Rising from the Destruction of UP SHS by Supertyphoon “Yolanda”: Learning from History

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UP SHS Palo Oblation in Leyte still standing amidst the damage from Supertyphoon Yolanda.

UP SHS Palo Oblation in Leyte still standing amidst the damage from Supertyphoon Yolanda.

Immediately after Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” I took pictures of the massive destruction inflicted on the buildings and facilities at the main campus of the School of Health Sciences (SHS), University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) in Palo, Leyte in the morning of Friday, November 8, 2013. I also wrote more detailed notes on the devastation in my diary.

The photos attached to this report were taken on three different visits to SHS on November 19, and December 3 and 5, 2013. Other undocumented data I mentioned are based on what I heard over the local radio (DYVL, assisted by DZRH), since I had  had no access to newspapers, TV and the Internet since the supertyphoon struck nearly a month ago.

Supertyphoon aftermath

Supertyphoon “Yolanda” was classified by PAGASA, the government weather agency, as a Category 5 typhoon which packed 235 kph winds near its center with gustiness of up to 275 kph. But American meteorological sources said that the supertyphoon in fact carried 315 kph winds near its center and gustiness of up to 385 kph. It was said to be the “strongest typhoon” on record ever to fall on land.

“Yolanda” made a landfall at Guiuan, Eastern Samar around 4:40 a.m. on November 8, 2013, few hours earlier than the PAGASA forecast. Within the next two to three hours, very strong winds and heavy rains, accompanied by deadly storm surges, struck Tacloban, Palo and nearby towns of Leyte and Samar and caused catastrophic damage to human lives and property. Latest figures from the National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) show at least 5,500 people dead and nearly 2,000 missing, most of them due to the storm surges in Tacloban and nearby areas. About 80 percent of the residential houses and public buildings, including schools, along the supertyphoon’s path in Leyte suffered partial or total damage.

The piles of debris along the roads and the flattened landscapes of Tacloban and Palo and nearby areas reminded me of pictures and footage I had seen of Hiroshima, Japan following its bombing in August 1945.

The occurrence of storm surges seems to be a “best kept secret” in Tacloban’s collective memory. Tacloban chroniclers have recorded a lot of minor and virtually insignificant events in its annals, but never the storm surge of 1897, which caused the deaths of 200 (5%) of its estimated population of 8,000, nor the next storm surge that came with a strong typhoon in 1912, which showed a higher estimate (up to 50 percent in one estimate) of Tacloban’s population loss.

Learning from history

In the immediate days before “Yolanda,” I had already alerted my students about the possibility of a storm surge with the oncoming typhoon. I even called it a  tsunami to emphasize my point. The warning might have helped ensure that no SHS student would become a casualty in this disaster.

Fig. 1. The path of the 1897 typhoon with accompanying storm surges. The circled numbers indicate the height of the storm surges in various areas. (Source: Algue, Jose S.J. El Baguio de Samar y Leyte, 12-13 de Octubre de 1897. Manila, 1898.) Fig. 2. Picture of the damage in Palo due to the 1897 typhoon.

Fig. 1. The path of the 1897 typhoon with accompanying storm surges. The circled numbers indicate the height of the storm surges in various areas. (Source: Algue, Jose S.J. El Baguio de Samar y Leyte, 12-13 de Octubre de 1897. Manila, 1898.)

Fig. 2. Picture of the damage in Palo due to the 1897 typhoon.

Fig. 2. Picture of the damage in Palo due to the 1897 typhoon.

The basis for my warning was a very strong typhoon accompanied by storm surges that struck Samar and Leyte on October 12 and 13, 1897, at the height of the Philippine Revolution. That phenomenon was investigated and a report was published by Fr. Jose Algue, SJ, the director of the Manila Observatory, on commission by Admiral Patricio Montojo, commanding-general of the Spanish Navy in the Philippines at that time.

As it turned out, “Yolanda” followed almost the exact path (from the Pacific Ocean) of the 1897 typhoon and produced storm surges with similar heights and magnitudes as its precedent event more than a century ago (see Fig. 1), i.e., 3 m. in Tanuauan, 3.9 m. in Tacloban, and 4.6 m. in its Anibong area. Even the destruction of representative buildings in Palo showed a repeat during the two disasters. Fig. 2 shows a fuzzy picture of the destruction inflicted on the Palo Church and the Palo Municipal Building, respectively, in 1897. Fig. 3 shows a similar pattern of destruction on the same two structures last month. The recent photo shows the damaged SHS buildings in front of the Palo Cathedral.

Fig. 3. Damage to Palo due to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on November 8, 2013. The damaged SHS buildings are in front of the damaged Palo Cathedral (with the two bell towers to the left of center).

Fig. 3. Damage to Palo due to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on November 8, 2013. The damaged SHS buildings are in front of the damaged Palo Cathedral (with the two bell towers to the left of center).

Severe damage at SHS

All the buildings inside the SHS campus in Palo suffered severe damage.

The SHS Administration Building, a ca. 1940s Puericulture Center which was repaired after SHS occupied it in the early 1980s, is now roofless and suffered total damage to its wooden structures on the second floor. But the concrete-walled ground floor was virtually spared, except for some broken glass windows. See Fig. 4.

Fig. 4.UP SHS Palo Oblation in Leyte still standing amidst the damage from Supertyphoon Yolanda.

Fig. 4.UP SHS Palo Oblation in Leyte still standing amidst the damage from Supertyphoon Yolanda.

The six-classroom Dr. Florentino B. Herrera, Jr. Memorial Building, which faces the Palo Town Plaza, has been stripped of its zinc roofing and most of its ceilings. But the wooden beams for the roof are still intact in many places. See Fig. 5.

Fig. 5.The damaged Dr. Florentino B. Herrera, Jr. Memorial Building. The photo also shows the SHS flagpole bent to the ground.

Fig. 5.The damaged Dr. Florentino B. Herrera, Jr. Memorial Building. The photo also shows the SHS flagpole bent to the ground.

The two-room administration building, one room of which houses the Learning Resource Center (LRC), is now roofless and rid of its roof beams. Its concrete wall facing the river had been destroyed and pushed and slanted inwards by the strong winds. This building is a virtual wreck.

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Damaged building at the UP SHS Palo campus

Photo of another damaged building at the UP SHS campus in Palo

Photo of another damaged building at the UP SHS campus in Palo

The Palo Maternity Clinic in the SHS compound, which was built with a grant from the Japanese Embassy, is roofless in most places. But the metal beams for its roof are still in place.

An old prefab building inside the compound, which was used as storage area for old SHS items, was pushed flat to the ground by the supertyphoon.

The SHS flagpole has been bent to ground level.

Only the UP Oblation statue, which symbolizes the unflagging UP spirit, stands erect and seemingly unharmed by the disaster.

Recommendations

Initial efforts for the SHS to resume operations in Palo should focus outright on providing temporary roofing (i.e., canvas tent material) to the six-classroom Herrera Memorial Building, which can be used as temporary office and classrooms. The rooms at the ground floor of the SHS Administration Building can also be used as classrooms and/or offices while we continue to rehabilitate the other school facilities. The second floor of this building can be rehabilitated using materials stronger than the ones used to rehabilitate it in the early 1980s.

I hope these short-term recommendations will be given cognizance by decision makers in UP Manila and the UP System Administration, and donors for the SHS who are willing to provide the resources and funds. There are now ongoing discussions on the long-term infrastructure rehabilitation of the UP campuses affected by the devastation,  on the options to showcase the best designs, including future risks.

The SHS started in 1976 with only one building that had two classrooms. After “Yolanda,” we can certainly start again with the repair of the six-classroom building named in memory of our founder, the late Dr. Florentino B. Herrera, Jr., and pick up the pieces of our shattered campus from there.

We can always stand up again from  where we fell.
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Dr.  Rolando O. Borrinaga is professor of history at the UP School of Health Sciences, Palo Leyte. Email him at [email protected]

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