Cebu island refuses housing help for Yolanda victims

CEBU, Philippines – The island municipality of Bantayan in Cebu has refused the housing assistance that the national government is giving victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), protesting changes in guidelines for choosing beneficiaries midway.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has made available P375 million to Bantayan to help rebuild homes destroyed by the November 2013 typhoon.

Originally, the local government identified 17,000 beneficiaries based on income caps set by the DSWD. By the estimates of Mayor Christopher Ian Escario, the new guideline will exclude 60% of the original qualified beneficiaries.

In the new DSWD guidelines, government employees and those who are earning P15,000 or more every month are no longer eligible.

“We need a dialogue with the national government,” said Vince Escario, Bantayan municipal consultant on tourism. “Why did they change the rules in the middle of the game?”

Speaking on behalf of his mayor cousin, Escario said that the town officials will be put in a bad light because not all of the victims will receive the P30,000 housing assistance they were promised.

“I am sorry, but we cannot accept it,” said Escario, quoting the mayor. “We knew that we are being put in a very tight position.”

The municipality of Bantayan sent a letter to DSWD Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman to air its concerns about the new guidelines for the financial assistance, but “they have not responded,” said Escario.

Businesses have concerns, too.

More than a year after the super typhoon devastated the town along with the rest of the Visayas, businesses are also asking for tax exemptions and lower interest rates for loans they incurred to rebuild resorts and poultry farms.

The Bantayan chapter of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently brought Cebu-based journalists and bloggers to the island in a bid to promote anew the island's tourism thrusts.

Bantayan Island is famous for white-sand powdery beaches. It is a favorite destination for international and local tourists during summer and during the Holy Week. Located in Northwest of Cebu mainland, Bantayan is composed of the municipalities of Bantayan, Santa Fe, and Madridejos.

The visitors were given a glimpse of how the community rose from the wreck brought about by the strongest typhoon in recent history.

Majority of the residents on the island have already reconstructed their homes, but businesses are still below their normal production rate before the calamity.

None of the families were seen living in tents, at least in the places where the visitors are brought to. Some traces of Yolanda are, however, still seen in the ruins of some homes and a few government buildings, including the collapsed roof of the Bantayan Central School and the Santa Fe police station.

The poultry industry has not fully recovered. According to businessman Arthur Despi, owner of a poultry farm, the island had a million birds that laid eggs every day before the typhoon.

“Immediately after the typhoon, there were only 400,000. Now we barely reach 700,000,” said Despi, who is also the president of the local chamber of commerce.

Felomina Becker, owner of Maya Resort and the chamber's treasurer, also asked the national government to grant them tax exemptions to cushion the expenses in rebuilding the resorts.

Becker, along with bar and restaurant owner Agnes Gilbuena, also asked the national government to lower the interest rates of the loans they availed of from the Department of Trade and Industry.

Without national government housing funds, Bantayan residents received assistance from non-governmental institutions, including the Red Cross, Islamic Relief, International Labor Organization, the German government, Project Hope, and RAFI, among others. –