THE CAPTAIN AND HIS SHIP
The man who weathered the storm, Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez was the last man to leave the city during the height of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
By Ragie Mae Tano-Arellano
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO S. PERALTA, JR.
Sinipa ko pa yung pinto ng bahay nya, pinaalis ko (I kicked the door of his house for him to leave),” recalls Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez of an instance of how he forced his constituents to leave their homes as Yolanda threatened to devastate Tacloban in 2013.
Super Typhoon Yolanda, with international name “Haiyan,” struck the Visayas region on November 8, 2013.
It devastated 44 provinces, affecting at least 16 million people. The storm claimed the lives of at least 6,300 people in Tacloban City alone, caused 2,000 people missing, and destroyed 1.1 million homes. Overall damage is estimated to have cost USD 5.8 billion, or Php 322 billion, according to a 2018 report from humanitarian organization World Vision.
The last-term chief executive of Tacloban believes in the leadership of influence, and this is how he managed to face the challenges post-Yolanda. Romualdez recalls, “I cannot [face the challenges] alone but I [have] to have the ability to convince people after the tragedy that happened here, to move on, that’s difficult, but you know, that’s when you can gauge one’s leadership capabilities—if they are still standing when everyone else has fallen. But it’s really a tough job. Because you’re human too, sometimes you also want to cry. That’s difficult to control; you have to consider that there are others leaning on you for strength. While you’re facing [the battle], you can’t run away, you have to carry the burden and keep it together. That’s why when [Yolanda] happened, I was the last to leave. I took care of other families first. I was caught in the middle of the storm because I was the last to leave.”
HARSH ACCUSATION ON VACCINATION
Because of this, Romualdez was understandably very upset when he was falsely accused of immunizing himself before his people during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. “My golly, I would never do such a thing. Bakit ako [makikipag-unahan] magpabakuna? Eh nung Yolanda nga, ako ang huling nag-evacuate (Why would I abuse my power to get vaccinated first? During the Yolanda tragedy, I was the last to evacuate),” says Romualdez.
According to him, the government ordered all the senior citizens and frontliners vaccinated first. But after the coronavirus vaccine had been distributed to local government units (LGUs), including Tacloban, there were claims that the Sinovac vaccine was unsafe for frontline workers and senior citizens. People were alarmed by these allegations so Romualdez came up with the idea of getting himself vaccinated first to set an example in order to persuade the populace to heed the government’s call for vaccination, against his doctor’s orders since he has comorbidities. “When I [got myself vaccinated], the following day, 1,200 frontliners here followed suit. Nagpabakuna sila (They got themselves vaccinated),” says Romualdez.
Romualdez, cousin of current President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., expresses his displeasure with what transpired at the time as he was required to defend his choice to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). “So it’s difficult, you want to encourage leaders, to lead their people to the right path, but sometimes the right path means going against policy. We create policies basically for people,” says the Tacloban mayor.
ALWAYS THINKING AHEAD
In fact, the pandemic provided Romualdez with a chance to demonstrate that he is always in control of the situation. Those entering Tacloban had to fill out forms detailing their whereabouts even before everyone else began following strict protocols. The local government had already reserved hotels and motels to house frontline personnel two months prior to the lockdown. It was also a chance, according to Romualdez, to help save hotels from going out of business. “We don’t want [the local hotels] to be foreclosed, so they partnered with the local government and gave us very reasonable rates,” he explains.
Romualdez adds that those who tested positive or have close contact with COVID-19-positive individuals were placed in hotels, for if they just set up a makeshift facility for them, many would not report even if they had symptoms for fear of being placed in an isolation unit that would cause them more discomfort.
The LGU gave out bangus (milkfish) to the populace in place of canned goods after taking a lesson from the Yolanda relief distribution. For almost a year, victims were given canned goods and many notably got sick from the heavy consumption of canned goods. Aside from health concerns, this initiative also helped local producers recover from business losses during the pandemic.
The Yolanda catastrophe might have been used as a training exercise for Tacloban’s mayor to test his leadership capabilities in the face of a disaster. The Warays of Tacloban were still in the process of recovering from the 2013 disaster when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Romualdez, however, is at least grateful that his people have managed to move on since the tragedy that left Tacloban in ruins nine years ago. According to him, the road to recovery was not an easy one. “It’s the worst experience, but it taught us a great lesson in life. It was sad; I lost a lot of people close to me. It still gives me the chills sometimes when I think of it at night. I have sleepless nights because it happened during my time. But I’m happy my people were able to move forward and pick up the pieces. We did things the right way with the help of many other countries. And I’m grateful for that, and for friends who helped us.”
AGAINST THE ODDS
Romualdez’s road to recovery was made more difficult for him because he did not have the best relationship with the administration at the time—under the late President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. The only thing he could rely on at the time was hope from above because he felt he had no allies. “You still thought that you are alone even if you look around [and see plenty offering their support]; given I was in conflict with the administration during that time. Many politicians were anxious to come to my aid, so I felt alone. But I know that [God] is always with me,” recalls Romualdez.
According to Romualdez, there were arguments and fights between his local government and the Aquino administration in the face of the typhoon—conflicting information, lack of coordination, and conflicts during the execution of rescue and retrieval operations, the distribution of relief supplies, rehabilitation, housing projects, and even the burying of the dead.
Romualdez explains that the first response in every disaster is to rescue people and then comes retrieval. While the typhoon was still going on, they had already begun rescue operations. He recalls, “We started looking for people [to rescue] but there were so many [dead bodies]. And as a leader, the situation was so bad. The idea that nobody should be left behind during a war made sense to me from the military’s perspective. They bury their dead before moving on. That was the situation here.” He claims that they had a difficult time persuading other national agencies to prioritize burying their dead and giving them proper burials. Even two years later, they were recovering the bodies of missing people.
The local government’s initial step in starting the recovery process was to urge businesses to open their doors so that people can start working. He gave the green light right away for big national corporations to open, creating jobs for locals and providing access to supplies.
The mayor sought the assistance of all Tacloban churches because he understood the value of spiritual support for his people. Christians and Muslims supported the community’s spiritual and emotional healing by working together with the local government. He also urged families, particularly those with women and children, to leave Tacloban temporarily and visit relatives in Cebu, Manila, and other provinces for two to three months while the city was completely cleared, particularly of debris. They were able to recover 500 tons of debris. They had a difficult time during the clearing operation because vehicles and equipment could not freely maneuver for thousands of people just freely walked in the streets, and relatives of the victims who were no longer living in Tacloban returned to look for their kin.
The mayor decided that the city government should not accept donations and instead distribute them directly to those in need. According to Romualdez, the LGU would only refer to and suggest to organizations the location where they should bring their donations. In total, there were 40 countries that helped Tacloban.
People, especially the elderly, reportedly became emotional when foreign ships, including a fleet of seven Japanese ships, arrived in the seas off Leyte to offer assistance, as it brought up memories of when General Douglas MacArthur landed in the gulf when Americans were fighting the Japanese during World War II. It was in Leyte Gulf that MacArthur landed. His statue, together with some American soldiers, was built in what is now called MacArthur Leyte Landing Memorial National Park to commemorate his historic landing and start the operation to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation during World War II. The statues were not spared from destruction during Yolanda, but these have been rehabilitated already.
THE HOUSING PROJECT
In 2019, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) filed charges against 12 officials of the National Housing Authority (NHA) before the Office of the Ombudsman after its fact-finding investigation revealed irregularities in housing projects in Eastern Samar. The NHA officials are facing cases for violations of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials, the Government Procurement Act, and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
The anti-graft body, created by former President Rodrigo Duterte in October 2017, urged typhoon survivors to file complaints against concerned government agencies for the delays in the construction despite the release of funds to the contractor and substandard construction.
On the other hand, the NHA blamed the LGUs for the delay in construction, alleging that the officials were slow in providing the beneficiaries lists. They also cited difficulty in securing resettlement areas. Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) Secretary Leoncio Evasco alleged that “turfing” or turf wars also caused delays in the housing project.
Many were planning to pursue charges against former President Aquino III and some of his Cabinet members. As of writing, no member of the Aquino administration (including Aquino himself) have been charged or arrested for the alleged “misuse of Yolanda funds” or mismanagement of the disaster.
In August 2021, the Regional Development Council (RDC) in Eastern Visayas said that out of the 64,696 units planned for Super Typhoon Yolanda victims, 29,422 are already occupied and 11,266 are ready to be occupied. Those that cannot be occupied yet lack electricity and water supplies. RDC said the unfavorable weather conditions, lack of manpower and resources on-site, additional works to suit actual field conditions, and delayed issuances of permits and licenses from the LGUs and other agencies are some reasons for the delay of occupancy.
Tacloban’s local government will now take care of the housing project for the affected families. This is after Secretary Eduardo del Rosario of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) visited Romualdez and revealed plans to download the funds and functions related to housing resettlement of displaced Yolanda families to the LGU. The Yolanda projects in various areas in the Visayas including Tacloban has been one of the controversial issues thrown against the Aquino administration because of substandard construction and materials used to build the houses and facilities.
“The national government should review the policy on the housing project because it was done in a rush [during the Aquino administration]. There were many things that did not match the plan. It didn’t come out the way it should have,” Romualdez explains, and they will start doing the repairs and rehabilitation once the national government gives them the go-ahead.
According to Romualdez, the tragedy of Typhoon Yolanda is a wake-up call that climate change is occurring. According to him, they have learned that it is no longer the typhoon’s intensity that they must monitor, but rather its path. But he believes changes in seasons would also make such monitoring difficult.
Every time there is a typhoon, even if it is Signal Number 1, they have put in place a system where he already calls for people to prepare. They shouldn’t hold off until Signal Number 2 is announced. They urge people who are working to return home, companies to suspend work, and that those who are leaving Tacloban to return home as well. These steps would give people plenty of time to make preparations, such as purchasing supplies, and food, and repairing their homes to withstand the impending storm.
The Yolanda catastrophe provided Romualdez with a great driveto work for the people and the community. “Elderly people were coming to me a day or two after [the typhoon]. They were still dressed in the same clothes they were wearing before the typhoon because they lost everything. They were crying to me, saying that the last time they saw Tacloban like this was during World War II. They were telling me they were leaving Tacloban. They were traumatized,” Romualdez recalls.
Convincing others that there is a solution is Romualdez’s biggest task—having to overcome mental hurdles and believe that there is still hope for their city. Planning and letting people know that there is a strategy helped, along with remaining consistent while being flexible enough to adapt to changing situations.
THE NEW TACLOBAN
Romualdez is pleased to report that the city has significantly advanced thanks to new technologies. Both solar-powered and wireless traffic lights are present in Tacloban. Even some locals now drive hybrid vehicles. There are people who believe Tacloban is still in ruins, but he is pleased to hear from visitors who return to the city after a 10-year absence and claim the city has significantly improved.
Local officials also intend to construct a water treatment plant, a septic treatment plant, and a sewage system plant. At the moment, the city government is focusing on technology that will help solve the problem of climate change. Through the agriculture department, they are also concentrating on initiatives that will improve the lives of farmers. The mayor also places a high premium on people’s health.
Romualdez is pleased that Tacloban has recovered from the disaster. He expresses gratitude to the people for placing their trust and confidence in him as their leader. While he believes he has had a significant impact on the people, he humbly acknowledges that it was their resilience that allowed them to weather the storm as one and rise anew to make Tacloban rise again.