• Andrea Empamano | Media and Communications Project Assistant, IOM Philippines

Howling winds roaring through empty streets, swirling rain and debris scattered along its destructive path. This was what David Escabal, 62, saw peering through the window of the local high-school-turned-evacuation-centre as Typhoon Rai (local name: Odette), a category 5 super typhoon, made landfall in Surigao City in Mindanao, southern Philippines in December 2021. David’s family together with hundreds of others hunkered down as violent winds reaching 260 km/h battered the region.

“It was the strongest typhoon we ever felt. It was like we were about to be blown away because the school building was shaking so much,” David shares.

David visits the coastal town of San Juan, pointing to where his previous home used to stand over the water. Now, only the waves remain. Photo: IOM/Andrea Empamano

A local of Surigao City, David and his family lived in the coastal neighborhood of San Juan. Living by the sea made him no stranger to storms and evacuation measures, so when the local government informed residents to evacuate to higher ground prior to Rai’s arrival, he expected it to be just like before and left many of his belongings behind. Initially classified as a category 1 typhoon, Rai quickly intensified into a category 5 super typhoon within 24 hours and caught many residents off guard. David shared that when he evacuated because of storms in the past, he always returned home. Now, there’s nothing to return to. His house was no more.

“We lived in our old home by the sea for almost 30 years. Now, we can never return. Super Typhoon Rai destroyed everything and swept away the entire house. Nothing can be seen anymore. Everything: gone,” he tells us.

Although the Philippines gets around 20 tropical cyclones per year, the reality is that the climate crisis has brought stronger and more frequent typhoons to countries in the Pacific region and the devastation left in Rai’s wake was unimaginable for communities. Millions of homes were destroyed, and power and water supplies were severely crippled. 

David recounts that it was difficult to find anything to eat the day after because everything was in ruins. There was no power in the entire region and many areas were still flooded with water and debris, making even just walking outside dangerous. Help began to arrive a few days later, providing them with water, food and other necessities. But they were still left with nowhere to return to.

As part of IOM’s emergency response for communities most affected by Super Typhoon Rai, transitional shelters were built to help families during their recovery.

David who has worked as a carpenter for 32 years, was chosen as one of the beneficiaries for a cash-for-work programme to help build these transitional shelters. He was part of an initial batch of carpenters, all of whom were part of affected communities, to begin the construction of 123 shelters in Barangay Cagniog, Surigao City. These shelters were eventually handed over to families like David’s who had been living in evacuation centres for 5 months.

David continues his carpentry work, helping rebuild his son’s home after finishing his own. Photo: IOM/Andrea Empamano

“We were hired to build our own homes and the homes of our community members who have lost everything to the typhoon. I helped build 10 houses here in the community together with my neighbors. This helped us so much since a lot of us didn’t have work opportunities then,” David recalls. The money he has earned so far has helped his family with their day-to-day needs and has allowed him to purchase two motorcycles for his family to use. This has improved their quality of life and made him feel less helpless despite the tragedy he has gone through.

In coordination with the local government, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority also provided training to more community members who wanted to help, providing them with skills in carpentry, masonry and electrical work. A total of 586 people were hired to complete the Cagniog Transitional Shelters while an additional 92 built water catchment systems and gutter work to provide families with a water source. 

The skills taught to these affected communities gave them more sustainable livelihood options as they move forward, especially since a lot of work is needed to help rebuild the city and neighboring provinces — empowering them as they continue to build back what they have lost.

Today, David continues his carpentry work while also serving as the president of the homeowners association in Cagniog. He shares that many families have begun to feel safer living there, with members bringing in income through cash-for-work while also collectively participating in making community spaces for everyone. 

So far, they have established a community garden where they can grow vegetables as well as a community kitchen space where families with no cooking supplies can prepare food. They also have their own tanod (community peacekeeping) system which helps keep the peace in the community especially at night. After months of uncertainty, David says he is happy to finally have a new place to call home.

The cash-for-work initiative for the construction of the Cagniog Transitional Shelters is part of IOM’s Emergency Response for Super Typhoon Rai affected communities funded by the Government of Australia, the Government of Canada, the Government of Japan and USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. Cash for work beneficiaries were also hired to help build transitional and safe room shelters across the provinces of Surigao del Norte, Dinagat Islands and Southern Leyte. This initiative aims to provide affected communities with livelihood opportunities during recovery – empowering families as they continue to build back better and strengthening their resilience to future disasters.