• Tacloban City: a developmental challenge



    Under my own initiative, I decided to go to Tacloban last week with one of our senior engineers to survey and assess the damage by Super Typhoon Yolanda. I’ve had my fair share of witnessing the irreplaceable damage natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes have left behind—like when I went to Bam, Iran in 2003, Infanta, Quezon in 2004, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004 to help re-plan and rebuild the damaged communities there—but nothing prepared us for what met us in Tacloban.

    Ground zero
    Almost one month has gone by since Super Typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban City, but at ground zero, the aftermath of the devastation can still be felt. The atmosphere felt heavy, and the pain, suffering, and death still lingered in the air, along with the sight and smell of burning debris and garbage. I’m a so-called expert in architecture and urban planning, but it was heart wrenching to see the terrible situation they were in. I stayed with Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers and donors, who’ve I’ve had a pleasure of working with our past rehabilitation projects here and abroad. In 27 hours I was in Tacloban, I came across 32 countries currently participating in the relief efforts. As far as we could see, only these foreign organizations were more active in helping out the citizens in their rehabilitation. Most relief efforts have been concentrating to provide the basic services, like food, shelter, and clothes. But only a few concentrated on the future livelihood of the affected citizens. Rural areas particularly need new bancas, nets, paddles, and farming equipment to replace the ones they lost to the typhoon. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, local government units are paralyzed as political and party alliances reportedly became an issue.

    Assessing the damage
    A few hours after we got there, I actively participated in a planning charrette chaired by Mayor Alfred Romualdez and moderated by UN Habitat, with Usaid and other international and local organizations participating. After quick interviews by the media, we had an aerial survey of the damage and needed to be rehabilitated. The helicopter ride took us around Tacloban City and its neighboring town, Palo. From my perch in the helicopter, it was clear just how much is needed to be done, but it also provided an opportunity to see how to re-plan the disaster areas to remake and rebuild better, safer, smarter, and more sustainable cities and communities of the future.

    We saw which type of structures survived the deluge—a learning lesson for the architects, planners, and engineers. It was clear that concrete structures built with roof decks weren’t destroyed, as well as houses built with “cuatro aguas” type of roofs (roofs built with “dos aguas” were destroyed). Walls of structures built parallel to the shore were completely destroyed as well by the raging storm surge. If new structures should be built, round, square or rectangular-shaped structures should be perpendicular or diagonal to the shoreline where wind gustiness would be sliced. From above, the intact round structure of the Tacloban City astrodome is clear evidence that round, oval, or diamond shapes were the best shapes for structures near the shoreline because the aerodynamic shape lowers the impact of strong winds.

    During a briefing earlier that day, an official told me how they found bodies as far as 8 kilometers inland. With this in mind, the government should try to focus on increasing the setback than the approved 40 meters. We always recommend a 50-meter (150 feet) setback, plus a vertical clearance of at least two meters above flood lines for livable floors. Moreover, zoning orders need to be updated—the recent ones are all obsolete in light of what is happening today. One thing was also clear from the aerial survey: we need to focus on securing the basic rehabilitation for these areas as soon as possible. The city’s airport, seaport, waste management, slaughterhouse, and market need to be fixed right away by tapping willing investors from the private sector, if not funding from the national government.

    Development challenges
    When I got back from Tacloban City, we scheduled a meeting with Rehabilitation Czar Panfilo Lacson to have a design and planning charrette with him. One of the things that transpired from the meeting was, because of the overwhelming scale of the devastation made, how can we package the areas needed to be developed for those interested to help? An official agreement must be brokered from both parties to ensure harmonious and orderly coordination between the private and public sector. Thus, it must be packaged into development clusters and let interested foreign and local investors pick out the ones they’d like to develop from a registry (which Mayor Alfred Romualdez compares to a ‘bridal registry’). Another challenge posed during the meeting was what kind of package will work best for the smooth operation towards the rehabilitation of these areas: packaging it by sector (let’s say, 200 schools), by area (each investor in charge of his/her own municipality), or a combination of both.

    Moreover, Tacloban City is approximately less than one meter above sea level. A feasibility study must be done right away to find a proper location for a new urban center. Some areas like the airport, the urban center, the public market, and other low-lying areas—the urban core of Tacloban City—must be relocated to higher ground and employ adaptive architecture and engineering to the new structures. This poses a huge challenge, because as with all relocation efforts, we must assure the residents to be relocated of the importance of the relocation and ensure the sustainability of these relocated areas. We need a framework plan with immediate action within 30 days, a short plan till 2016, a medium-term plan till 2021, and a long- term plan from 2025-2050. The crisis created an opportunity, but the opportunity will not always be there.

    When these foreign volunteers/organizations leave before Christmas, they’ll leave behind a big vacuum that the government and private sector will have to fill up. Otherwise, these disaster areas echo what happened in Haiti after foreign help moved out. So many want to help, but we need to have a platform for collaboration and an integrated comprehensive plan. It is in tragedies like these that we see the human heart ready to help and care. In all of these undertakings, it is such a humbling experience to be actively involved in one common goal: to help humanity rise from tragedies and rebuild what was lost or destroyed. Political affiliations should not intervene in providing basic services for the affected people. Let the rehabilitation of Tacloban City and the other affected areas be the unifying element, not the divider. Let various religions, nations, and political parties work together as a family of nations under one mission and one God.


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    1. BESIDE Palafox Associates, other planning firms should volunteer at least doing town planning of one municipality. This is the best “professional services” they could offer. I would guarantee it’s worth than all commissions of big projects combined, especially when helping those who are really in need, and knowing they cannot pay you back.

    2. This is an opportunity for rebuilding better and safer we cannot miss for Tacloban and Leyte.. We cannot afford another tragedy in lives lost, and property damaged in the future. Forget about alliances, political or familial. We need a united, single-minded effort to bring about the needed rehabilitation, now.

    3. if the national and the local govt won’t surrender their ego the foreign donors will leave much the same as what happened in Haiti.They don’t want politics they just want to help the victims but unlike our local politicos they have an underlying self interest in all of these so unless Lacson cracks his whip the rehabilitation will just be a dream for most until the next tragedy strikes again.But good luck Mr. Palafox people like you should be given all the support so we can move on meaningful projects like NIAA.May God Bless You!

    4. Palafox’s idea of a new and modern tacloban serving as the climate change capital of the world should be given serious consideration by the UN. a permanent mission should be located in tacloban to host the UN climate change conferences

    5. Albert R. Palafox on

      well thought investigation and observation. I hope that the politician get out of the way to start the planning and implementation.
      Good Luck and God Bless the Philippines