Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One year after Yolanda

This is my column today, October 2014.


In just four weeks, it would be one whole year since the most destructive typhoon ever to visit the country hit most of Visayas and sent the people of Leyte and Samar down on their knees, if not totally prostrate on the ground. 
I am sure there will be efforts to recall the tragedy that happened on November 8, 2013 and in the succeeding days, weeks and months. 
There will be ceremonies to remember the thousands who perished – many of them still unaccounted for and most of them buried in anonymous or makeshift graves and in conditions bereft of the most basic form of respect for human dignity.   I am sure there will religious rites to commemorate the first death anniversary of those who perished as required by the Waray culture.
I am sure there will be efforts to celebrate the heroism of many people, particularly those of ordinary citizens who volunteered their services and resources to aid Yolanda’s victims including those who were victims themselves.  I was in Tacloban City three days after the supertyphoon struck and I can attest that while official relief, rescue and rehabilitation efforts of the government was helplessly caught up in bureaucratic rigmarole, quite a number of volunteer groups from various cities in Mindanao and Luzon were already streaming into Leyte to provide critical assistance.
But I am also quite sure that there will a lot of recrimination and expression of anger and betrayal. 
One year has passed and yet the questions that beg to be answered have not really changed:  What has happened to the much ballyhooed master plan to rebuild Tacloban City?  What happened to the programs meant to help the citizens of Tacloban and nearby towns to recover from the tragedy?  What happened to the many promises and commitments that were made? 
It is true that parts of Eastern Visayas have started to show signs of recovery.  I have reported in this space many vignettes that illustrate creeping signs of recovery and the painstaking process to return to normalcy.  Most of the commercial establishments are now operational and electricity and basic utilities have been restored in most parts of the region.  Roads are slowly being restored.  Land transportation systems are almost back to normal.
But thousands of victims and hundreds of families continue to live in makeshift tents or temporary shelters.  And worse, in areas where their old houses used to be, which have been declared no-build zones.  The much publicized relocation sites have not materialized.  And the promised employment and livelihood programs have seemingly been forgotten.
Thanks to the foot dragging of government, the plane fare to Tacloban City from Manila, is now the most expensive ticket ever.  A cousin purchased her one-way ticket to Manila at almost 10,000 pesos, bought a week prior to departure.  I bought tickets last month for a trip the other week and the cost of a return ticket was almost the cost of a ticket to Singapore or Bangkok.  This is because the runway of the Tacloban Airport is being repaired and only small propeller planes are allowed to land or take off.  Why construction should take five months is a question that has not been answered sufficiently. 
The Pope’s impending visit to Tacloban in January 2015 was initially seen as a welcome development; a symbolic, if not a real sign of deliverance.  Unfortunately, it looks like the visit will not be beneficial for the victims after all.  Not only is there a mad scramble among those in positions of power and influence to get better and preferential treatment and accommodation in terms of seats and schedules during the Pope’s visit, there is also now frenzied efforts to hide remaining signs of the devastation and the neglect.  In the town of Palo, roads are being widened and residents are being asked to surrender their rights with nary a whimper.  I am told there will be efforts to exclude militants and to even whitewash certain areas to sanitize the fact that very little has actually been done by government to directly benefit the victims.

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