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Kinglake and Tacloban: Survivor communities with knowledge that needs to be shared

By Emily Pritchard

A visit to Tacloban highlighted for me the commonalities across the world in recovery from natural disaster. This has further stressed to me the transferability of lessons learnt in recovery from natural disasters and the need to share this experiential knowledge.

You probably know all too well the devastation wrought by 2013 Super Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in the Philippines. Typhoon Yolanda was the strongest tropical storm on record to make landfall [1]. You also probably know that Tacloban, Leyte was hit especially hard by the typhoon. Witnessing the recovery process in Tacloban 2 years on, I saw common patterns of community recovery to that Kinglake, Australia, from the Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009.

The Black Saturday Bushfires started on 7th of February 2009, during some of the worst bushfire conditions ever recorded. Temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius, with winds in excess of 100km per hour, and the vegetation had been drying all summer long (February being the last summer month for Australia) [2].

“The Black Saturday Bushfires killed 173 people, injured 414 people, destroyed 2,100 homes and displaced 7,562 people. 120 people were killed by a single fire in the Kinglake Area alone.” [2]

The area of Kinglake is located 50 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, and is a part of the shires of both Murrindindi and Nillumbik. The shire of Murrindindi, along with Kilmore, was one of the hardest hit areas by the Black Saturday Fires.

Many of my close friends and peers during my high school were from Kinglake. The days after Black Saturday even our school, kilometres from the fire’s path, had the palpable sense of post-disaster. I certainly don’t have firsthand experience, but was able to witness the recovery of the community in Kinglake through my friends and local community.

Similar to Yolanda, the likes of Black Saturday had not been seen before, especially by the current generation. To illustrate the severity of the fires you could look at a number of factors, for example that “the radiant heat produced in some instances was capable of killing people 400 meters away.” [2]. As a consequence of these extreme conditions, and despite many communities and families having action plans in place and firefighters being on stand-by in preparation for the day, the ferocity of the fires was unprecedented and unexpected. This mirrors the ways in which communities in the Philippines, while being prepared in some ways, were taken by surprise by Yolanda. As one resident of Tacloban said, “we weren’t prepared for the water” [4]. This further stresses the need to disaster risk reduction strategies and the inclusion of these experiences in the planning of these strategies.

There were a number of other parallels between Tacloban and Kinglake. One which stood out for me was the prevalence of ‘I (heart) Tacloban’ stickers on vehicles and the sentiment across rebuilding projects of ‘building back better than ever’. These were almost mirror images to the ‘I still love Kinglake’ stickers which plastered cars in and around the community post-Black Saturday, and to the emotional reinvestment in the community I witnessed in my friends and peers. Both survivor communities appeared to be filled with hope of rebuilding stronger than ever.


On the other hand, Tacloban also seemed to also be confronting the parts of recovery which are agonisingly slow. This is a process which is by nature long and complicated, but at times can fail the communities in their immediate needs. I also saw this after the Black Saturday fires, some residents wanted to move back to their town but clean up and rebuilding processes took longer than expected and kept them somewhat in a state of limbo. After a disaster the recovery is always slower than the pace at which we need or want it to be. This can also be seen in the recovery of Haiti after the 2010 Earthquake [5], in the US after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 [6] [7], and in Japan after the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami [8]. There are many and varied, often divisive, reasons for why this is the case. I will not go into these; suffice it to say that it is often inadequately slow for the people affected. Here there are lessons to be learnt from the challenges of the rebuilding process. At the same time there are a number of success stories in recovery [9].

One of the most interesting developments after Black Saturday was that mainstream conversations discussed climate change as a causal factor in natural disasters in Australia [10] [11]. Indeed with climate change natural disasters, such as bushfires in Australia, are predicted to become increasingly severe and frequent [12] [13].  The same can be said for typhoons in the Philippines. I think this has two implications. Firstly, climate change, and by implication those emitting greenhouse gases, is partly (and increasingly) responsible for these disasters, both their severity and their increasing frequency. Secondly, that climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction must go hand-in-hand. These two points are important to consider during reconstruction after a disaster if we want to rebuild more resilient, sustainable communities.

These kinds of considerations can be seen in Tacloban, through community initiatives and reconstructions efforts as well as government efforts such as DILG’s Build Back Better operations manual [14]. Of the same vain is  theRE-Charge Tacloban initiative. I had a chance to spend some time at the RE-Charge site whilst I was in Tacloban and was impressed with their work.

With a fleet of electric jeepneys (eJeepneys) the RE-Charge initiative in Tacloban is generating green jobs and pushing for more investment in local sustainable enterprise. This initiative was set up in Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda as a way to attend to a hard-hit area and bring renewable energy in early to process of reconstruction. The RE-Charge site has a 9.75 kilowatt solar photovolataic system to power the eJeepneys, as well as training and employing local drivers, dispatchers, operators, administrators and technicians in the maintenance and servicing of both eJeepney fleet operations and solar facilities. Through these activities RE-Charge is helping to make reconstruction in Tacloban greener, and changing the conversation around both transport and post-disaster relief and reconstruction for the Philippines.

The author at the RE-Charge Tacloban facility

The author at the Re-Charge Tacloban facility

Apart from the host of ongoing activities related to the eJeeps and promotion of renewable energy and green transport, RE-Charge is also in their second round of a pioneering project called Solar Scholars. This project trains and equips disaster affected locals from across the Philippines to utilise renewable energy in the face of and initial aftermath of natural disasters. The program utilises the TekPak, a suitcase sized, portable solar system. The TekPak is composed of a 100-watt solar panel, an inverter, batteries and 3 LED light bulbs. It can power said LED lights, charge laptop, phones and radios, just to name a few [15]. Graduates of the program, or Solar Scholars, leave with renewed and expanded capability to assist their communities in times of disaster, most particularly through the deployment of portable renewable energy systems like the TekPak. It is initiatives like this which better equip communities for the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters that climate change is bringing.

The parallels I saw between Tacloban’s experience and recovery, and that of Kinglake in my home state, also highlighted for me the wealth of knowledge held in countries most vulnerable to climate change. As I have written about before [16], I think it there is a great deal to be learnt from the communities already facing the impacts of climate change and their methods of adaption and in the case of natural disasters, reconstruction. Less-vulnerable countries need to be listening and facilitating the collection, collation and dissemination of this knowledge, if only because they too will soon need this information. For example, one of the greatest lessons learnt from both Yolanda and Black Saturday, is that preparation, a major component in disaster risk reduction, is key. For example, more prepared households had a much higher survival rate during the fires [2]. Similarly, Yolanda highlighted the need for further development of disaster risk reduction and management strategies in the Philippines [17] [18]. Likewise, I think much can be learnt from initiatives such RE-Charge Tacloban for incorporating renewable energy and green jobs into the rebuilding process.


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