Photo: Getty; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo: Getty; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Bloated corpses still lie amid the rubble. Tens of thousands of people are clamoring for food, clothing and shelter. Hundreds of villages remain effectively cut off from the outside world.

At such a moment, it may seem insensitive, or at least overly technocratic, to emphasize the need for rewriting building codes or replanting coastal mangrove forests. Yet now is precisely the time -- in the midst of the enormous, still-chaotic effort to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan -- to focus not just on relief but also on rebuilding.

It is a truism in the aid community that the key after any natural disaster is to “build back better.” A country such as the Philippines -- which suffers 20 typhoons a year, not to mention earthquakes, floods and landslides -- cannot reduce its physical exposure to such risks, only its vulnerability. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, it only makes sense to prepare better for the next one -- to build stronger homes, on higher land, with better early warning systems and evacuation routes.

Too often, though, by the time the focus turns to long-term reconstruction, money and political will have dissipated. New homes are slapped together in the rush to relocate victims out of tent shelters. Politicians lose interest in projects that promise little immediate payoff, such as restoring those mangrove forests to help protect against storm surges.

The only way to “build back better” is to start laying the groundwork now, when the world’s attention is fixed and sympathy is at its peak. This is the time for national leaders to revise building codes -- as Japan does after every major disaster -- so that new construction can withstand future megastorms.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has been pushing a $9 billion program of infrastructure projects since 2010, with little to show for it: Only one of them (out of 47) is anywhere near completion. Clearing roadblocks to those projects would help attract new investment for roads, bridges, hospitals and evacuation centers. Improving coastal defenses and rethinking land-use planning can help protect vulnerable low-lying areas.

In some ways, this question of recovery is distinct from the task of relief. For that reason, Philippine authorities might want to look at appointing an independent body dedicated solely to such long-term questions, as Indonesia did in hard-hit Aceh after the 2004 tsunami. Such an organization could propose ways to reduce the risk associated with future storms and quakes: offering tax incentives for disaster victims to move to less-exposed areas, for example, or dispensing disaster aid on the condition that recipients participate in programs that help them survive future storms.

Aid organizations can benefit from a longer-term perspective, too. Most such groups generally operate on a one-to two-year time horizon, in part so that those they are helping don’t grow dependent on outside assistance. Yet as studies of rehabilitation efforts after the 2004 tsunami have shown, most successful projects require patience. It takes time to understand communities: what kind of homes they need, where they are willing to relocate, how to reconstruct their social and economic networks. Similarly, by focusing not just on people and families but also on helping to revive local institutions, these aid groups would greatly improve their chances of ultimate success.

Relief efforts and recovery assistance are not mutually exclusive, of course; aid groups and governments can strive toward both goals at once. What’s more, in at least one sense, they are inextricably linked: For most victims of natural disasters, in the Philippines and elsewhere, the prospect of recovery is itself a kind of relief.

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