Homonhon Island is a place with history. In 1521 it was the first land Magellan cited as he crossed the Pacific. It was shortly after landing at Homonhon that Magellan got into a battle with a local tribe, called the battle of Mactan. The tribal chieftain refused to convert to Christianity, and when Magellan attempted to intimidate the tribe with guns and cannon Magellan was killed in the ensuring battle of Mactan.
In 1944 the region was again making history when Douglas MacArthur waded onshore at nearby Leyte, saying “I have returned”. The memorial showing MacArthur and his group wading through water is now dry due to a drought that has impacted the area, the result of shifting weather patterns.
Almost 500 years after Magellan this same spot was ground zero for the largest typhoon ever to make land fall. Typhoon Haiyan (locally, Super Typhoon Yolanda) made landfall in East Samar on November 8, 2013. By some estimates, 11 million people were impacted by this enormous storm. Many of the major buildings in the area, including the hospital on Homonhon, have yet to be rebuilt, and lessons from the typhoon have, by many accounts, yet to be implemented.
In May of this year two of us from HDI plus staff from the Philippine Relief and Development Services met with a group of 25 people from the Guiuan area and Homonhon in East Samar. Our work focused on piloting a program to build community capacity by teaching local teams to assess and design their own programs as opposed to implementing external programs. We had three community teams, and spent three days together talking about what they learned from Yolanda and what changes they would like to see for their community. Their stories illustrate the complexity of preparing for and recovering from major disasters, and making changes in a community.
The teams in the workshop selected three stories that had lessons for the community. The first was about how difficult it was to get people to evacuate. The typhoon warnings came while it was still a clear calm day, and the people along the coast said they had dealt with typhoons before and would deal with this one. When they realized their mistake some evacuated to neighbor’s homes that appeared to be sturdily built, only to find in many cases the homes had not been built to code and crumbled in the high winds. People who avoided buildings and tress by escaping to open fields above the flood line did better surviving the storm than those who sought shelter in buildings. This team sharing this story wanted to see an evacuation center built on the island and a training program to get people to respond to warnings.
The second team’s story was about how the typhoon killed off major fish schools and all but destroyed the fishing industry. The island damage had been cleaned up, but many people who depending on fishing for their livelihood had not recovered. What was needed now was a jobs program, but retraining people who had fishing as central to their culture for 500 years involved more than just holding classes. Fish are starting to return, but are still well below pre-storm levels. Many more people were living in poverty since the storm and there is little economic opportunity for people. This team emphasized how disaster recovery needs to address the longer term economic impacts with training programs, micro-finance and investment from the government. At the root of the problem, people need help seeing that their community has fundamentally changed and they need to find a way to look ahead to a different future.
The third team’s story was about inadequate housing. Just as the first team mentioned, some housing made of concrete or cinder block withstood the storm, but some did not. The people became skilled at recognizing large cracks in the concrete walls that suggest a lack of reinforced concrete in a home likely to fall. Much of the housing in the area needs to be upgraded, but this confronts two related problems: Building codes are not adequate, and some builders ignore the codes that do exist, especially in poor areas where profit margins are small. As a result, all construction is suspect, but construction in poor areas is the poorest, leading to the poor suffering a majority of the harm. As the team discussed the need for housing they realized that unless they addressed the underlying problem they risked just building more inadequate housing.
As the teams discussed these problems they realized two important lessons: First, they saw how community issues are interconnected. Evacuation is linked to adequate construction and construction is linked to jobs and to government regulation. In communities, the different systems and people in the community are connected, and an effort to make change in one area impacts others. Second, as our workshop progressed, the teams became adept asking critical questions about why problems exist, and these questions led them to see root causes. They realized that even an apparently simple project like building a shelter must address different aspects of the community and the underlying problems if it is going to be a successful solution.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they realized that many of the problems they had to address were not caused by the typhoon. The typhoon did not cause people to distrust government messages, nor did it cause the lack of adequate building codes and the failure to inspect construction. In many ways the immediate disaster that was the typhoon exposed the long simmering disaster that existed just below the surface in the community in corruption, distrust, and poor support systems.
The people of Homonhon are resilient, and the teams left our time together determined to make changes. Their history shows they are strong and will deal with problems once they recognize them.