TACLOBAN, Philippines -- Pope Francis won't arrive in the Philippines' typhoon-devastated province of Leyte until Saturday, but already he has received credit for an unexpectedly rapid recovery from one of the nation's most devastating natural disasters.
Nearly 15 months ago, Typhoon Haiyan careened into the Philippines, hammering 44 of its provinces and killing more than 6,000 people. Leyte bore a particularly heavy share of the losses. Despite the widespread carnage, residents expected the government to move slowly on rebuilding. Those expectations appeared accurate -- until the Vatican announced a papal visit to Leyte's capital of Tacloban.
Suddenly reconstruction kicked into high gear.
“We honestly wish the pope could have announced his visit [to the area] sooner. It really would have made our jobs and recovery much easier,” Helena Claire A. Canayong, the director of Volunteer for the Visayans, a local nongovernmental organization, said in an interview. “Construction of roads that were previously stalled because of chitchat has finally begun. There has been a significant amount of recovery, but we are still far from 100 percent.”
After the pope’s visit to Tacloban was announced, she said, political resistance and local pushback on infrastructure needs immediately eased. “After [the announcement], it was no more talking; [construction] notices were just handed out.”
A visit to the stops the pope will be making Saturday revealed that urgency. It could be felt on construction sites at Tacloban's small Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, the home of the Archdiocese of Palo and at the Palo Cathedral, site of intense work on the Sunday after the New Year’s Day holiday.
Locals are not complaining about the additional construction clogging streets and the added noise pollution.
“We are thankful for the pope’s visit,” 52-year old Tacloban street vendor Victor Roldan said. Roldan and his wife have a table of pope T-shirts, mugs and key chains along the busy downtown Tacloban P. Zamora Street area. “All the hotels are booked, many people will be coming and watching, this time not so sad circumstances. We are still struggling, but this will be good not only for business, but for our spirit, for everything, for Filipinos.”
Much of the rebuilding only started recently. The runway of Tacloban's airport where the pope's plane will land Saturday remained unrepaired until only a few months ago.
According to the Philippine Inquirer, 10 months after the typhoon, a significant portion of the small airport’s runway still hadn't been repaired. The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) estimated repairs would take six months but rushed the job to ensure the runway was ready for the pope. “This is our concern,” Efren Nagrama, area manager of the CAAP, said in the report. “We are doing this so that we will be ready when the pope arrives. Definitely, we will work overtime so we can fast-track the repair.”
Buildings and roads are not the only things getting attention. Besides repairs at the airport, part of the facility was quickly prepped for a Mass the pope will celebrate there; more than 160,000 Catholics from Leyte province are expected to attend. Where industrial debris and rubble used to lie just weeks ago, workers have built a massive stage, set up huge television screens and erected barricades to accommodate crowds.
While the prepared structures may not be architecturally spectacular, the completion of the project ahead of the pope’s visit shows re-energized recovery efforts in Tacloban and the neighboring town of Palo, which had been stalling more than a year after the typhoon hit.