Leyte town Mayor Pel Tecson draws road map to recovery


This aerial photo taken on November 17, 2013, shows the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda near the coastal town of Tanauan, Leyte. AP FILE PHOTO

TANAUAN, Leyte—Mayor Pel Tecson is using business strategies learned as a Procter & Gamble executive to “build back better” his first love—this typhoon-devastated town on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

He has devised a road map and has relentlessly followed it with a single-minded focus that is the hallmark of his own success story.

The 46-year-old civil engineer is selling his ideas to all who care to listen—top officials of the Aquino administration, international charity groups, business leaders, community organizers and his own constituents.

“I want to use this crisis as an opportunity to rebuild this town,” said Tecson, who left Singapore, where he was deputy marketing chief for Asia of the US-based consumer goods giant, in February last year to contest the mayoral race here in May.

“It has always been a dream for me to go back to my hometown, to be able to make a little difference,” said this former overseas Filipino worker (OFW). “My wife is also from here,” he said.

It is a dream shared by 10 million OFWs, mostly women who have unselfishly sent money home to keep the economy of this country afloat.

The task of Tecson, who spent 20 years in Singapore, is not easy.

Supertyphoon “Yolanda” battered Tanauan City on Nov. 8 last year, with winds of up to 315 kilometers per hour and 5-to-7-meter-high storm surges that crashed ashore and wreaked havoc on the lives of its 53,310 people.

Tanauan accounted for 1,376 of the more than 6,200 people who perished in the battering by the most powerful typhoon to ever hit land. Most of them were buried in mass graves two days later. Without body bags, Tecson got plastic sheets and used gasoline as a preservative. He then asked a priest to bless them, honoring a custom that as a man owes it to himself to live a decent life, so, too, does he deserve a decent burial.

Houses of more than 1,200 families in communities along the coast were wiped out.

Adopt Tanauan program

The mayor compares the typhoon devastation to the destruction of the town—captured in sepia-colored photographs—in the carpet-bombing of the area by Japanese occupation forces during the final stages of World War II. It was on Red Beach nearby that Gen. Douglas MacArthur began to redeem a promise to liberate the country in October 1944.

Debris had been cleared under cash-for-work programs launched by international aid agencies, led by a South Korean military contingent, to help tide over the hapless typhoon survivors.

The focus of that project now is on helping households clean up the rubbish in their backyards. This is being done by the 1,500 survivors themselves who have been hired by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Mayor Benhur Abalos of Mandaluyong City sent trucks to pick up the trash under the adopt-a-city program of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. Abalos also dispatched three portable tractors to sow the rice fields in place of the carabaos that were killed by Yolanda, and four boats for fishermen.

While the Department of Public Works and Highways is still talking bunkhouses, Tecson is on to building permanent homes. He has made Barangay San Isidro a pilot project for his shelter program.

It helps that he has the support of Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla, head of the region’s most politically influential clan. Petilla has donated galvanized iron sheets and nails.

The 220 families in San Isidro did their own rebuilding.


Coco lumber

With the consent of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), a chain saw team was deployed in the area to cut toppled coconut trees into usable strips. Residents, using savings out of the P250-a-day pay from the road cleanup of the UNDP, paid P800 per tree for the coco lumber produced.

Yolanda felled 20 million coconut trees—a conservative estimate by experts in Manila—but the distribution of chain saws is restricted by the DENR to prevent the wanton destruction of the little that remains of the nation’s forest cover destroyed by illegal loggers.

Tecson’s priority is permanent housing. “The families will not feel rehabilitated if they are unable to repair their homes. That’s a basic principle,” he said in an interview at the ruined municipal hall.

He has fixed his office, which has the feel of an executive suite, where he receives a never-ending string of foreign and local visitors he has to deal with in his reconstruction efforts. It gives an air of confidence and efficiency in the town that is slowly recovering from the catastrophe.

Power is back on the main streets and an electric power cooperative is working to restore service on the secondary roads.

On a field trip last week, Tecson pointed to vast expanses of rice fields that would be ready for harvesting in three months, about the time he expects the emergency food rations from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and other charity groups to end.

He said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the British charity Oxfam distributed 2,500 sacks of rice seeds that have been planted on 2,500 hectares of paddy.


Improving quality of living

Tecson has identified three permanent relocation sites at Barangays Pago, Maribi and Sacme, totaling 1,200 ha for the families of 1,200 informal settlers that used to live along the coast. About 200 of them are in a tented encampment in a school, which is to be closed beginning later this month.

The beneficiaries will have 36-square-meter lots and there will be provisions made for the houses to have a second level. The housing estates will have concrete roads, drainage and community facilities, and water and lighting systems.

“The quality of living will dramatically improve for our informal settlers,” said Tecson.

He said galvanized iron sheets from government agencies were being distributed to those with properties in the “no-build” zones along the coast. So far, he said more than 50,000 pieces of roofing material had been distributed.

Reconstruction of 40 schools that were damaged is also proceeding, again led by the South Korean soldiers, under an adopt-a-school program for nongovernment organizations.

The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and Caring for the Future Foundation have also begun a program to train workers for the massive reconstruction.

Tecson has presented a comprehensive development plan for Tanauan to presidential assistant for rehabilitation Panfilo Lacson, the overall coordinator of the recovery program, as well as to the secretaries of social welfare and public works, and local governments.

Template for development

Lacson has told reporters that he plans to make Tanauan one of the four pilot areas for development to be financed by big businesses.

Tecson said the former senator had taken to the town Edgar “Injap” Sia, the founding owner of Mang Inasal and a major stockholder in the Jollibee Corp., as a major private sponsor for the town’s rehabilitation.

He said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had confirmed support for his program to modernize the public market, the municipal building and the construction of civic centers and barangay halls.

“Overall, we have gotten the enrollment of key stakeholders in both government and private groups in supporting the work on Tanauan.

“We have made great progress on the fundamentals on disaster response and we have made a very clear road map on how to move forward to build back better, complemented with our strong bias for action and results,” he said.

Tecson recalls the days before and after Yolanda struck. The preparations he made did little to mitigate the impact of the worst typhoon to ever hit the Philippines. He says that unlike in other areas, Yolanda ignited tsunami-like sea surges that swept inland up to a kilometer across the town, accounting for the high death toll. Many of those killed were trapped in their homes as the swirling seawater inundated the town.

Lessons from Singapore

He remembered jumping on his motorbike to get to Tacloban after the storm left. The provincial capital is normally just 30 minutes away by car but it took Tecson two hours to navigate the debris-strewn roads to the airport, where he pleaded with officials for urgently needed water, food and medical assistance for the thousands injured.

Tecson hijacked a 15-member medical team from Mammoth Lake, California, who had just arrived then. He begged US Navy officials to send the group to Tanauan.

“They performed many surgical operations in very tough conditions. Office desks were used as operating tables. Many performed cesarean operations on pregnant women. They administered amputations. Blood was dripping all over the place,” he said.

He also supervised the operation to put looting under control after panic gripped the stricken town.

“I always love the quote from a renowned management guru, ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it,’” said Tecson, who was wearing a shirt on which these words are printed.

“I always believe that the best way to run the government is to run it like a private corporation, just like Singapore,” he said.


ILO: More job creation program needed in Yolanda-hit areas

Rice, coconut water kept survivors full

Long road ahead for typhoon-hit businesses

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