A man stands in the middle of a devastated and flooded street in Tacloban, Philippines. Super Typhoon Haiyan left only remnants of Tacloban's peaceful cities, but one small adjacent island reported zero casualties despite being right in Haiyan's path. Photo by: IOM/Joe Lowry / CC BY-NC-ND

When Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines, even the most prosperous towns were unable to resist the fury of the storm — all but one, located on a small remote island that reported zero casualties despite being right in Haiyan’s path.

How was that possible? Diligent preparation, according to Alfredo Arquillano Jr., award-winning disaster management advocate and former mayor of San Francisco, the island, wedged between the much larger landmasses of Cebu and Leyte.

“Preparedness is the key here, and how you can reduce the risk,” he told Devex. “The problem is that there are some local governments that are focused on response so much. It’s not supposed to be that way. We have to focus more on preparation, prevention and mitigation.”

Almost 48,000 lives from the municipality’s main island in San Francisco and the tiny adjacent island of Tulang Diyot were saved thanks to the local government’s efforts to evacuate people prior to the onslaught of the typhoon.

San Francisco’s well-planned evacuation contrasts with what happened in the storm-ravaged province of Leyte, especially in the municipalities of Tacloban and Palo, where citizens were evacuated but to low-lying areas where they were engulfed by the storm surge.

Although the Philippines has some of the most robust laws in terms of disaster risk management and climate change, lax implementation sees the country in a vicious cycle of picking up the pieces when calamities strike rather than mitigating their effects. Even governance in the local level is much in disarray, showing evidence of lack of preparation and capability to handle disasters of this scale.

Much is needed to fast-track disaster risk management and climate change efforts in the country, but the government and other aid groups don’t have the luxury of time.

Disaster preparation

The municipality of San Francisco was recognized by the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction with the agency’s Sasakawa Award in 2011 for adapting international standards of disaster preparedness and risk reduction. But according to Arquillano, having zero casualties in a typhoon in this scale is the biggest prize.

The community has been doing disaster preparedness drills since 2010 based on three main ideas: awareness, information dissemination, and empowering people.

“Actually, it’s all about awareness especially on the part of the people,” explained the former mayor. “[Our] people are already aware that they are vulnerable to effects of typhoons and calamities like this, making the part of the evacuation easier. When you build awareness, you reduce risk of disaster effects.”

Then comes information dissemination to educate the population about the possible effects of calamities like this, said Arquillano. Part of the reason why so many died in the coastal towns of Leyte was the lack of understanding of what a storm surge is, so people were caught by surprise with the huge tidal waves that engulfed houses.

Local governments should also empower people instead of letting them rely on government services and foreign aid, he noted. For the past three years, local authorities have required the citizens to prepare emergency food as part of the drills to boost their self-reliance.

“We have regular evacuation drills. People like us living in the islands don’t have much choice if we want to survive unless we do these things,” explained Arquillano. “[We] teach people how to be resilient and independent and not totally rely on the government. It teaches people to look after themselves and empower them.”

Looking ahead

For the people of San Francisco, the next logical thing to do is look ahead and move forward. The local government is now eyeing the idea of temporarily resettling the people from Tulang Diyot to the main island, where more structures were left standing.

Although it will prove to be a steep challenge, Arquillano said it’s the only way to make sure risk is reduced at the lowest level for the people in case something like this happens again.

The former mayor is aware of the impending problems cropping up including livelihood and employment opportunities for the relocated survivors — something he hopes the government and the international aid community can fill in.

“There’s more work to be done and we will need the help of the national government and different organizations,” said Arquillano. “We will need assistance for structural designs from the private sector and aid groups for climate-resilient homes. We will also need assistance on livelihood and training because people need these opportunities to live sustainably.”

He concluded: “We want to do things for the long term. If we’re going to rebuild, we want to rebuild for the better.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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