In December of 2011, entire neighbourhoods of Cagayan de Oro city were swept out to sea.
The floods were unprecedented and the Philippine city was unprepared as water rushed in near midnight, leaving 637 dead.

The city has had to pick up the pieces quickly. Its strategic location on the coast of the southern Mindanao island has meant that many in the region rely on the city for services. It has the largest container port in the country and is a regional centre for education, Mayor Oscar Moreno says.

The city has marked most of the flooded areas as “no build zones” to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future. “We are respecting and implementing that”, Mayor Moreno says.

Priorities for this year

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s biggest priorities for this year are to improve housing, transport and healthcare in the city.

The floods of 2011 left nearly 40,000 homes damaged in the region, and Cagayan de Oro is still relocating some of those who lost their homes. “Looking ahead, we are targeting more relocations in the future,” he says.

The city plans to build 80,000 homes in the next eight years. These will house not just those who have been displaced, but also new families that are migrating to the city. “That takes into account not only the present needs, but also those that are anticipated given the continued growth of the city,” he says.

Being a major trading hub of the south, the city must be well connected to the region by air, road and sea. The Mayor’s second priority is to expand the city’s transport network.

Cagayan de Oro will expand its airport, which was opened just three years ago. It will expand the number of container terminals at its port, and build more roads to link to other parts of the island.

The government will spend “in the billions” of pesos on transport, the Mayor says. But “we need the national government and other agencies to assist us on that”, he says.

The Mayor’s third priority is to grow health services. “We need to establish more primary hospitals and upgrade our hospitals as well,” he says.

It must serve not just those living in the city, but others who travel from rural areas to get better heatlhcare. “This is not only because of migration, but more people from outside Cagayan de Oro are coming to the city to seek hospital care,” he says.

Biggest challenge

The biggest challenge for the city is its bureaucracy, Mayor Moreno believes. “It’s not unusual for the government to have employees who are politically connected”, he says.

Civil servants must be more professional in their work to deliver public services, he says. Services should be provided “not as a political tool, but rather as a public service”, he says. “That needs a professional bureaucracy.”

Technology is crucial to make this happen, he adds. “Technology is very important in that it improves efficiency, and it also reduces [unnecessary] human intervention”, he says.

The city has just launched an online building permit system to help the government manage licenses as it plans to build more houses. An online system cuts out the middle man in the transaction.

Before joining the public sector, Moreno spent 20 years in the private sector as a lawyer. He worked for large Philippine conglomerates and banks. He was Vice President of the Bank of the Philippine Islands, and before becoming Congressman in 1998.

Six years later, he took a job closer to home as Governor of Misamis Oriental Province in Mindanao. He held this post for nine years, and then became Mayor of Cagayan de Oro in 2013.

The city cannot get back the lives and homes it lost to the sea five years ago, but it must now rebuild on strong foundations to help its citizens get back on their feet.