After the Storm: Learning and Rebuilding with UP’s Technical Assessment Team

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The Oblation remains standing at the UP Visayas Tacloban College campus. Photo courtesy of Prof. Danilo Silvestre.

The Oblation remains standing at the UP Visayas Tacloban College campus. Photo courtesy of Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

On the 8th of November 2013, the world watched as Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) tore through Guian, Samar, causing widespread flooding and landslides. Said to be the strongest storm to make landfall, the typhoon proceeded to devastate much of  central Philippines.

The numbers speak for themselves. A USAID fact sheet released at the end of last year said that an estimated 16 million people were affected by the storm. More than a million houses were either damaged or destroyed, displacing about four times that number in the process. Most unfortunate of all, more than six thousand people were recorded to have perished. At the time of this writing, bodies were still being found across the Visayas.

And on that day, watching intently with the rest of the world was Jose Danilo Silvestre, director of the UP Diliman Office for Initiatives for Culture and the Arts (OICA).

Like many others, Silvestre felt the urge to help but was unsure how to do so. As a professor and administrator of UP, however, he was further motivated by two UP campuses reportedly ravaged by the typhoon. These were the UP Visayas Tacloban College and the UP School of Health Sciences in Palo.

“I felt that we had to see first-hand what had actually occurred,” he said, “not just what we heard from the news accounts.”

In addition to his current post, Silvestre is also well-known both as an architect and an environmental planner—a dual expertise that would be of great significance. Furthermore, his organizational skills and standing as the former dean of the UP College of Architecture would also come into good use later.

After a meeting with UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and Vice President for Public Affairs Prospero De Vera, Silvestre finally had his opportunity to help. He became the first member of UP’s technical assessment team—a collection of experts from various disciplines whose output would guide rehabilitation efforts.

The team’s initial sortie had two primary objectives. The first was to do an advanced assessment of the damage done to both UP Tacloban and the School of Health Sciences. The second, which would be accomplished simultaneously, was to get a first-hand appreciation of what happened to the surrounding cities of these schools.

“Very good,” the President told him. “Organize the team and we’ll support it.”

Assembly

Assembling such a diverse cast of characters with the narrow window available to make a difference was the first challenge. The assessment team, Silvestre remembers telling the president, should not only be composed of architects, and planners but also geohazards experts and engineers to analyze the effect of the typhoon on buildings, structures and infrastructure.

By then, he already had one volunteer: fellow architect-planner, Prof. Michael Tomeldan from the College of Architecture. This provided him with the initial piece of the assessment puzzle.  Now he needed to find the others.

Silvestre then contacted noted geohazards expert and UP National Institute of Geology (UP-NIGS) professor, Dr. Mahar Lagmay, who immediately volunteered his services. He would also bring with him a pair of researchers, Jerico E. Mendoza and John Kenneth B. Suarez from Project NOAH, to assist him.

For the team’s structural and civil engineers, he asked the advice of a friend, Prof. Oscar Antonio, associate dean of the College of Engineering. He and Silvestre had been working on the new College of Engineering master plan when Typhoon Yolanda hit the country.

“Oca, I need a structural engineer and a civil engineer to accompany me,” he told Antonio. “Could you suggest anybody?”

“Ako, Dan,” was Antonio’s quick reply. “I want to go.”

Antonio also had a colleague, Prof. William Mata from the Institute of Civil Engineering, who was interested in joining. Finally, through Vice President De Vera, Silvestre was introduced to Dr. Kristoffer Berse, faculty of the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG) having also earned a PhD in Urban Engineering from Tokyo.

“Perfect,” Silvestre remarked. “That way we’d also have that governance perspective, which would come into play later.”

With Berse’s addition, Silvestre’s  team was ready to deploy. And by the end of November, with the Visayas still in turmoil, they got their marching orders.

First Sight

Even before a member of the team had set foot in the Visayas, the team found its first breakthrough through former UP professor Bangy Dioquino who had recently returned from an eight-year stint in Korea.

Dioquino and his team had embarked on a most useful venture. “They do aerial photogrammetry using small drones. Because of that they were able to go in very, very fast,” Silvestre said. In fact Dioquino and his team were able to provide photogrammetric data six days after Haiyan hit.

These expeditions allowed Dioquino to supply the team with vital information on ground-level conditions that would guide their progress. “They did the work gratis, without any charges, and they met with us and provided us with the information.”

“We met also at Mahar’s office, and showed him the information, and he said ‘this is perfect, there is a lot of information we can gather from that.'”

Actually getting to Leyte, however, was slightly more complicated. Because of the state of confusion caused by the typhoon, Silvestre and his team found themselves on separate flights, with Silvestre arriving a day in advance of everyone else. After meeting with UP Tacloban Dean Anita Cular, with some of the faculty and administrative staff of UP Tacloban, he did an initial ocular inspection of both the damage to the school and to the surrounding areas.

“All along the road leading from the airport to the city, you could see debris,” Silvestre noted. “The areas near the airport were hit hard. The roads were cleared, because that’s the first priority. But the informal communities, fishermen’s communities… Those were flattened. It was like a war zone.”

The rest of the team arrived the following day after initially being bumped off their flight. As they could not fit everyone in the service vehicle provided by UP Tacloban Associate Dean Anida Lorenzo, the Project NOAH team took the first trip from the airport. What they saw on the way was so arresting that they could not help but stop several times along the way to survey the scenes of the disaster, and take photographs.

At the airport, Tomeldan, Antonio and Mata were likewise making  productive use of their time. Rather than passively waiting for the return of the vehicle, the remaining trio decided to walk almost four kilometers after surveying the damage at the airport, doing similar work on the areas along the way. The service vehicle eventually picked them up along the road.

Upon reaching UP Tacloban, and after a brief meeting with Silvestre to coordinate activities, Tomeldan joined the engineers in assessing the structures and campus. Dr. Lagmay’s group turned over an initial set of hazard maps to Dean Cular after a brief meeting, and some interviews with those who experienced the storm surge first-hand.

The team attempted to rent a van for their visit to the School of Health Sciences in Palo, Leyte and a 113-hectare site owned by UP in Sta. Elena. This attempt was stymied, however, as vehicles were by then in very short supply, so many of them having been damaged by the storm surge beyond repair.

Fortunately, the church of Dr. Charlie Labarda of the UP SHS had a van the team could borrow. The team then decided to optimize by splitting the remaining survey work. Silvestre, Tomeldan, Antonio and Mata set off for Palo; while Lagmay, and the Project NOAH team made their way on foot and by tricycle toward Tacloban proper.

“Aside from the campus, they looked at the city. They went to the port area, where there were ships that were lifted by the storm surge and brought down on the shanties,” Silvestre said.

The UP Visayas Tacloban College campus in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Photo courtesy of Prof. Danilo Silvestre.

The UP Visayas Tacloban College campus in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Photo courtesy of Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

Tacloban Campus

“You know, surprisingly, and a bit to our relief, although UP Tacloban was hit by the storm surge, the damage was relatively light,” Silvestre said. Virtually all the major buildings were structurally sound—meaning that in terms of the frame and the walls of the building, they were in no danger of collapsing. “There was no structural damage other than the roofs.”

In a reconstruction of what happened, Silvestre narrated that while the ground floor of the main building was completely inundated, all the higher floors were relatively in sound condition. In fact, the 2nd floor of the Main Building was already being used to store relief goods. It was only at the ground floor that documents, furnishings and school equipment were damaged or destroyed.

Dean Cular, with the faculty, staff and students had already done a substantial amount of work: clearing debris, cleaning the various facilities and trying to rehabilitate whatever they could with the limited resources they had. They had also prepared one of the second floor classrooms, screened the windows against the onslaught of mosquitoes for the team to use as its quarters while there.

Electricity and water, on the other hand, had not been restored. The only power available was from a small portable generator which could only run for a few hours in the afternoon to run a few laptops, and charge devices like flashlights, emergency lights, and mobile phones. At night, the genset ran from 8pm to 2am to provide minimum lighting for the campus.

Fortuitously, the main building was protected by the once-verdant UP Botanical Garden. Stories claim that the wind and the storm surge smashed into and uprooted many of the trees. “They were carried by the water across the road, where they hit the perimeter fence of UP Tacloban, which essentially collapsed along the whole stretch of the road.” When the fence collapsed, the storm surge carried the fallen trees and dumped them into the campus.

From the team’s assessment, however, the main building was lucky. Given how all the debris seemed to fall in the same direction, all the tree trunks missed the building, colliding instead with the lightly-constructed covered walks. “So nag-collapse yung covered walks at may damage sa roofs. But that was pretty much it. The rest of the structures were okay.”

The college library, museum and multipurpose hall told a similar story. While the roof of the library was nearly completely blown off and the third-floor windows of the multipurpose hall were practically gone, the structures themselves stood firm. Like the main building, the first floors of these buildings were both inundated. But with cleaning, diligent repairs and new equipment, these buildings could potentially be used again.

That’s not to say that the storm surge did not cause its fair share of scares and devastation on campus. Silvestre shared stories of students in the UP Tacloban dormitories who were treading water and literally grabbing hold of ceiling fans when the storm surge hit. Luckily, the storm surge subsided about ten minutes after it came.

If the main building was shielded by tall trees, the northwest portion of the campus was shielded in turn by the elevated site of the Leyte Park Hotel. Surprisingly, the windows fronting the storm surge did not break, leading the team to conclude that perhaps the storm surge was not as strong  in this area as it was in the rest of the city.

But the neighborhood surrounding UP Tacloban, sustained considerable damage.

“The biggest damage really was to the light structures: nipa huts and the other shanties that were located near the water in Barangay San Jose. Inside the city also, there were houses na medyo light construction and these were damaged too.” The ground floor, emergency room and other facilities of the nearby Eastern Visayas Medical Center was also inundated, but the Center was able to continue providing medical services after the initial onslaught.

The surrounding plaza and open areas at the Capitol were already being used by the MMDA and other agencies as staging areas for relief work.

A view of the Oblation amidst the ruins in the UP School of Sciences campus in Palo, Leyte. Photo courtesy of Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

Palo

Silvestre, Tomeldan, Berse, Antonio and Mata then made their way to Palo on their borrowed vehicle. And from the get-go, Silvestre noticed that they were dealing with a different kind of destruction.

The town proper of Palo, and the UP School of Health Sciences, had been spared the impact of the storm surge, being on higher ground and some distance from the coastline. The extensive damage was wrought by Yolanda’s up to 315 km/h winds.

“Many of the roofs (in the town) were blown off,” Silvestre remarked. The old Japanese-era main building of the School of Health Sciences likewise had its roof ripped off.  Bad as that sounded, that was not even the worst of it.

Unlike the Tacloban campus, whose structures could be repaired back to full functionality, some buildings of the School of Health Sciences suffered a harsher fate. The main building had two adjacent one-storey structures. “The one on the back collapsed,” said Silvestre. “And this was a reinforced concrete hollow block building… from the winds.”

From the team’s findings, it was likely that the winds took the roof —which was a steel roof—and as it was torn from the building, the walls came down with it. After climbing a nearby hill, the team confirmed the impression that the type of damage for the entire town conformed to the pattern. The roof of the Cathedral of Palo was blown off in similar fashion, while many lighter structures were swept away.

Forensic

Hearing Silvestre speak, it became clear the act of assessment, even from an architectural and planning perspective, differed very little from the assessment of a crime scene. For any competent investigator, part of the job is the reconstruction of the “whys” and the “hows” of a specific case from the evidence in order to move forward.

“It’s different when you see the forensic evidence for yourself,” he said. “When we say forensic evidence… it means to literally see the debris, to see how the structures collapsed. That sort of thing.”

“A structural engineer or an architect, for instance like me, will look at the structure. And if it was able to withstand that level of wind and storm surge without collapsing or failing, wala namang columns na nag-collapse, wala namang walls na nag-collapse, like at least in UP Tacloban—the initial assessment would be that the structure is reasonably sound.”

If, however, they saw cracks on the columns or beams, or if the walls themselves were blown down, that would be a different story. The building would then be subjected to further tests to assess its integrity. These would include various structural tests and evaluations of the building, doing checks on the structural steel frames and assessing, among other things, if there was a movement or displacement of the columns, beams and other structural elements.

If a building is  compromised, there are two recourses depending on the severity of the damage. “Sometimes you may see a large crack but if there is no deflection, you can use various techniques like epoxy grouting to repair the cracks and it will be essentially good as new,” he said. But in cases that are beyond repair, the only recourse is to declare the building unfit for habitation, and possibly condemning it.

“Mayroong ganoon sa School of Health Sciences. That one building that collapsed… it’s gone.”

Assessment team members Engr. Oscar Antonio (left, in black shirt) and Arch. Michael Tomeldan (right, in corridor), checking the buildings in UP SHS Palo. Photo courtesy of Prof. Danilo Silvestre.

Assessment team members Engr. Oscar Antonio (left, in black shirt) and Arch. Michael Tomeldan (right, in corridor), checking the buildings in UP SHS Palo. Photo courtesy of Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

Rebuilding

When they returned to Diliman, the team began the process of helping both campuses and the region back to their feet. And from all indications, 2014 will be a busy year for all of them.

Because of the aggravated damage from both the winds and the storm surge, Lagmay and his Project NOAH team are already hard at work making more detailed hazard maps for the whole of Leyte. Silvestre and company, on the other hand, were already ordered by President Pascual to prepare the master plan for a campus on a potentially safer site.

Unknown to many, the aforementioned 113-ha. site in Barangay Sta. Elena lies about 24-25 kilometers north of the city of Tacloban, and is owned by UP. Silvestre said that its location at the narrow end between Tacloban and Samar, and its location on higher terrain away from the coastline could make it less susceptible to a future storm surge.  To be on the safe side, however, Dr. Lagmay’s team will undertake a more detailed hazard mapping of the site prior to detailed planning.

If things pan out, it could possibly be the new home not only of UP Tacloban, but also the School of Health Sciences.

Silvestre noted that President Pascual had already made an offer of assistance to Mayor Alfred Romualdez of Tacloban not only in terms of planning, but also to make the future campus a nucleus of development. This phenomenon may effectively move part of the city out of its currently vulnerable location.

“There is a  good possibility that in the same way when UP moved from Padre Faura to Diliman, and much of Quezon City sort of grew around Diliman, that something like that could also happen there.”

“We still keep the campus in the city, kasi atin na iyon, UP owns the land and the facilities,” he said. “You could still operate an urban campus like UP Manila. But at least we know that in case of another occurrence, there is a refuge that we can evacuate our students and faculty to.”

That, for Silvestre, is the long-term goal.

The short-term, of course, involves rehabilitation. At the time of this writing, Silvestre and the rest of the team are scheduled to meet with Deans Salvador Isidro Destura and Anita G. Cular of the SHS and UP Tacloban, respectively. Both played a major role in assisting the team’s first expedition. And their inputs will provide the bedrock upon which the team will construct the future of both schools.

“What we’ll do is to rehabilitate UP Tacloban, to ensure that over the next 3-5 years while we’re developing the new site, it continues operation, Silvestre said.  “And to do whatever we can do to, should (the disaster) occur again and it probably will, mitigate further damage.”

While the team awaits a meeting with the two deans and UPV Chancellor Rommel Espinosa, the undergraduate students of both Silvestre and Tomeldan are already doing initial work on the new campus. “By the end of the semester we’ll probably have some output in relation to that.” Meeting both deans is crucial, Silvestre said however, to determine the long-term vision of both and complete the master plan along those lines.

Parallel to this, Silvestre and the rest of the team are also looking forward to uniting with the rest of the university in training local government units to effectively manage future disasters. Through Vice President De Vera’s office, they received a request to assist the municipality of Barugo in Leyte.

“We’re thinking of using this as a case study—developing a framework of assistance that UP can offer including primarily training. So we can assist our local government units to plan for disasters.”

He described it as a multidisciplinary effort—including not just architects and engineers, but experts from the School of Urban and Regional Planning, the National Institute of Geological Sciences via Project NOAH, the NCPAG and other units providing organizational and psychosocial support.

“That will probably be something that will keep us busy initially for the next year, possibly longer as the rehab and development work begins.”

Another building of the UP Visayas Tacloban College campus damaged by the super typhoon. Photo by Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

Another building of the UP Visayas Tacloban College campus damaged by the super typhoon. Photo by Arch. Danilo Silvestre.

The Takeaway

Despite these developments, one final issue remained on the table. This, perhaps, was the most important of all. Given the extent of the devastation in the Visayas and the increasingly violent spate of natural disasters this past year, a disturbing question still persists for both the university and the country.

What if it happens again?

“I had a very interesting discussion with Mahar and the rest of the group, while we were having our dinner of canned goods,” Silvestre said. “We were already saying ‘what if a catastrophe like this or a magnitude 7+ earthquake like the one that hit Bohol… what would happen if it hits Manila, and what would happen to UP Diliman?”

The initially light-hearted discussion had taken a turn for the unsettling. The gravity of the matter was punctuated by the eerie darkness of the Tacloban campus.

Silvestre said that at least for UP, there is a need to reassess all of its campuses and upgrade them to provide for the safety of its faculty, students and staff. “We also have to make an assumption that the UP Campus will be a haven and a refuge also of the other victims of the calamity.” He foresees that UP’s buildings and their classrooms will likely be converted into relief centers.

And he believes that the Leyte experience provides clues as to how this can be managed.

“Perhaps the health facilities in all our campuses should be geared towards at least offering part of the required emergency health services should something like this occur,” he said. Though UP does have well-trained and dedicated professionals to address such disasters, keeping them safe and in a position to assist is vital for an effective response.

“The need for energy has to be addressed,” he continues. “You can’t rely on the grid, so I think we need to consider alternative sources of energy.” Despite having a generator set, he said that it took about two weeks before a relatively stable supply of fuel could be brought to Tacloban because many of the service stations were inundated.

“By the time they were partially restored, they were selling diesel for 200-300 pesos a liter. So even if you have the genset, if you don’t have the diesel to run it you still won’t have electricity.”

Clean, potable water is another thing UP should be able to supply. Silvestre said there is a pressing need to address the supply of potable water, at the very least a means to gather and recycle rainwater as well as more advanced water management systems.

“In those days people in Tacloban were even taking a bath in the rain. Collecting rainwater, filtering it through whatever they had, like clothes and boiling it to purify it. So we’ve got to be able to develop those systems.”

Finally, a united effort involving the entire UP community—scientists, engineers, social scientists and artists—can work in tandem with agencies such as the Climate Change Commission on vital initiatives. This is a more proactive approach in addressing a scenario that has left so many powerless. UP has already entered into an MOU with the Climate Change Commission precisely for this effort.

“We’re already starting it,” Silvestre said. “But we’ve got to provide the kind of services and academic output needed to help put our country in a position to be safe when something like this happens again.

“And it will happen again.”
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