ISLANDS:

Teenagers and the disabled lead Haiyan relief effort in remote area

BANTAYAN ISLAND, Philippines -- Ahead of the government in the capital of Manila and international aid agencies, a small organization is bringing aid and comfort to three isolated communities here. It has formed a bond of brotherhood between local teenagers and clusters of severely disabled people, unable to reach food and clean water amid the confusion and destruction left by Supertyphoon Haiyan.

It has become a lifeline for the isolated island's more than 120,000 residents. In Santa Fe, one of three towns located north of Cebu province's main island, a 13-year-old, Renato Gipalao Eliot, is busy working 16-hour shifts to help receive and repack incoming relief goods donated by individuals and companies to the whole of Bantayan Island.

Locally known in the Philippines for its stretch of white sand beaches, Bantayan Island was lashed with record 195 mph winds, turning it into a wasteland of felled coconut and acacia trees. Some families saw their metal roofs tossed off like Frisbees. Other houses, made of lighter materials, were flattened, leaving only wreckage to mark their former location. Renato and three other members of his family escaped from one of those.

As Renato describes it, he has slept only four or five hours a day since then. Haiyan destroyed almost everything in its path, including most of the growing crops, the poultry farms and the homes in the vicinity. A tangle of coconut trees and strong acacia trees came down on top of the mess.

More than 4 million people have been displaced and about 13 million have been affected by the record-setting typhoon, according to the latest estimates from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization also estimates that 2.5 million people are in dire need of food assistance.

"Logistic conditions are improving, but access to remote areas remains difficult," according to the latest report from OCHA.

Supplies arrive; power comes later

In addition to the lack of aid relief, electricity has yet to be restored across much of the remote islands. Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla will resign if power is not restored in areas devastated by Haiyan by Dec. 24, he told reporters at a news conference in Leyte earlier this week.

Typhoon survivors will not have a "dark Christmas," he said. "The first sign of hope is always electricity. We will persevere to give them that."

Now that relief trucks are finally arriving in Bantayan, west of Leyte, Renato is busy welcoming the drivers and unloading sacks of relief goods including rice, canned goods and noodles donated by private individuals. The drivers had to ferry the goods onto boats for more than an hour, then travel for nearly two more hours to reach this remote island in the central Philippines.

Despite the devastation and destruction around him, Renato flashes a welcoming smile to visitors on the island, often food donors or families of those affected by the typhoon inquiring whether a family member is still alive.

"I have not rested for a week, but I'm happy that I'm alive and can help my fellow Bantayanons," Renato said between huffing and puffing from lugging sacks of rice and canned goods to an inventory area.

With most of the wider relief effort and media coverage pouring into Tacloban in Leyte province -- which has been dubbed ground zero of the disaster -- very little aid from the government and international community has reached numerous island communities.

The United Nations put the storm's death toll at 4,460, along with an official tally of 1,179 missing people.

Help from neighboring communities

The lack of attention to this remote community is being filled by an increasingly steady stream of aid brought by the residents' families and friends from the neighboring island of Cebu. The southernmost tip of Bantayan is 86 miles from Cebu City, separated by ocean and rugged roads.

To manage the incoming flow of basic supplies, the local government of Santa Fe set up a relief operations post while youths as young as 9 help in packing the aid for distribution.

Immediately after Haiyan's landfall, Renato and his classmates went to the local municipal office to help in the aid effort, mobilizing other youths in the local school to take eight- to 16-hour shifts in unloading and organizing relief goods that would help a family for two days.

Zenaida Calzada, 26, who was born with an exaggeratedly curved spine, a medical condition known as kyphosis, was also busy assisting in the delivery of relief goods and in locating disabled people who were affected by the typhoon.

Calzada, a volunteer for the local relief effort, shuttled from town to town to ensure that disabled people were able to receive relief aid. She initially led a group of the Gualandi Volunteer Service Program (GVSP), a Cebu-based organization promoting equal rights for the disabled community.

Since Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, struck the villages, GVSP has identified and distributed relief packs to 1,800 disabled people and their families on the island.

Disabled people are among the most marginalized in the country, with voting and employment rights still limited in most parts of the region.

They are less mobile, particularly those who are paralyzed or are incapable of walking due to polio. The deaf cannot communicate their needs because most of the population does not understand Filipino sign language.

Losing everything but hope

It's even more challenging for the blind, such as the family of blind couple Domingo and Katrina Kapampangan.

The two were able to survive when they were guided by their 7-year-old son to hide under the table of their small hut during the onslaught of the storm.

Domingo Kapampangan could not help but cry while retelling the story of how he lost his house and the crops on his corn farm. He had planned to give a decent Christmas meal to his family after harvesting the corn in early December. He earns about 3,000 pesos ($70) per harvest to finance three months of expenses of his family.

"[The typhoon] destroyed our home; we had nowhere to go. Even the corn, nothing is left for harvest," said a tearful Kapampangan.

"When it comes to surviving disasters, the disabled are at the bottom of the pile," Calzada said. "That is why there is a great need to assist them."

This is why deaf members of GVSP like 29-year-old Venven Verrano traveled across choppy ocean and rugged roads to arrive at Bantayan Island to assist in communication with other members of the deaf community on the island. He served as an interpreter throughout the team's three-day relief effort, while helping load and unload relief packs.

"The group can use an able body like me in distributing these relief packs. I may not be able to donate in terms of money, but I hope my time here is useful when helping translate and carrying the relief aid," Verrano said in Filipino sign language.

GVSP is currently conducting a total count of disabled people affected in the three towns of Bantayan Island. A team from the Association for Aid and Relief, a Japanese nongovernmental organization, recently arrived on the island to assess their needs.

"I may not be able to speak to all of them, but seeing their smile from their weary faces after receiving the donations is more than enough for me to continue to help. I promise to return as we collect more relief goods for them," Verrano said.

Reporter Coleen Jose contributed.

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