"These are enduring injustices that must be corrected."
It has been six years now.
November 8, 2013—the strongest typhoon in recorded human history struck our home region of Leyte and Samar, resulting in an unprecedented loss of lives and property. The largest post-disaster rehabilitation effort in the country ensued.
But typhoon Yolanda is far from being a faint memory.
Behind the newly-built infrastructure and shelters, despite the upsurge in business and the economy, the scars from the tragedy that Yolanda was to the people of Eastern Visayas remain.
It is often said that every person from Tacloban and the other municipalities affected by the typhoon has his or her own Yolanda story. For many, it is a tale of pain and loss. For others, it is a story of hope and resilience. However the stories ended, the stories echoed loud enough to catch the attention of the entire world. They listened, and they came to our side in our hour of greatest need.
It even touched Pope Francis and moved him to visit Tacloban, less than two years after the typhoon happened.
So much has been accomplished, but so much more needs to be done.
Three things require our urgent action, taking into account the lessons learned from typhoon Yolanda.
First is the long-overdue creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience as the government’s primary disaster management agency. This shall integrate and define what needs to be done in the face of natural disasters, where it needs to be done, based on what standards, how it should be done and how well it should be done.
The present set-up under the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council where authority is shared, responsibility is dispersed and resources are scattered, renders it difficult to operate an appropriate and immediate response, thus delaying critical disaster response and recovery.
It comes no surprise therefore that one of the strongest advocates for the creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience is party-list representative Yedda Marie K. Romualdez. During her first term in the Seventeenth Congress representing the First District of Leyte, she already filed the said bill which was passed by the House of Representatives on third reading. However, the Senate failed to pass its counterpart version. Given her first-hand experience during typhoon Yolanda, Rep. Romualdez knows that the country account afford to have a focal disaster organization that only has coordinative functions and the urgent need to upgrade the disaster response capabilities of the government, given its year-round exposure to natural disasters. This is why on her second term, now representing the party-list organization Tingog Sinirangan, and with the support of House Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez, she has refiled once more the Disaster Resilience Bill, which has been identified to be part of the priority legislative agenda of the Duterte administration.
Second is the need to have a comprehensive review of the post-Yolanda rehabilitation. So many lessons have been learned from the response and recovery efforts that need to be documented and best practices that must be institutionalized. Knowing what went well and what needs to be done better can serve as a benchmark for similar post-disaster efforts in the future. In the same way, it is important to ensure accountability among disaster rehabilitation stakeholders. Those who failed to carry out their duties at the time not only when the situation called for it, but more so because lives were at stake, must face the consequences of their actions.
A specific case in point is the yet-to-be-completed Yolanda housing projects in Tacloban. A year before the recent elections, investigations in both the House and the Senate were undertaken to examine alleged anomalies in the housing projects such as illegal subcontracting, sub-standard building materials and even the construction of such housing units in hazardous areas. Hearings were conducted, and resource persons were invited. In fact, a draft report based on the findings in the Senate investigations was prepared, confirming the anomalies in the implementation of the projects and implicating several building contractors, a number of them even linked with politicians. But such committee report was never officially released. Cases against erring officials and contractors were never filed. The injustice done to the residents who are supposed to be relocated to these housing projects continues to this day.
Third is a matter that is seldom raised, but which in my mind requires urgent attention. That is the need to officially account for all the lives lost during and immediately after the typhoon. The official government counts stopped at more than 6,000 casualties. But those who are from Tacloban and neighboring towns know that the figure is way higher, allegedly even double that number. No effort has been officially made to identify once and for all those who died, or at the very least, those who are missing, and by now must be presumed to be dead.
The failure to fully account for those who died because of typhoon Yolanda is an enduring injustice that must be corrected. We cannot let it be that the number of those who died or are missing is a matter that we continue to avoid, or simply leave it at that. Only once each and every dead or missing person is duly identified and the total death toll is factually established, then can we truly say that justice has been served.
Six years have passed, and I pray that these three things won’t have to wait for the seventh, become they come to fulfillment.
May the souls of those who died during typhoon Haiyan, through the mercy of God, rest in peace!