Bernardo M. Villegas
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Helping Tacloban Rise from Rubble

            What I saw last January 28 gives me the certainty that Tacloban--with the rest of Eastern Visayas--will rise again.  I was fortunate to have coincided with the Vatican Legate Robert Cardinal Sarah who was sent by the Pope to see for himself the devastation wrought on the people of Tacloban by the strongest typhoon on this planet in recent memory.  I cannot speak for His Eminence the Cardinal but I was pleasantly surprised to see the ordinary people in the streets--both children and adult--living normal lives despite the physical destruction of their homes, school buildings and other basic physical facilities.  There were hundreds of children and adults with smiling faces lining up the streets leading to the Church first visited by the Cardinal, the St. Joseph parish close to the airport. Along the road we already saw many make-shift stores selling all types of foodstuffs, from vegetables and fruits to roasted pigs. The spirit of individual economic initiative was very much alive.

          True, as reported by Keith Bradsher in the February 3, 2014 issue of the New York Times, there is continuing confusion in the city.  Most of the vital services have only been partially restored, especially electricity and water. The few remaining pupils are having their classes in make-shift tents.   National government presence is hardly felt.  We heard time and again from business and civic leaders that they have not seen any visible impact of the billions of pesos pledges they read about in the papers.  In fact, some of them joined a demonstration a few days before we arrived to protest what they perceived as government inaction.  A good number of skilled workers are voting with their feet.  They are migrating to other urban centers like Metro Manila, Cebu, CALABARZON, Davao and Cagayan de Oro.   As the NYT article bannered in its headlines, "Months after Typhoon, Philippine City Suffers from an Exodus of Jobs."

          What I witnessed, however, together with the business people from Manila who came with me was more encouraging.  Despite the continuing difficulties, members of the various chambers of commerce in Tacloban and the surrounding towns as well as their NGO counterparts and cooperatives were not in the list bit discouraged.  They are actively looking for solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems, refusing to give up hope.  The proverbial resilience of the Filipino was very evident in their attitude.  They did not harp on their sufferings and privations.  They presented possible solutions in which they wanted help from their counterparts in the private sector of Manila and other Philippine cities.  They were realistic in not pinning their expectations on the National Government that is still trying hard to put its act together.  I even did something corny:  I sang to them "The Impossible Dream" to pay tribute to their resilience.

          We from Manila got a lesson about always consulting  the people on the ground before deciding on what to do to help them.  For example, they expressed the deepest gratitude to business people from different sectors allotting anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 pesos to buy a boat for each displaced fisher folk.  Members of cooperatives, admirably organized and active in Eastern Visayas, told us, however, that the seas in Eastern Visayas are overfished and depleted.  There is a need to rebuild the mangroves as people in Western Pangasinan have done.  Meanwhile, having a boat may not solve the livelihood problem of many fishermen.  Instead, they suggested that some of these people, including the coconut farmers, should be trained by such technical schools as Dualtech in Manila,  the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise  (CITE) in Cebu and other TESTA-certified technical schools in such occupations  as carpentry, electro-mechanical skills and construction work in general to fill the vast demand for these workers that will be generated by the multi-billion projects of the Government in reconstructing the infrastructures and in actually building new farm-to-market roads, post-harvest facilities and other public works needed in the rural areas.  The tens of thousands of housing units to be built will also need skilled workers.

          When our agribusiness experts advised them to consider crops other than coconuts, which are always vulnerable to future storm surges, they gently reminded us that diversification into other crops is easier said than done.  High-value crops such as vegetables, fruits and livestock are not feasible alternatives until we can endow Eastern Visayas with abundant water and irrigation systems. They were more than willing to consider alternative crops such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, rubber and other high-value plantation plants as long as they can be helped by such agencies as the Development Bank of the Philippines and Land Bank in financing the vital inputs that are necessary for crop diversification.  Fortunately, officials from these banks are responding positively to their requests.

          The most urgent appeal they made was for us to bring to Tacloban the leading construction and real estate companies that have the expertise and experience in building socialized and low-cost housing, such as PHINMA Properties, DMCI Homes, Alveo and other smaller housing developers.  For example, we were informed that a Manila-based housing developer, Mr. Noel Gonzalez, had built more than 1,000 low-cost housing units in Tacloban before Yolanda hit it.  All these units were practically unscathed by the storm.   So they asked us to invite Mr. Gonzalez to a Round Table Discussion (RTD) held last February 19, which we did.  They also asked to request the Philippine Contractors Association (PCA) to send their officials to the same RTD to discuss a possible big-brother program in which the large construction companies in Manila will sub-contract work to the smaller companies in Tacloban and surrounding areas in the construction of infrastructures, houses and school buildings. The very active participation of the Tacloban-based business people and NGOs gave us, the visiting "experts", much hope that Tacloban and the whole of Eastern Visayas will surely rise again.  They have the types of leaders who can make things happen.  For comments, my email address is