Albay reconstruction to take years

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Shops are reopening and telephone lines are back up, but reconstruction in the impoverished Albay could take years, officials say.

President Gloria Arroyo, who made a flying visit here Tuesday, ordered a massive effort to get the devastated areas back on their feet before Christmas.

But work has been painfully slow, with public works staff and many government employees directly affected by the tragedy. Power and water services have yet to be restore, with kilometers (miles) of toppled power lines littering the roadsides.

Work on the damaged airport terminal building has yet to begin, as massive military aircraft arrived with much-needed relief aid.

“This will take several years to get us fully functioning again,” Albay Gov. Fernando Gonzales said, noting that vast tracts of land planted with coconut, the area’s main agricultural product, are now covered in volcanic debris.

“There needs to be a comprehensive plan and a fresh approach in rebuilding,” he said, adding that the local government could prevent people and businesses from building close to the Mayon Volcano in the future.

Rising to 2,462 meters (8,125 feet) and beautifully symmetrical, the active Mayon has for years been a tourist attraction, and shops and villages have sprung up on its slopes despite the danger.

The civil defense office said the disaster destroyed or damaged 250,000 houses and affected 1.54 million people, nearly 83,000 of whom had sought refuge at evacuation centers.

Damage to buildings, infrastructure and agriculture is estimated at P1.2 billion.

“The magnitude of the disaster is so huge that even our economy will be affected for years,” Gonzales said.

The coconut industry, which fuels the local economy, could take about seven years to recover. About 30 percent of the land destroyed by the volcanic debris was planted with millions of coconuts that were already bearing fruit.

“It would take us about three years to replant and up to seven years before they can start bearing fruit again,” he added.

Officials warned residents to evacuate several times this year when Mayon spewed ash and showed signs of minor eruptions.

A four-kilometer radius “permanent danger zone” is in place, and villagers apparently thought that they would be safe beyond that.

“Some of the villages that were buried were not in the slopes. So this was a phenomenon that in a way was not anticipated,” the governor said.

He said those affected would not be allowed to rebuild and should be relocated. “It’s a great concern, living where they are,” he said.

A fresh study of Mayon’s topography is also to be carried out in the wake of the tragedy, he said.

In the riverside village of Isarog near here, survivors are living in makeshift shelters and forced to scavenge for scraps and salvage broken appliances after a wall of mud crushed the village.

“How can we rebuild this place? I can’t say if I am lucky to be alive, because now we may starve to death after losing everything we had,” said Roger Aquino, 61, as he sat on the steel trusses of his buried house.

When the mudflow came, 19 family members including his wife and adult children were trapped inside the house he built 20 years ago. They survived only because a neighbor who heard their screams risked his life to tear open the roof.

Five days later, Aquino returned to the site to dig out a refrigerator and pairs of shoes he says his grandchildren need.

“I am also looking for our documents … passports and identification cards, that we need to start over again,” he said.