Stranded in City Hall: Being Mayor During a Cyclone

When you hear about a disaster that affects a whole country, you often hear stories of destruction or fatalities, but it’s the stories of resilience and strength that always remain with me.

In December 2022, just days Christmas, the Philippines was struck by Super Typhoon Odette which brought torrential rains, landslides, and violent winds to many islands of the Southeast Asian archipelago.

The typhoon displaced over half a million people, and damaged or destroyed almost two million homes. As soon as possible, IsraAID mobilized a team of local volunteers and former IsraAID Philippines staff members to support communities to respond to the crisis, helping affected people rebuild their lives and their homes stronger than before. In my work as IsraAID’s Protection & Emergency Coordinator, I have met numerous individuals and families affected by Odette. Jessica, the mayor of Tomas Oppus in Southern Leyte, was one of them.

Jessica is the mayor of one of the poorest municipalities in Southern Leyte, covering 16 coastal barangays (neighborhoods). Over 1500 families live in these barangays which were deeply affected by the typhoon due to their coastal location. Homes were flattened, leaving hundreds of people to shelter in schools, and boats were completely wrecked, removing entirely some families’ livelihoods.

When Jessica was informed of the incoming typhoon, learning that it was due to hit her island, she immediately began working on evacuation plans for coastal communities, as well as preparing food donations for the expected displaced families. As Jessica’s family, team and local aid workers were preparing food packages in the city hall, the typhoon struck, hours earlier than expected. With little advance notice, these few hours were critical for additional preparations.

Stranded in the city hall, Jessica and the team continued to package food, certain that hundreds of families would be in need, especially after the typhoon hit earlier than anticipated. Her community needed her, but so did her family at home. Jessica told me that she felt torn between her daughters and the community as she has a responsibility to both. Ultimately, she decided to stay in the town hall and help prepare food packs for her community, while remaining in close contact with her husband to be sure her family was safe. Thanks to the mayor’s preparation and encouragement to evacuate, many lives were saved.

Once the immediate impact of the typhoon became clear, Jessica worked to relocate some of the worst affected families, whose homes had been severely damaged or completely destroyed. She coordinated with local NGOs and the national government to rebuild, rehabilitate, and strengthen her community.

I have no doubt that Jessica’s commitment, devotion, and ability to see the needs of both her family and her community is a great asset for all those she represents. When homes were destroyed and families had nowhere to go, Jessica immediately got stuck in to make sure nobody was left uncared for.

Months on, IsraAID continues to support vulnerable people in the Philippines as they rebuild their communities, building back stronger and more resilient than before. We are focusing on providing psychosocial support and water, sanitation, and hygiene solutions.

To support our ongoing work in the Philippines, donate here.