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On the eve of 8 November 2013 before Super Typhoon Haiyan – locally known as Yolanda – hit the Philippines, Nancy Go was in a hospital in Singapore where she worked as a nurse. News coverage of Haiyan made her aware that this was different from all the previous storms her hometown of Tacloban City in eastern Philippines had ever experienced.
“Na-contact ko 'yung nanay ko madaling araw. Sabi niya na parang wala lang naman. Tahimik lang [I contacted my mother at midnight. She told me that it felt like nothing. It was just quiet],” she said.
When the typhoon made landfall, she could no longer contact her family back home, “May mga friends ako na taga-Tacloban na nasa ibang bansa din. Lahat na kami nag-aalala. Walang ma-contact, kahit sino. Walang news. [I have friends from Tacloban who were also based overseas. All of us were anxious. No one could contact their families. There was no news.]”
She decided to drop everything and fly back to Tacloban the very next day.
“Pagbaba ng eroplano, kitang kita mo ‘yung mga naka-sabit pa na mga tao. Naglalakad ako papunta sa bahay. Humahakbang-hakbang pa ako kasi nandyan pa lahat [When I got off the plane, I could still see dead bodies hanging from everywhere. I was walking towards our house. I was careful with my steps because the corpses were still there],” Nancy reminisced as she fought back tears. Her family’s house was a two-hour walk away from the airport.
Her immediate goal was to move her family to Manila while Tacloban recovered. With the money she saved while working overseas over the last four years, Nancy stayed in the Philippines for the time being to look after her family.
Nancy’s family is one of many residents whose lives were upturned by Haiyan. However, it was families like theirs with social ties overseas that found swifter recovery through remittances and material aid. Ten years since, Tacloban residents continue to bear witness to the lasting impact of assistance from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).
When Haiyan struck, Nancy’s family home became a sanctuary for themselves and their neighbours, whose houses were destroyed by intense winds and heavy rains. Nancy’s house, on the other hand, was made of cement and situated on higher ground near the mountains.
According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the super typhoon affected more than 16 million people, killing at least 6,300. More than 1.1 million families were left with damaged homes, with around 11 million displaced. Tacloban City was considered ‘ground zero.’
Ildebrando Bernadas, Tacloban City’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Officer, said that nothing could have prepared them for Haiyan’s destruction.
“Tacloban started organizing the Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in 2012,” Mr. Bernadas said, who was serving then as the City Mayor’s Chief Political Officer. “But we were caught off-guard by Yolanda at the time we were complying with RA 10121.”
Enacted into law in 2010, Republic Act 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, established a multisectoral, inter-agency, and community-based national framework for disaster response and risk management.
Mr. Bernadas explained that information dissemination was done through handheld radios, public addresses, and television and radio announcements spearheaded by the City Mayor himself. Pre-emptive evacuations were also conducted, with residents filling evacuation centres to the brim. Unfortunately, these measures were not enough, because “the problem was the true sense of communication,” he said.
“We were informed that the typhoon will make landfall in Tacloban at noontime of November 8,” Mr. Bernadas said, adding that evacuations were called off and would resume the next morning. “But to our surprise, we already felt the strong winds of Haiyan around 5:30 a.m. By 7 a.m., Haiyan was at its strongest. You could see people already drowning, people being carried by the waves.”
“[Tacloban] lost more than 500 children to Yolanda. We lost more than 3,000 lives to Yolanda,” Ildebrando said. “If we are to look back, we had so much preparation, but we could only do as much as we could afford because Yolanda was a new experience. In fact, we were challenged.”
The first wave of relief and aid arrived in Tacloban City’s airport a few days after and came from various governments, foreign agencies and local organizations. “We were not shorthanded when it came to help. There was a lot of assistance,” Mr. Bernadas said.
After she moved her family to Manila, Nancy stayed behind to help Tacloban’s recovery through a local organization. Leaving her work as a nurse in Singapore, she eventually started a poultry business that helps feed families and supply businesses in the region.
‘If it weren’t for OFWs, we wouldn’t recover’
For Filipino migrant workers who were not in the Philippines when Haiyan hit, it was the media’s extensive coverage of the aftermath that encouraged them to send assistance.
“We heard of them in the news. We have heard stories of help coming from siblings or cousins overseas,” Mr. Bernadas said. “When the banking system started to normalize, that was the only time we felt the help coming from relatives. Tacloban had no electric power or signal. We waited for three weeks or four weeks before banking started to normalize in Tacloban.”
After Haiyan, remittance centres and banks waived remittance fees to encourage donations to affected residents.
Boots Palconite-Buena, who was a Tacloban-based news broadcaster for a television network when Haiyan hit, connected with her university organization’s alumni associations based overseas. She explained that alumni from various parts of the world initiated fund-raising and donation drives for the benefit of Yolanda-affected residents like them.
“All alumni associations all over the world. Sila ang tumulong sa amin [They were the ones who helped us],” Boots narrated. “Pera, pagkain, lahat ng mga relief nasa amin. Box by box, pati mga kawali, underwear, bra. Lahat ‘yan. Had it not for them, hindi kami makakarecover. They were there every step of the recovery [Money, food, all kinds of relief were given to us. It was box by box, even frying pans, underwear, bras. Everything. Had it not for them, we wouldn’t have recovered].”
Aside from her networks of overseas Filipino workers, Boots also has a sister who worked in Canada who helped them fly to Cebu as soon as possible. “My sister sent us flight tickets,” Boots said. “Moving was easy on our end because we had a source from my sister. But for families without OFWs, it was much more difficult.”
Rosario Bactol, who was serving as a Barangay Chairperson in Anibong when Haiyan wreaked havoc to the city, experienced the same. While her house was in the coastal area, it was also made of cement, which provided refuge for residents in her community who were unable to evacuate early.
Years later, her house was demolished by the City Government after declaring the area a no-build zone. Rosario relocated to St. Francis Village, a government housing project 13 kilometres away from downtown Tacloban.
With the help of her son who was working as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, she was able to renovate her house in the relocation site alongside her children’s houses.
“Sa lumang bahay, hindi na kami nag construct kasi malapit kami sa dagat [In the old house, we didn’t construct anymore since we were near the coast],” Rosario said. “Dito naman sa relocation site, pader at bubong lang ‘to nung tinurnover sa amin. Kaya nung nagpagawa kami, pinabuhos na namin para matibay-tibay, sa tulong na din ng padala ng anak ko. Kailangan talaga ayusin mo [Here in the relocation site, the house was bare when it was turned over to us. But when we renovated it, we poured cement to make it sturdier with the help of remittances from my son. You really need to fix it].”
From migrants to recovery
The 2018 National Migration Survey, conducted by the University of the Philippines Population Institute and the Philippine Statistics Authority, showed that Eastern Visayas received the most remittances in that year and suggested that remittances are higher for more economically disadvantaged regions.
Mr. Bernadas said people would contact the Mayor’s Office for expansion work on their permanent shelters with the help of relatives overseas. Some even opted out of the shelter programme because their relatives abroad had already bought them land. He said, “It gives us a clear picture that Taclobanons, especially those with relatives abroad, depend a lot in terms of help coming from their relatives out there.” As their cement-laden houses served as evacuation centres for their community against Haiyan’s strength, Rosario, Boots and Nancy also serve as living proof of how migrant networks and remittances can help in post-disaster recovery and climate resilience. For Rosario, it was improving her house in the relocation site to withstand future typhoons. Similarly, Boots built a sturdier house on much safer and elevated ground far from the coast. Meanwhile, Nancy reintegrated and reinvested her savings, using her skills to help bolster Tacloban's economy.
In her research on the impact of migrant remittances in post-Haiyan recovery in Tacloban, Dr. Yvonne Su of York University suggests that access to remittances was more readily available for middle-class households than for lower-class households. As middle-class families were more likely to have relatives or friends working overseas, access to remittances and other assistance from abroad helped them recover faster.
It has been a decade since Super Typhoon Haiyan upended millions of lives. Assistance from migrant networks may have kept many afloat in the aftermath, but tapping these networks was divided along class lines. Unfortunately, many did not have the same lifeline, leaving them behind in terms of recovery.
Boots and Rosario both considered the assistance from Filipino migrant workers as an important aspect in their recovery after Haiyan. Nancy hopes, “Sana hindi lang din magsawa ‘yung mga Pinoy na tumulong sa kapwa nila. Malaking impact ‘yun. Kasi, kukunin ko sa sarili ko, parang may hope. Kahit nasa lugmok ka na, may tutulong pa rin sa’yo [Hopefully, Filipinos overseas won’t get tired of helping their fellow Filipinos. It has a huge impact. Because, coming from my own experience, it made me feel hopeful. Even though I was at my lowest, there would still be help].”
Migrant workers have shown that their help can be mobilized for post-disaster recovery and climate resilient development. However, with climate change bringing in stronger typhoons in the Philippines, there is a need to translate this support from individual households with migrant ties towards community-level development.
In navigating the challenges and risks posed by climate change, harnessing the invaluable help of diaspora communities in disaster recovery and climate resilience can be a next step in building a more sustainable future for the Philippines.
Buboy Figueroa is an intern under the Global Migration Media Academy of the International Organization for Migration. He is currently taking up BA Communication Research at the University of the Philippines Diliman.