Michelle Ignacio Macamay, 32, and her daughter Janrexelle, stand outside their house in the “No-Build Zone” in Tacloban, Eastern Visayas, Philippines. She told me her story at a neighbor’s dining table, with her husband and Janrexelle sitting nearby.
This is the fourth of four “Humans of Climate Change” stories from Tacloban, the Philippines. Tacloban was one of the cities hardest hit by the 2013 supertyphoon dubbed “Haiyan” internationally and “Yolanda” in the Philippines. For an overview of the storm’s impacts in the region and the influence of climate change in increasing the severity of tropical storm impacts, visit the series introduction here. Other stories: Imelda Rona, Eva Postre, John Andrew Lajara
“Before Yolanda, my husband had a car. He worked [as a driver] in local transport. This was a middle-class locale.”
“We were all alright [after the storm], and I’m thankful, but everything was washed away. All that we had left was the clothes we were wearing, even our slippers were gone. The car, the house, all were gone.
“We had no one to turn to. We built a makeshift shanty from materials washed up from the storm. We didn’t have food for the children. It was the first time we saw our children go hungry…The only aid we got from the government was 1 month later.
“We couldn’t loot because I was pregnant and my husband refused. I picked up goods from the road, that had spilled from the trucks of looters. I didn’t realize I would stoop so low.
“One day my children brought spoiled rice back. I told them they could eat it, but I couldn’t look while they were eating. I couldn’t hold back the tears.
“January 16, [just over two months after the storm], I gave birth [to Janrexelle]. I stayed at the house of a friend. An aid organization helped build a makeshift house, and that’s where we’ve lived until today.
“We didn’t receive further aid, so we started to stand up on our own feet. My husband is applying to be a contract driver again, but it’s low profit and inconsistent work. Before our income was enough to suffice, but now we’re bankrupt on a daily basis.”
The Ignacios’ neighborhood is in the path of a storm embankment that the local government began building last year as a protective measure against storm surges like the one that devastated the city during Typhoon Haiyan.
Construction has since been suspended pending a study by a Dutch consortium looking into alternative storm surge protection strategies, though many such strategies, including the rehabilitation of coastal mangrove ecosystems, would still necessitate the resettlement of coastline communities. The Tacloban city government said in an emailed statement that their long-term strategy remains the same, “to redirect residential development away from the coastal areas and toward safer zones.”
The government has promised residents of these communities subsidized housing under the same program extended to families currently living in temporary bunkhouse communities in the area. Under the current government plan, the Ignacios would enter a government bunkhouse once its current residents move into their permanent homes.
But Ignacio says she is not sure she will take the government’s offer. The bunkhouse communities are reputed to be unsafe and unsanitary, and while the National Housing Authority (which is responsible for the homes’ construction) initially promised that families would have to wait no longer that 6 months for permanent housing, many have lived in bunkhouse communities for upwards of 2 years. As of last measurement, more than two years after the storm, only 10% of permanent homes had been “substantially” completed (February 23, 2016).
Says Ignacio, “I never make any improvements on the house, because I thought we would get help and real housing.”
Depending on how government plans develop, money that the Ignacios invest in improvements to their current home may end in a pile of rubble, but it may not. And at the current rate of progress, the government could wait years to transfer them to permanent housing, or it could decide to do so within weeks.
The night before we spoke, Ignacio told me, a demolition team had come tear down their house. She and her family convinced them to hold off, and she went to a local radio station to speak out. The next day, local government officials came by to talk to her and the community officials. They promised to help, but without guaranteeing that they would halt the demolition. In an email response to my questions, the city government asserted that “Makeshift dwellings in unsafe areas are demolished only after the occupants have already moved to better housing…families will not be inhumanely driven away from their homes to make way for large infrastructure projects”
Ignacio says that she believes the government should let waterfront communities be, and instead spend their funds on improving evacuation plans and directly assisting families who are still recovering.
Other citizens of Tacloban have access to Emergency Shelter Assistance, funding distributed to families by the national government for the construction of permanent housing. But those in the path of the planned embankment are ineligible because they are theoretically covered under the government subsidized housing program.
“Why,” asks Ignacio, “do people who didn’t face the full brunt of the storm receive aid, while we’re left out? We’re not being treated as humans. If my house is lost, it will be like Yolanda again, but done by my own government.”
“I cry nearly every day. But even though I cry, I need to voice out, for what I think is right, for what I think should be done and not. The government is trying to push us to another low. 30 families would be affected by the demolition team that came, but only I spoke out. I think they feel the same helplessness. But I spoke out because of my children. I spoke on the radio to reach the community and the government, but also the national and international level, so [that] people who gave aid will help again, will stand with us. We know billions of dollars went in [to aid efforts], but we saw only spoiled rice.
“We value our house because we’ve lost them before, lost everything. It’s easy for those who haven’t lost everything to push for demolition.
“I remember leaving my house during the storm surge, when the water was at neck height. I was [7 months] pregnant and carrying my 3-year-old child. I asked, ‘Lord, is this my time?’ Just then, I saw a tall wall. I didn’t know if I could climb it, but a man [reached to help] me. The storm surge was coming, but a strong wind came at my back and pushed me to safety. I believe it could be God, so I could live until now and push for this cause.
“I want a better future for my children, that they will finish school and not feel hunger any longer. More than hatred, I feel thankful for those who have helped.
“I hope no more storms come our way.”
[Translation work provided by Dean Lacandazo of People Surge, the Alliance of Disaster Survivors in Eastern Visayas]