After Yolanda: A tale of 2 Taclobans

Jonathan Corpus Ong

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There is a Tacloban with a face of redevelopment and change. But there is another Tacloban: one of mundane poverty made exceptional by Yolanda.

Six months on after Yolanda, downtown Tacloban is bustling, with efficient roads and transport, and the occasional gridlock to indicate just a healthy amount of activity. Sari-sari stores and supermarkets alike teem with customers, in spite of “Yolanda price” hiking up a small Gatorade to P45 and 1.5-liter Coke to P150.

There is a sense that people are getting on with their lives, dusting off their videoke sets, arriving in time for their beauty parlor appointments, planning for next month’s town fiesta.

Hotels and restaurants are particularly busy. International aid agencies have booked solid the city’s top hotels, and so visiting researchers (like me and my team) make do with hostels that have since rebranded as hotels to cope with disaster industry traffic.

TACLOBAN CARINDERIA. Life goes on after the storm. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Five times a week from 10 pm, a “booze truck” parks outside Burgos Street near posh Hotel Alejandro, local headquarters for the United Nations, and attracts an odd assortment of foreign aid workers, religious volunteers, and curious locals toasting to Heinekens and Red Horses. Here people are friendly and chatty, though weary from the day’s work.

One French aid worker introduced himself half-jokingly as having come straight from building toilets in the slums. One dressed-up local opened up to me casually, if eerily, how she misses a friend she had lost from the typhoon. Both said they were there just because they badly needed a drink. 

BOOZE TRUCK. Aid workers cope with post-disaster work. Photo by Jonathan Ong

This is the Tacloban that is easier to see and write about: the Tacloban of redevelopment and change, of inspired foreign interventions and local business ingenuities. This is the Tacloban of Pharrell’s “Happy,” and certainly the Tacloban that our government wants us to see.

But there is also another Tacloban. (READ: Her name was Yolanda)

This is the motionless Tacloban of bunkhouses and tent cities, of refugee camps straight out of the sci-fi of District 9, the Tacloban of mundane poverty made exceptional by Yolanda. This Tacloban exists in bizarre proximity to the first, but can feel increasingly distant if viewed from the comforts of airconditioned vans and hotel lobbies, and when imagined through the caricatures of “Happy’s” dancing survivors and #PHThankYou’s profusely thankful, costumed ambassadors.

The second Tacloban

Together with academics from the University of London, Ateneo de Manila and University of the Philippines, we are conducting fieldwork in Tacloban and other affected areas to study the process of disaster recovery. Over the next 18 months, we will interview aid agencies and government officials and will compare their perspectives with what affected communities themselves have to say.

BUNKHOUSE LIVING. Families make do with cramped houses for now. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

As expected, we heard many stories of people’s graciousness toward aid workers and the help they’ve received from them. Perhaps most affecting is the story of Oxfam officers who told us how their SMS hotline intended for people to text in urgent community concerns was eventually overwhelmed with heartfelt messages of thanks from the communities they have visited. In the Oxfam office, these messages are printed and displayed on a bulletin board as encouragement to their volunteers. (READ: Delayed Yolanda rehab: Money not reaching LGUs)

But our own fieldwork in slum communities revealed that people from Tacloban are as equally expressive of resentment and anger just as they are generous with their thanks. 

There was Elmer,* the 50 year-old father of 9, who mocked a religious organization’s dole-out of a sack of rice and canned sardines. How is this pittance justified when the effort required to avail of this gift involved riding a garbage truck at night along with an entire hakot of tent city residents, made to endure an 8-hour ceremony the following day? “Ginamit lang ata kami para magpa-picture” was his bitter evaluation. 

There was also 40-year-old Lorna,* a TV news junkie, and who, in her spare time, does Facebook through her Cherry Mobile. Lorna sees in news and social media evidence in the form of photos and videos of donations and pledges from all over the world: cans of Spam sitting in warehouses, volunteers posing with relief goods, and mind-blowing tallies of US dollars and British pounds collected in their name. Yet she is dejected rather than hopeful: “Ni isang lata ng Spam di pa nga ako nakakita. Di naman yan makakarating dito.” (I haven’t seen any can of Spam. That won’t get here.)

RELIEF. Survivors wait in line for relief assistance. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Listening to the stories in this second Tacloban, we slowly realize that their happiness and gratitude are not at all the general mood or spirit of the city – as we might be persuaded to believe – but are fleeting moments and fading emotions. Their happiness and gratitude are always in context, each and every time hard earned by sincere individual donors, fair program policies, and humane processes of aid distribution.

Residents of this second Tacloban are equally capable of being guarded and cagey, looking out for their own welfare, and reluctant to be used shamelessly by others. The common word I heard spoken by people I met in this second Tacloban is gamitan, to use and be used by others. They accept the hard truth of aid donations bearing conditions of use and specific procedures of distribution, but nevertheless appreciate the gifts that deal the least painful hidden indignities on top of the enduring catastrophe.

The limits of ‘happy’

Nobody we met in this Tacloban had seen or heard the dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” or the big smiles of #PHThankYou. While discouraging, perhaps this is understandable. These videos and campaigns are, after all, fantasy-productions that an ever-suffering nation needs to tell itself and the global public to escape the shadow of its shameful histories as “nation of servants” and “Asia’s sick man.”

But the story of the second Tacloban – of its anger and resentment – is one we equally need to hear, spread, and share alongside its “Happy” emotions. To ignore these is to experience Yolanda’s disaster twice over – the second: a slow-burning disaster of a Tacloban erased from our imagination and most pressing responsibility. –

Jonathan Corpus Ong is a media sociologist with a PhD from the University of Cambridge, now teaching at the University of Leicester. He is involved in a research project on communications in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, along with Mirca Madianou, Liezel Longboan and Rappler Thought Leaders Nicole Curato and Jayeel Cornelio. They will be contributing blogs about their research for Rappler in the coming months.

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathan_c_ong.

*Names have been changed to protect respondents’ identities. 

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