MANILA – A frantic campaign to reach millions of hungry, injured and homeless people in the Philippines following one of the world’s strongest storms is almost over. Now the grinding slog of rebuilding begins.
Experts say it will cost billions of dollars and take years to revive communities that were destroyed when Typhoon Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean more than two weeks ago, killing at least 5,200 people.
At 315 kph, Haiyan’s winds were the most powerful ever recorded to make landfall. Tsunamilike storm surges that crashed hundreds of meters inland were even more devastating, wiping out entire towns.
Ensuring those who survived the storm did not perish in its immediate aftermath has been the top priority, with the main focus on the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar that were already among the poorest in the developing country.
The armed forces of more than a dozen countries joined a giant international relief effort, which continues to rush food, water and medicines and other emergency supplies to millions of people in isolated wastelands.
With aid flowing in more easily, the Philippine government, its international partners and the survivors themselves are starting to address the overwhelming task of rebuilding so many shattered communities.
“When you have these kinds of problems that are so large, everybody is actually apprehensive,” said Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, the former governor of Leyte, who has been appointed head of the government’s reconstruction task force.
There is no official estimate for the recovery and rehabilitation cost, but Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan has suggested it could be as high as $5.8 billion.
One of the most immediate priorities in the rehabilitation effort is rebuilding or repairing homes for the 4.3 million displaced people.
More than 536,000 homes were completely destroyed, with another 500,000 damaged, according to the government.
Re-establishing a means of employment is an equally urgent task, with 5 million workers having lost their livelihoods, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Before the storm, most of the 4 million people living on Samar and Leyte endured near-subsistence lifestyles focused on rice and coconut farming, or fishing.
ILO country director Lawrence Jeff Johnson said the immediate focus on the employment front is to provide emergency jobs such as working on the cleanup operation.
In the long run, Johnson said the reconstruction effort should not be about restoring fragile livelihoods, “but about taking the opportunity to help reduce poverty.”
“We’re going to help them build back better by teaching them new skills as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and welders,” he said.
However, farming and fishing will inevitably remain a mainstay of the economies in Samar and Leyte, and others involved in the relief effort are rushing to provide short- as well as long-term support to the agriculture sector.
Rodrigue Vinet, the U.N. food agency’s representative for the Philippines, said seeds for vegetables are being sent to farmers so they and their families will be able to have their own food grown within a few months.
Vinet said work must also start immediately to fix irrigation channels and other farming infrastructure so rice crops can be grown in time for harvest in October next year.
“If they do not have that harvest, they will rely on very expensive food aid for a long time,” he said.
An overarching theme of the reconstruction effort is trying to ensure communities are less vulnerable to future storms.
“We should look at disaster resiliency. . . . Recovery has to happen within the context of better development,” United Nations Development Program regional disaster adviser Sanny Jegillos said at a news conference in Manila.
While Haiyan was one of the strongest typhoons on record, the Philippines is hit by about 20 major storms each year — with Samar, Leyte and other mostly poor eastern islands on the front line.
With climate change threatening to increase the ferocity and frequency of such storms, many involved in the reconstruction effort understand that building more homes in vulnerable areas will inevitably lead to another disaster.
Speaking on ABS-CBN television Petilla, the energy secretary, said the government is focused on improving disaster resiliency, but has not yet come up with answers to key issues.