Out in the Storm

How the Philippine government forces its poor to brave each typhoon

Teresita Boljoran and her grandson sit by their humble house that was rebuilt after being destroyed by a super typhoon. Each year, about twenty severe cyclones hit the Philippines, forcing others like her to start over from scratch. OSCAR ESPINOSA
31 March, 2023

Teresita Boljoran, now a widowed mother in her early fifties, has been cleaning houses since 2010 to support her family of six. In 2013, the super typhoon Haiyan—locally known as Yolanda—destroyed her house on the island of Malapascua, in Cebu province in the Philippines. Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded in the country, affecting more than 14 million people and claiming over six thousand lives. “For a year, we lived in makeshift tents on the beach until we were able to rebuild the house thanks to several [government] aids,” Boljoran told me, in May 2022. Many such typhoons on Malapascua have forced her to rebuild her life from scratch. “Although I always live with the uncertainty of what might happen,” she said, “I don’t intend to leave here.”

Each year, about twenty severe cyclones, which cause torrential rains and heavy floods, hit the archipelagic state comprising thousands of islands. The worst affected are the poorest, who live in fragile structures on the coastland and are exposed to extreme weather conditions. In 2022, five tropical cyclones made landfall in the Philippines, triggering floods and landslides. Like most years, they resulted in deaths, property destruction, damage to agriculture and infrastructure, as well as displacement of thousands of people and disruption in their livelihoods.

Every so often, after each disaster, the term “Filipino resilience” is heard in the media. While the term originally just characterised a population that must pick itself up after each catastrophe, it now helps state authorities wash their hands clean of responsibility in mitigating losses and making sustainable urban planning and infrastructure investments. It implies that Filipinos, especially the most vulnerable, should be able to overcome any difficulties on their own. Filipinos are undoubtedly resilient, as was evident in my interviews with them about their losses. But the romanticisation of this supposed “resilience” places the burden of each catastrophe on the poor, further victimising them, instead of on the government.

“My mother-in-law had to go to work in the United Arab Emirates and sends us money every month for the day to day,” Evora Ortilano, a 24-year-old who briefly lived in Manila as a domestic worker, said. In October 2020, Typhoon Molave—locally known as Typhoon Quinta—swept away the house where she lived with her husband and his family at the Lazareto beach on Mindoro Island, located off the south-western coast of Luzon. They have not been able to rebuild it and now live with relatives in the same neighbourhood. Evora’s husband has been doing odd jobs, but the family is entirely dependent on her mother-in-law.