Maricel Engracias took refuge in a civic center along the coastline when super typhoon Yolanda slammed Tacloban city on November 8. She didn't know her supposed refuge was a trap.
Monster winds lifted the sea and created a wall of water that surged into the civic center and killed evacuees.
The tsunami-like phenomenon known as a storm surge took Engracias by surprise.
"Sabi lang raw, malakas ang bagyo na makakasira ng bahay. Wala namang sinabing may kasamang tubig na parang tsunami," Engracias said.
Engracias barely escaped the storm surge and saved her weeks-old twin daughters only by climbing the civic center's wall.
She is among scores of Yolanda survivors who say they did not know of the upcoming storm surge.
The lack of awareness comes as a surprise in a province already mapped as being vulnerable to storm surges.
Hazard areas already mapped
The map shows that most part of Leyte is vulnerable to storm surges a meter to four meters high.
Coastal Tacloban City, situated between a bay and a sea strait, is potentially the most vulnerable to storm surges between four meters to 12 meters, the map shows.
Asked about the existence of a hazard map, Tacloban City administrator Tecson Lim fired back: If there had been a hazard map, why were government buildings built near the coastline?
"If they did a study before, they should not have allowed these government buildings to be put out there," Lim said by phone.
He added the weather bureau did not brief city officials on the hazard map. "That was never discussed by PAGASA with us," he said.
But even with the map, the possibility of a storm surge when Yolanda struck was not even discussed during the preparations, Lim said.
"Never na-mention 'yung word na 'storm surge'. Although from the mayor, napag-usapan na it's possible na magkaka-storm surge tayo," he said.
Lim added that "even in the NDRRMC minutes, it was never discussed."
"Hindi nga pinag-usapan ng national (government) eh. Ang alam lang nila, malakas na hangin," he said.
Lim added that the storm surge that flattened Tacloban was unprecedented. "In fact, the scientific community is not looking at it as a storm surge but as a tornado that carried water, something we've never seen before," he said.
"(N)obody, not even the international community, expected that kind of storm surge that happened in Tacloban," Lim noted.
Still, the government's weather forecasters warned of storm surges that might come during the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda.
National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council executive director Eduardo Del Rosario maintained the government did not fall short at warning the public of a storm surge.
"Wala naman tayong problema sa forecasting. Basically, all Filipinos were aware before Yolanda came," he said when asked about storm surge warnings at the sidelines of a press briefing.
But did people know what a storm surge was?
"That is one area that we will improve on. Capacity-building and public awareness and information campaign ang gagawin natin," he added.
Making Tacloban climate-change resilient
In the aftermath of Yolanda, Tacloban has a lot of lessons to learn - most important of which is to transform Tacloban to a "global city that is climate-change resilient," Lim said.
The city will start with constructing tougher buildings. "We need to use structural design that can withstand winds up to 350 kilometers per hour," Lim said.
Lim said informal settlers will no longer be allowed to build flimsy houses within 40 meters from the shoreline. They will be moved to relocation sites, he added.
Tacloban may also have to learn from Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro (CDO), which were ravaged by killer floods in the onslaught of typhoon Sendong in 2011.
Ana Cañeda, director of the Office of Civil Defense in Northern Mindanao, said local governments of Iligan and CDO have learned to draft "more specific" contingency plans since Sendong.
Asked what Tacloban and other Yolanda-hit areas can learn from their experience, Cañeda stressed a radical solution - improving the city's comprehensive land use plan (CLUP).
The CLUP is a planning document prepared by LGUs to "rationalize the allocation and proper use of land resources," the Interior and Local Department said on its website.
The plan also "projects public and private land uses in accordance with the future spatial organization of economic and social activities."
"They have to sit down and take a serious look at the land use plan," Cañeda said, noting that this should be a priority before improving on the standards of Tacloban's buildings.
"Susunod 'yung building code sa land use... The land use is the mother of the building code," Cañeda said.
But Cañeda admitted that the land use plan is still not being implemented even in Iligan and CDO, as buildings and informal houses are still being built in danger zones.
This is because the informal settlers usually have their livelihoods along the rivers, she said.
She lamented, too, that the common folk usually do not understand technical terms that forecasting agencies use.
"Parang hindi masyadong naiintindihan ang mga warnings, hindi masyado na-a-appreciate kung ano ang ibig sabihin," Cañeda said.
Still, city administrator Lim said he is hopeful that Tacloban can pick itself up after Yolanda.
"At this moment, ang magagawa natin ay planning. Relief operations are still ongoing, (as well as the ) early recovery stage, particularly providing transitionary shelters," Lim said.
"The planning stage is already underway," he said. — JDS, GMA News