By: Eric Genilo
Shortly after Typhoon Haiyan levelled the city of Tacloban in the Philippines, a wave of looting struck many business establishments in the area. Pharmacies, department stores, supermarkets, and malls were emptied by crowds of storm survivors. Not only necessities like food, water, medicine and clothing were taken but also expensive items such as appliances, laptops, and jewelry. The looting hampered emergency relief efforts because of security concerns. Order was restored only after police and military troops were sent by the national government to secure the city. In the days after the typhoon Filipinos struggled to comprehend why the looting happened in Tacloban and not in other typhoon-affected towns and cities.
Several factors contributed to the descent into lawlessness. Tacloban suffered more casualties and greater damage to infrastructures and basic utilities because of the combination of hurricane-force winds and a fifteen-foot storm surge. Unlike other places where the local government survived the storm, many police and local officials in Tacloban were among the dead, injured or missing. Without a visible police presence, Tacloban became vulnerable to a breakdown of law and order. The loss of electricity, communications, and transportation facilitates isolated Tacloban from the rest of the country for days, increasing the fear among residents that food and water would run out before outside help arrived. These factors contributed to the heightened sense of desperation of the storm survivors in the city. But despite these factors it was still difficult for some people to grasp how law-abiding people in Tacloban would engage in looting. A newspaper told the story of a policeman who was trying to stop the looting of a department store. He was stunned to see his former high school teacher carrying away merchandise. The teacher saw the policemen and asked him “can I get you anything?” as if it was the most natural thing to do at that time.
Analysts have tried to explain the looting as a form of “survival foraging and coping behavior.” Using whatever means they had, the people in Tacloban sought to secure resources needed by their families to survive in the long term. Taken items that were not basic essentials were later sold in the streets for money to buy basic supplies. Despite the public’s disapproval of the looting that happened there was an acknowledgement by authorities and even by some store owners that most of those who participated were acting out of desperation rather than criminal intent. While government officials called for eventual restitution of stolen goods, they have not filed criminal charges against the looters.
The looting in Tacloban City can be a source of shame for some people. There is a temptation to blame the “other”: escaped prisoners, criminal elements, etc. There is a need for personal and communal reflection and soul-searching before making judgments of others. Before casting the first stone, people have to ask themselves if they would also do the same thing for the survival of their families if they were in a similar situation. The difficulty of answering this question provides an opening for greater understanding and compassion for the people of Tacloban.