Two years on, Haiyan survivors still to face their biggest ordeal since the storm

Mariaflor Terasa, Haiyan survivor. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

Mariaflor Terasa was in Manila, Philippines to have a tumor removed from her right breast when Typhoon Haiyan hit her hometown in Tacloban, Leyte. Without her family, she left her home in the care of her nephew. When she came back, everything was gone — including her nephew and her small house.

At 62 years old, she now lives with her dog in a 12-by-16-foot house made of thin plywood, poured concrete and reinforced tin roof provided by HelpAge International, one of dozens of humanitarian groups that flocked to the typhoon-hit areas to provide over $1 billion in assistance to the 14 million people affected from day one.

Smiling at the camera while tending to a small store she was able to erect, Terasa seemed at home in her new house, although she acknowledged she still goes back to the bare land where her old house used to stand just a hundred meters away. She said a lot of changes have been made for the better since Haiyan, but she fears these will slide away once organizations start pulling out their activities according to their usual three-year timeline.

“We’re very grateful for all the help they’ve given, but we hope the government has a plan in continuing the programs that have helped in the rehabilitation,” she told Devex on the ground in Leyte province. While things are much better now, she said, things could still fail if there’s no sustainability plan put in place.

Many of the organizations that have helped in the relief and recovery operations following the typhoon, including the United Nations, already packed their bags about a year ago in the affected areas, as communities continued to rehabilitate. HelpAge and local partner Coalition of Services of the Elderly, for instance, are planning to wrap up their rehabilitation programs by December 2016 — an election year that could make or break the momentum of the rehabilitation efforts on the ground.

On the way to a mountainous community in rural Leyte, Aldrin Norio, an aid worker for HelpAge-COSE, told Devex that a lot of people have welcomed the help of international and local organizations to the point that they got used to them visiting and offering help. They are worried that everything may be put on hold as politics come into play once electioneering begins next year.

A mobile health clinic program, for example, has been implemented in the town of Honan in Leyte for more than 10 months, to help elderly people living in remote areas receive medical attention and supplies on a weekly basis in the comfort of their own homes. But Norio shared that while people have embraced the program, its sustainability remains up in the air. Efforts to continue the partnership with the local government — which provides half of the volunteer nurses’ salaries and the motorcycle drivers accompanying them to remote areas — are on hold. The politicians, who hold great sway over these partnerships, are themselves unsure whether they will remain in their positions of power.

“It’s a bit difficult to continue with certain programs because we are dependent on our partnership with [the government],” Norio said, suggesting uncertainty over the fate of the proposal for the government to adopt those programs that work well.

This is not the first time that politics and lack of coordination through different interests — both within government and between humanitarian groups — have played a part in the relief operations for Haiyan. During the first few weeks after the storm, aid operations have either overlapped or been delayed due to unclear responsibilities of several government units and aid groups working on the ground.

This is true even at the most grass-roots level. Jonathan Ong, principal author of a report focusing on the experience of local communities in receiving Haiyan aid, said in a presentation attended by Devex that “local leadership and political culture in the [towns] had a great impact on how people experienced agency interventions.”

A report by the Brookings Institution also supports this claim, stating that it was inevitable that the “disaster relief and recovery process became highly politicized, intertwining with electoral ambitions.” The issue becomes not one of a lack of aid money, but a lack of intent and a lack of clarity about the ways this funding will be utilized for the benefit and sustainable rehabilitation of affected communities.

Marcos Gregorio Cerillo, mayor of Isabel, Leyte — one of the towns most badly affected by Haiyan — and who is vying for his first re-election in the 2016 polls, admitted that politics did and will continue to affect the recovery and rehabilitation of the communities hit by the super typhoon because programs run the risk of being abandoned.

“I can't commit,” he told Devex. “Since it is election year, if I don't win, we don't know if the programs will be continued as we don't know whether the mindset of the next person who will win is the same.”

Cerillo added that there are cases where organizations want to push through with a program that requires permission and signatures from local officials, but find themselves delayed or derailed because of partisanship — either soliciting political favors or maintaining political rivalries.

“Politics delay, in a way, development here in our community. At the end of the day, it's the people that lose,” he shared.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    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.