Slow recovery in Philippines may increase storm hazards

Typhoon victims rebuilding using items in rubble

Weeks after the typhoon, a cargo ship still sat in debris in Tacloban, Philippines, where many people returned to ravaged areas seeking shelter in boats or freight containers.
Weeks after the typhoon, a cargo ship still sat in debris in Tacloban, Philippines, where many people returned to ravaged areas seeking shelter in boats or freight containers.

TACLOBAN, Philippines — The typhoon that recently barreled through the Philippines has left in its wake one of the most profound resettlement crises in decades, with the number of newly homeless far exceeding the capacity of aid groups and the government to respond.

Two months after one of the strongest typhoons on record, recovery in the central Philippines has been marked by a desperate scramble for shelter, as people return to the same areas that were ravaged and construct weaker, leakier, and sometimes rotting versions of their old homes.

That urgent but crude attempt to rebuild has raised the prospect that the storm-prone areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan will emerge more vulnerable to future disasters. The self-made reconstruction effort also reflects the scale of the damage.


November’s catastrophe displaced more than 4 million people — twice the number of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

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Left largely to fend for themselves, people are living in or under whatever remains. They inhabit boats or freight containers flung ashore by the tsunami-like storm surge.

They patch up near-destroyed homes with storm flotsam: twisted metal, plastic sheets, and ripped mattresses. If the initial storm was a global media event, its precarious aftermath is the opposite, taking place long after the cable news teams have decamped and attention has faded.

For those who lose homes in a disaster, there’s almost never a quick solution, relief workers say. The Katrina-hit Gulf Coast had its infamous FEMA trailers. Port-au-Prince had its squalid tent cities. Northeastern Japan had its cramped evacuation centers — mostly schools and civic centers — the last of which closed only last month, almost three years after a tsunami and a series of nuclear meltdowns.

What’s noteworthy in the Philippines, though, is not where people are resettling, but rather the degree to which they are staying put. Across the disaster zone, some 90 percent are still living in the same plot they were occupying before.


Even if survivors wanted to go elsewhere, they have few options. The typhoon-hit region has a dearth of formal evacuation shelters, and the first 1,000 government-built ‘‘bunkhouses’’ here do not meet minimum international standards, according to aid workers.

Under ideal circumstances, the survivors would be rebuilding with new materials, not scraps, but help has been slow to arrive. Only 9 percent of those affected by the storm have received support for rebuilding, including nails, tarpaulins, and tents, according to the Shelter Cluster, a committee co-chaired by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

‘‘If only you gave people a better option, they’d take it,’’ Petilla said. ‘‘But we haven’t done that.’’

Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000, proved to be so deadly not just because of its power, but because of what it picked up upon landfall. The storm splintered houses made of lumber and tin, and those splintered materials became spear-like weapons in the storm surge. Philippine government data show scores killed from puncture wounds and flying debris.

Some aid workers say it’s almost commendable that the shantytowns have so quickly sprouted again. It’s what they call ‘‘self-rescue.’’


But up close, the process looks like peril. In slum areas of Tacloban, Leyte’s largest city, some survivors are living on the second floor of a building that barely has a first floor left. The concern for officials locally and in Manila is that these resprouting slum area will turn into permanent solutions for survivors.

The officials have drawn up vague plans to eventually relocate entire coastal neighborhoods further inland, where they will be less prone to disaster, but the idea would require the nation to buy land, change laws and persuade residents — many of them fishermen — to move to areas where they’d have to find new jobs.