dedicated department instead of just a coordinating body but other than that their critiques were about the experience, not operations at the institutional level. Their boards look sparse but this is only because, in appropriate community-like fashion, they collectively discussed their concerns first and then wrote them down together. I could hear their collaboration easily over the lack of ours.

2016-08-11 11.39.14

So what’s so significant? Yes the teams expressed different concerns, but isn’t that the point of bringing together the diverse swath of stakeholders?

Absolutely, I agree that’s a good thing. Today the meeting accomplished the goal of hearing from a range of concerned parties (note I didn’t say full range…) and the act will improve accordingly.

Some difference though, I find very significant. I want to know how those differences came to be and if they will affect project outcomes, especially risk reduction. For instance, I care that the community teams were the only ones to inject in-city relocation into the conversation. How and why has this option been torn from the list of options referenced by higher levels of decision makers? Given it’s necessary to fund massive infrastructure development to make the North viable, I doubt the case against in-city relocation is as compelling as the dominant pro-North narrative suggests.

I care that two of the major problems pervading relocation development are issues of infrastructure: water access and construction quality. Thus Tacloban North parables are also stories of project programming, contractor management, and construction oversight. However, the conversation is colored differently depending on the speaker. Take poor construction quality and oversight. The government actors see a need to reign in cowboy contractors. On the community side there’s a desire to take over ownership of their own homes,  I don’t mean just a literal deed but also ownership over the process so they have the capacity to prevent construction errors themselves.


Maybe you don’t see it, but when I take off my LGU-goggles, I see different priorities, different vocabulary, and different concerns surround the shared project of relocating to Tacloban North.

Before I end, let’s return quickly to the reason we were all there: Oxfam gathered us to review a bill tentatively short-titled “Resilient Human Settlement”. The idea of the bill is to make holistic, collaborative, disaster-resilient socialized housing a law. I supposes there’s nothing bad about such bill. At its worst, it’s an admirable goal that if passed will have benign effects. I’ve learned that the government hierarchy runs on ordinances and written directives, so it’s likely the bill will motivate a bit of resiliency gumption in a few agency directors.

But the goal is transformative change in the way we design and manage post-disaster housing. Can legalese about resiliency actually cultivate resilient communities?

Sorry policy folks, I just don’t believe it can. Better put, I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t believe the wisdom and empathy I saw in Mariya’s speeches today can be replicated through carefully crafted legislation. And I think that wisdom and empathy are necessary to stage a revolt on recovery-as-usual practices. Mariya wasn’t alone. Grassroots organizers shared concerns we were humbled to not have remembered ourselves. A UP professor articulated the both the glory of community-led reconstruction and the caution that must be applied in how much time and effort we really expect of community members.

I’m not implying Mariya or anyone else there wants the job… but I kept thinking to change the system, those with experience in disaster recovery shouldn’t just be consulted, they should be headhunted to fill leadership roles in whatever sure to be enthusiastically-named Department of Holistic, Resilient, Sustainable, Equitable and Economical Human Settlements is formed to do disaster recovery differently.


PS: The UP professor cited work of an American researcher so insightful that we all should read it… it was the work of my compatriot Aaron Opdyke! I just about jumped out of my seat with excitement. Could there be a cooler moment for a researcher than having your work contribute to policy making!? Despite the doubts I mentioned about a resiliency law above, it is nevertheless incredible that Aaron’s work was suggested as a resource. Congrats Aaron!

Sketch Mapping: Drawing our way to better interviews

My research seeks to find the story numbers can’t tell, the sometimes non-obvious narratives that emerge when families are processed through risk reduction via relocation. Many will be moving into a home made of concrete instead of reconstituted scraps for the first time. Many have never lived so far from the sea or made a livelihood beyond coastal-based enterprises. All have critical opinions and perceptions about the relocation sites – generally 200-1000 houses sandwiched in row form, often with a community school but generally without reliable utilities – that I care to learn.

I largely rely on qualitative data for my research. A good interview is more like an organic conversation than a tedious series of survey questions. Yet I’m a foreigner showing up unannounced to ask curious questions, organic conversation is a bit of wishful thinking. Thus, along with my stellar research assistant, I must try to induce natural and comfortable communication. If interviewees can be in a state of relaxed but focused chatter, we can get to knowledge they might not have revealed in a cursory survey.

So we ask people to draw. I don’t consider myself particularly creative or capable of composing a picture anyone wants to look at. I’m the first person to realize that asking someone to draw might make them feel more uncomfortable, not less. Truthfully, it takes a bit of finesse, and I couldn’t do it without such a warm and sociable research assistant. At first, there are awkward laughs and self-depreciating comments about how they don’t think they can do it. We encourage them to just give it a go, and then…

Something marvelous happens. Drawing is fun. It’s really fun, and when they realize they’re identifying aspects of their community we find truly fascinating burdens of self doubt are finally undone. So far, every map includes a church, many include the local source of water. Some community members are newly moved into their relocation homes and their maps vividly focus on their old barangays. More seasoned residents are able to mark specifics of their new community. A resident of Palanog drew the cemetery she passes by everyday. The cemetery became a mass grave for Yolanda victims, and we cried at the sharpness of the perpetual reminder.

No, magical creativity doesn’t happen with every person. Not every map leads to new understandings, and I’ve not stumbled upon the key to sage wisdom that would have been eternally locked inside their minds had I not deployed pen and paper. Importantly though, drawing their community lets me probe about hazards more tactfully than I otherwise could.

For example, after one woman drew this sketch map (she selected colored pencils so it’s a bit hard to read, my apologies) we asked her to color areas susceptible to flooding with a light blue marker. She narrowed in on a brand new but poorly designed box culvert and went on the describe how the creek will back up behind it, flooding both newly built homes of the closest relocation site as well as a pre-existing neighborhood.


I knew about the box culvert before the interview. And I’m fearful of the exact same thing: civil infrastructure begot flooding. An inverse hazard of sorts, instigated, not mitigated, by the built environment. However I’m sensitive to the hazard perceptions of community members and hesitant to introduce my own opinions, or generate anxiety where it wasn’t before. I want to entice meaningful knowledge worth sharing with the disaster risk reduction and recovery community – not frustration with the local government, implementing NGOs, or construction contractors. Sketch mapping was a medium where where she explored her personal awareness about her community differently than while responding to interview questions. Had I asked “Where in your community is at risk of flooding?” without sketch mapping maybe she’d be visualizing just the block her house sits in, or mentally gloss over the little tidbit that the box culvert down the road may be undersized. As an interviewer, I wouldn’t have anyway of knowing and no recourse except to bluntly point out areas that I know are potential flood zones. But with sketch mapping she can say “Here. I’m worried it will flood here.” Then we can learn why she thinks that might be, and what should be done about it.

Plus, I quickly realized that art supplies are the perfect way to entertain children. Interviews last roughly an hour, and usually a sizable troupe of little ones stare confused or annoyed from the sidelines. Now I set them up with markers and paper before we even begin. While their mom drew the picture above this trio tried to copy, drawing a wiggly neighborhood of houses.

99% of interviews involve adorable kids coloring, what’s not to love?

On the side, I listed out the woman’s responses to “What affected your decision to relocate?” I’m not using list creation as a part of a formal comparative method, like the analytical hierarchy process (which is a part of research about community values and sanitation underway by my good friend Allie Davis), but again to just draw out deeper responses. Similar to sketch mapping, I’ve noticed that visualizing answers, however it’s acted out, is a way to enhance interviewees’ reflection on their experiences. It forces a bit of friction – they slow down, and search for additional details.

I adore sketch mapping, but I may be abandoning the paper and marker method soon. If all goes well however, I’ll be trading up. I recently hired a new research assistant, Phoebe, with extensive community mapping experience. She wants to try out a method of sketch mapping off the page and onto the street. We went to Leyte Paper World and loaded up on every color of construction paper they had and she spent the evening prepping the materials. With her method sketch mapping will be collaborative, which certainly has both advantages and disadvantages. Guided by Phoebe’s probing questions, a collection of interviewees will map out their community by placing paper of specific shapes and colors onto the ground, growing the picture of their community together and mutually analyzing the hazards they face. Over the next few weeks we’ll return to the three communities I’ve already interviewed in and explore the utility of collective and active group mapping over individually drawn maps.

Before moving on to the full suite of relocation projects I’ll study for my dissertation, my advisor and I will synthesize initial findings from these three communities and interviews with decision makers (at this point, from the city government and NGOs only) into a paper for the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction. I’m really excited to share findings and invite others to critique our research process. And I’ll keep sharing here, please reach out if you have any tips and tricks for community sketch mapping, I’d love to learn!

I Heart Meetings

I know, I’m some sort of freak of nature. Something inside me lights up when I gather with others to share knowledge and solve problems. I glow after a particularly high-energy or productive meeting. I even love meetings with friction and a little healthy contention. Lucky for me, the last two weeks have been filled with meetings where skills grew, wicked problems were stared down, and I witnessed the making of impactful decisions.

First, Oxfam connected city and NHA engineers with experts on decentralized wastewater treatment systems and everyone came together for a capacity-building workshop. On the first day the consultant team, Basic Needs Service Philippines (a partner organization of the BORDA network), presented introductory knowledge on the global sanitation situation and walked the team through the basics of wastewater treatment. Then we piled into multi-cabs and headed up north to check out the site we’d be using as our example design layout for the remainder of the week. The next day was the core of the workshop, learning how to design anaerobic baffled reactors and planted gravel filters. I was desperate to learn about the assumptions BNS recommended. Without any way to test the BOD and COD, central design parameters for ABRs, I’ve felt like an engineer with my hands tied behind my back. The decision to select ABRs followed by PGFs was made before I arrived, but I’m told they were favored because they are relatively simple to design, construct, and maintain – and not too painful on the budget either. So far the city engineers have proved at least one of those aspect to be true, everyone caught onto the design process extraordinarily fast.

Two design groups, one for a 100 household design and one for 250, hard at work

At the workshop we all collectively learned on one example site, we didn’t actually design the systems that will eventually be built on the relocation sites throughout Tacloban North. For that, the bulk of my job will be encouraging all of us to put our new skills to work before they have a chance to atrophy.  On Tuesday of the next week we set out to keep the wastewater momentum going and held the first sewage technical working group since the inauguration of the new city administration on June 30th. At the technical working group we had a chance to re-engage leadership at the City Health Office, and I was happy to see how motivated they are to be a part of the process. Ted relaxed while I led the meeting and it felt really good to begin moving out of the role Ted’s tagalong and into that of a contributing team member with my own scope of responsibility.

Except I was a little disappointed at the timing of my independence… UN HABITAT was simultaneously leading the third installment of Tacloban’s local climate change action plan. Leaders in the city government and international organizations met to discuss emerging threats to Tacloban’s environment and discussed the city’s adaptive capacity in major thematic areas such as social capital, infrastructure, and the economy. A less integrated me, unburdened by conflicting tasks, might have been able to plop down for the entirety of the event and soak it all in. When we had a few spare moments over the three day event Ted and I would drop in and engage where we could, but we were disappointingly unable to be permanent participants. However, I was able to spend a few blissful hours with the infrastructure group discussing how resilient the city’s urban infrastructure is to any flood, tsunami, earthquake, high wind event, or increased temperature extremes.

My final meeting was in Manila, hosted by the National Economic and Development Authority. Ted and I boarded a plane out of Tacloban at six in the morning and were walking up the steps of NEDA by ten. We were both overcome by how grandiose it felt compared to our usual meeting locales. I really don’t think Ted knows who Drake is, but he turned to me and said “stared in the province now we’re here” in a way that was so strikingly on beat it’s like he was truly referencing the song. First to arrive in the meeting room, we took several giddy pictures of our name tags and the beautiful space.

2016-07-21 10.02.30Working alongside the Leyte Metropolitan Water District, we were there to advocate for our recommended mid-term water solution for Tacloban North resettled communities. In the long run a fully connected pipe system will be laid, but such systems take considerable time and we need a decent windfall of funding to deliver water in the interim. With the Department of Budget and Management, the Local Water Utilities Administration, and the National Housing Association all in attendance I necessarily took a near fly-on-the-wall role. But a very happy fly-on-the-wall fantastically awed to be included in the room at all. And good news! The project can continue marching on now that we’ve secured approval to construct an urgent piped system. This will be different from the long-term network, which is drawing and transporting water from an ample source in the mountains. The mid-term plan will rely on source development to construct reservoirs. These reservoirs won’t have enough capacity to fully supply Tacloban North, in fact they’ll often need to be manually filled. Rather each of the three source points will serve as a water hub, with the spokes consisting of a pipeline extending to the nearest communities. It’s not ideal as a permanent solution but much better than the alternative, endlessly trucking in water tankers from a town 30km away.

Outside of all these really exhilarating [to me] meetings, I did spend some brief time in the sunshine. Ted, Lila, and I were invited out to a friend’s newly purchased island to visit his rehabilitation of the island’s hatchery. He’s an Australian man with a hobby of starting businesses around Leyte. Just before departing for the island we stopped at the market to see a stall selling tilapia from his company’s fishery in Tacloban North, the first entrance of local tilapia in the market. The hatchery was build 20 years ago through bilateral aid with several European countries. Beautifully constructed, the community wasn’t properly trained on it’s delicate management and the concrete has since been overrun by the jungle. Visiting the refurbished hatchery was a bit of educational eco-tourism, but I think we were really there for the food. We had a feast of local seafood, the mussels in particular were harvest barely only 50 meters away.

Life in Tacloban is turning out to be a rhythm of hard work and great food. Visit if you can, keep reading either way!


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.


67 hours later, Tacloban!

Since I left my home in Montana (slogging through tears, to my father’s embarrassment) I’ve completed the most time consuming trip around the world I’ve ever taken, but oddly also one of the easiest. Even the longest flight flew by, and I never had to deploy my favored method of snoozing through endlessly long international flights: capitalizing on complementary wine.

However, my flight to Tacloban from Manila was delayed due to “congestion at the destination”, which I believe is code for “Tacloban City is having an epically fun fiesta”. The city celebrates Sto. Niño de Leyte Fiesta on June 30th, but the colorful Sangyaw Pasasalamat parade occurs the night before. The whole city shut down for the parade. While I missed the festive costumes and music, I made friends with many other Tacloban-bound passengers waiting in the Manila pre-departure room. I’m a sucker for camaraderie in unpleasant times, so I was pretty tickled.

Don’t know where in the world Tacloban City is? Check out this site to follow the path of Typhoon Haiyan and see if you can find Tacloban!

I took off wandering the next morning, looping through coffee shops recommended to me by Aaron Opdyke, a member of my CU research group and fellow post-Haiyan researcher. It didn’t take long for Tacloban City to mentally melt from an intimidating metro to a very walkable, knowable, friendly downtown. Many shops were closed for the holiday, but in Aaron’s highly recommended Jose Karlos I was perfectly perched to watch colorful umbrellas and balloons bobbing in and out of a busy church. Even Spongebob went to the service.


In the afternoon I met up with Ted Jopson, the Assistant Director of the Tacloban City Housing and Community Development Office. Six months ago I hunted down his number and used my Skype credit to call him without warning. Ted was in the middle of evaluating a project on a relocation site north of the city, but instead of rebuffing a stutteringly nervous American girl he kindly gave me his email, and has graciously worked with me since to arrange joining them as a volunteer engineer. Ted and I met on the lawn of City Hall during the inaugural speech of the city’s new mayor, Cristina Romualdez. The ex-mayor, her husband, was joyously smiling nearby, and all of City Hall had poured onto the lawn to listen. Most were dressed up for the occasion, some women were in beautiful silk dresses, and I no longer felt proud of my “modest and professional” decision to wear jeans instead of shorts. Mayor Romualdez spoke on many of her priorities for the upcoming years, all inspiring and necessary, but I felt especially happy to hear her stress the need to develop prerequisite infrastructure at relocation sites (instead of just building basic houses) and continue to strive for risk reduction through innovative urban planning techniques, foreign and homegrown knowledge, and scientific and engineered measures.

After the ceremony, Ted ushered me around the City Hall crowd, introducing me to every department head he could get his hands on, and plopped me down towards the front of food line. I’m quite convinced I couldn’t have a more friendly professional host. We ate our meals with members of his team and I began to grasp responsibilities of the office, including my duties in the coming months. Immediately after the meal I returned to my hotel to Skype with my predecessor, Marc Pons. He’s also and engineer and also a volunteer for the office, but newly returned to Spain after a year in Tacloban. The idea of even beginning to fill his shoes is daunting, luckily they’ve mostly cornered me into wastewater treatment. He worked tirelessly with the city government to build and communicate the vision for Tacloban North. He’s one of the primary local champions for slowing housing construction until supporting infrastructure — roads, drainage, water and wastewater management, power — are established in harmony.

Marc explained that the city wants to establish a community, not just build houses in Tacloban North, and towards this end they are developing a city center with fire and police stations, a town hall, market, etc. My primary work will focus on designing wastewater treatment for the city center. Anaerobic baffled reactors and planted gravel filters are the methods of choice, so I’ll be tailoring an ABR design to fit the needs of TN Central. After that, I’ll pivot to a feasibility study for a connected, centralized collection and treatment system for the Tacloban North area as a whole. Tacloban North is a very large span of empty land 30-45 minutes beyond the main downtown area. A dozen relocation sites are planned for development, but they are distant islands of settlement. Constructing a centralized system might, potentially be irrational. But Marc, Ted, and the team at the Housing and Community Development Office believe digging up roadways in 15 years to lay piping would be truly ludicrous.  If ever, now, is the time to thoughtfully construct a centralized system, without concrete or urban buzz in the way. For a project like this, even a simple feasibility study is far from simple, so I’ll work on a rough sketch of what such a system might look like, and what resources might be required to get the job done.

If you’ve made it this far Thank you! I realize that I’ve tossed a handful of personal details into a vacuum empty of adequate explanation for why here and why now. Check back soon to learn more about Tacloban, recovery efforts to date, and the general plan for my five months.