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Rising from the rubble: Cebu province in the aftermath of Typhoon Odette

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The sun was high over Olango island off the shores of Mactan in Cebu. White hot light beat down on the sandy road, while a gentle breeze meandered through the village, carrying with it the sound of children.

“You can’t catch me,” said a little girl, climbing over a pile of rubble to get away from her potential captors.

The girl reached the top of the heap, looking down at her friends who had their hands on hips, resigned to the realization that they were still too small to overcome the pile of rocks and corrugated iron sheets. She pulled a face, and the children broke out in laughter.

Everything was as it should be until an adult pointed at the rubble upon which the girl was standing on: “This used to be their home.”

The laughter was a thin veil that masked a far more brutal reality—many communities were still on their knees more than two months after Typhoon Odette hit shortly before Christmas in 2021.

The damage was immense. In the six worst hit regions an estimated 9.9 million people were severely affected, and about 2.4 million were in need of assistance.

“We have lost so much,” said Lin, a member of a women’s bakery collective in Olanco. She was not exaggerating. The fishing boats were cracked, the bird sanctuary destroyed. The tourist industry had come to a halt because of COVID-19. One of the few businesses left standing was their bakery’s kitchen, stripped of its store front, but still working, nevertheless. Lin and her colleagues went proudly about their business, brushing the pain aside as they baked for their neighbours.

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to natural hazards. The country is no stranger to powerful storms, there are about 40 each year. In 2013, it bore the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan—the most powerful storm ever to make landfall.

Odette has been the most destructive event in the Philippines since then, causing US$ 500 million (PhP 28 billion) in damage.

It was not just felt in Dinagat and Surigao del Norte where it made landfall, but also in Bohol, Cebu, and even Palawan provinces, which, in the past, had been shielded from devastation.

Thankfully, however, there was a difference between the number of casualties logged in 2013 and, most recently, in 2021. The Office of the Civil Defence recorded 405 deaths and a further 66 missing after Odette compared with more than 6,000 lost due to Haiyan.

This time, communities were prepared.

“Before Odette hit, we called the civil society organizations and barangays (community groups) for a meeting to prepare,” said Talisay City Mayor Samsam Gullas.

This was a practice also followed by local governments in the more remote areas of Argao, Moalboal, and Olango, with citizens drawing from their life-saving training in disaster risk reduction, psycho-social support, fire control, and first aid, so that they could look after one another better in times of crises.

But the people know there is still a lot more to be done.

“We need to build back better,” said Mayor Paz Rozgoni of MoalBoal. “We lost buildings, we lost communication lines. This period [of recovery] will be an opportunity to put in structures that will withstand the next typhoon.”

And this will be needed. Given the rapid progression of climate change, storms like Odette will occur with greater frequency and severity in areas where local governments are not used to facing such challenges.

UNDP and the Australian government, together with the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Office of Civil Defence, and the Department of Science and Technology, will help local governments increase their resiliency through the US$13 million Strengthening Institutions and Empowering Localities against Disasters and Climate Change programme (SHIELD).

SHIELD will work with governments to get additional resources for resilience, as well as for data-driven planning, budgeting, and infrastructure design to protect houses, evacuation centres and even livestock.

There is also a need to build resilience in livelihoods. Odette wiped out 80 percent of coconut trees in Cebu province. “Our coconut trees are gone,” said one farmer. “It will take six or seven years for them to grow back. We need to find another livelihood until then. We are prepared to change because we know more storms are coming come. We just need to know what to do.”

Local farmers have also been increasingly interested in digitalization, which has become feasible thanks to a fibre optic cable network from the Cebu City. The government of Argao is in advanced talks with telecommunications companies and online businesses to attract investments into their town. “We need investment,” said the Argao mayor.

“Before the storm we had fast WiFi, many businesses can invest here…and these investments do not need to come to me. They do not need to be run by government. They can be run by the people directly.”

Digitalization could open more opportunities for local communities. E-commerce can create new jobs and provide a massive boost to existing ones. “We buy in Lazada and Shopee. We can learn to sell there too,” said one co-op owner. With many local governments adopting the one town, one product approach, there is huge potential for such platforms to unlock a wider market, providing that small businesses can get the right investments and technical support, and by doing so, break poverty’s vicious cycle.

There is a need to act now so that further damage can be prevented when another disaster hits. This is the common message in Cebu from the mayors in the city centres to the fisherfolk in MoalBoal, to the women bakers in the sun-kissed island of Olango.

After baking bread, Lin took us down the road and into her family home, which was now without a roof. She stood in the middle of the kitchen, picking up a few cloves of rotting garlic from the table and held them for a minute. She did not know why she still kept the garlic there, but she did know what she needed to do moving forward.

Looking up to the sky, now cerulean blue, devoid of any trace of the dark storm that so recently upended their lives, she said with steady determination; “We will build the roof again, but it will not be the same as before. It will be stronger.”

Written by Jonathan Hodder, UNDP Philippines