A case for recovery and rebuilding the Philippines

November 18, 2013, 8:51 PM UTC

Typhoon victims wait on a street for relief goods at Ling Yun village on the outskirts of Palo on November 18, 2013.

There is a Toby Keith song with the lyrics, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” With each catastrophic disaster, I am reminded of this song. I was an emergency responder following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and continue to work towards the Gulf’s recovery. It is predicted that the books will not be closed on that storm until 2026. Back then, I had no idea how long the road to recovery would be. I often wish I didn’t know now relief is just the beginning and taking the long view is much harder. We must implement the lessons we learned that allow us to take the longer – and sometimes harder – view.  So let us try a new approach with Typhoon Haiyan, and implement these lessons of recovery, rebuilding, and preparation.

Relief organizations are already mobilized and on the ground in the Philippines doing initial assessments and providing life-saving supplies and medical care. The Washington, DC-based alliance organization InterAction reports that there are areas where 80-90% of homes have been destroyed, so it is crucial to find inhabitants shelter. They are also working to clear lines of communication, restore electricity, and clear roads to allow relief aid to get to the most isolated regions. Hold tight, eager volunteers: USAID, InterAction, NetHope, and other relief entities have perfected coordinating immediate relief and emergency aid. The role of such organizations is to get into a region, save the inhabitants from immediate trauma and death, and then leave.

Once relief efforts leave, the long, winding road to recovery begins. Six to eight weeks following a disaster, when media attention has waned, there is a decrease in giving as well. However, while media, funders, and emergency responders spend a short amount of time dealing with immediate needs, this does not create the infrastructure to mitigate future risk, and leaves long-term needs such as resettlement, mental and public health, as well as fiscal viability unfunded and unattended.  Grass-roots humanitarian organizations that provide year-round support to sustain  local communities’ on-going needs and enable them to recover do exist. However, to sustain year-round recovery and capacity-building, these organizations require year-round funding.

The faster communities recover, the better they do in the face of compounding disasters. Less than a month ago, the Philippines experienced a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. People in Bohol and other provinces were still living under tarpaulins and in makeshift housing, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the typhoon. Those whose houses were damaged by the earthquake were made unlivable by the typhoon. The Philippines has faced devastating storms three years in a row, and they are located in the aptly named Pacific “Ring of Fire,” named for its prevalence of volcanoes and earthquakes. It is home to over 75 percent of the Earth’s active and dormant volcanoes and roughly 81 percent of the largest earthquakes occur in this region, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They see an average of 19 typhoons each year: it is almost inevitable that they will again face compound disasters.

In the U.S., the Gulf region has used the crises of flooding and coastal erosion as an economic driver, in the form of coastal restoration. There is an emerging “business of resilience.” Can the Philippines turn increasing coastal resilience into an industry? The GDP of the Philippines has been rising every year since 1998, and in 2011 the International Monetary Fund reported that the Philippines boasted the 45th-largest economy in the world. In order to continue this upward economic trajectory, the Philippines must continue to build stronger communities. This recovery process affords the possibility of building back stronger and improving infrastructure so that communities are better prepared in the face of future catastrophes. This includes more viable evacuation and resettlement planning.

Investing in solid, long-term rebuilding can also empower communities to take control of their own recovery. FEMA employs this “Survivor-Centric Response” in the U.S. In taking an active role in their own recovery, they report that a community is able to build local capacity. It also enables those taking part to feel better psychologically and, in knowing that they have the ability to rebuild their own lives, they also feel more positive about their ability to cope with future disasters.

In giving to emergency relief, every dollar counts. In terms of long-term recovery of the Philippines, it takes an investment of not only cash, but time, endurance, empathy, and your sturdiest pair of running shoes to complete the marathon. Evidence from the U.S. Geological Survey and the World Bank indicate that for every dollar invested in disaster risk reduction, between $2 and $10 is saved in disaster response and recovery costs. Meanwhile, the return on the investment in humanity is priceless!

Lori Bertman is president and CEO of the Baton Rouge-based Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, and the board chair of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Follow Lori on Twitter: @LoriBertman