BANTAYAN ISLAND, Philippines -- Rehabilitation efforts will be the priority in the coming months as foreign aircraft carriers and international aid agencies prepare to leave the typhoon-torn central Philippines.
The death toll has risen above 5,700 as more bodies are recovered beneath the debris of once densely populated cities and villages that were flattened by Supertyphoon Haiyan's wind and storm surge last month. Approximately 1,779 people remain missing, according to the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council's latest estimates.
The catastrophic strength of the typhoon posed one of the greatest logistical challenges to international aid agencies and brought criticism upon a government seen as flatfooted in its immediate and ongoing response to Haiyan's aftermath across a swath of islands.
"It's hard to say what they did wrong, because they had a tremendous amount of destruction to deal with," said Daniel Aldrich, an adviser on post-disaster recovery and a professor at Purdue University.
"The problem, in my mind, is not about what they did wrong, but that as usual, the most vulnerable populations in the Philippines are suffering the most right now," Aldrich said, also noting how the twin issues of poverty and high vulnerability to weather events compounded the loss during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when he advised aid agencies on their relief efforts.
Geography, Haiyan's power and the substandard quality of housing created a potent formula for death and destruction in the Philippines. The typhoon's maximum sustained winds of 195 mph brought tsunami-like storm surge in hard-hit areas. The rate of sea-level rise, occurring at a record pace in the region, also contributed to destruction in the low-lying islands (ClimateWire, Nov. 12).
Sleeping 'like sardines' but grateful for shelter
Nearly a month after the typhoon struck, sleep was still elusive for Danilo Fariolen, a fisherman on a remote island devastated by the typhoon.
Drops of rain on the makeshift shelter, made of plastic tarps, would trigger memories of the strong typhoon and how in an instant it destroyed the town that more than two generations of his family called home.
"I had to make sure my kids won't get soaked from the rain at night. It can be really cold," said Fariolen, a resident of Santa Fe on Bantayan Island.
For almost two weeks after Haiyan, his seven children, including a six-month-old infant, had to sleep on the sand and endure the cold, damp soil at night. The family salvaged scraps of wood to create a makeshift bed for the nine of them.
"We are like sardines inside," said his wife, Maribel, half-smiling to make light of their loss.
Despite the cramped space, it was better than sleeping on the sand without anything to protect them from the damp soil, she added.
Every morning since the typhoon struck, the couple would forage for coconuts from felled trees and join the lines of people waiting for the next relief truck bringing food packs. A plastic bag at their tent's entrance contained 3 kilos of rice and a few items of canned goods to feed the entire family for the next two days.
Families across an island of 136,000 people were facing the same daily challenges as the government in the capital of Manila continued to coordinate numerous departments and officials tasked with overseeing a yet-to-be-announced rehabilitation plan.
More than 14.9 million people are affected by the typhoon, of which 4.13 million are displaced from their homes, according to the country's Department of Social Welfare and Development. People who reside along main roads could be receiving disproportionate aid, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned in its latest report this week.
Humanitarian partners must expand their response programs to more remote areas and islands, the OCHA report says.
Tent life in Okoy
In a nearby village called Okoy, Maribeth Hidocos and her seven children stayed in a shed by the side of the road for two weeks after the typhoon ripped apart their home. The shed, a concrete structure with no walls, was where Hidocos would sit on a bench while her eldest child waited to go to school.
Three weeks after the typhoon, a stranger gave Hidocos a tent that now houses her family.
"We had nowhere to go, no house. My kids and I huddled at night at the waiting shed to keep warm," she said.
Her family, one of many in the area, faces eviction from the land where it rented homes, which are now replaced by temporary shelters. Before the typhoon, Hidocos worked as a domestic helper and sold rice meals in the neighborhood, while her husband earned money as a fisherman and porter. Most of the boats on the island, including her husband's wooden boat, capsized during the typhoon.
"I tried my luck in Manila before, but I didn't like living in the slums, so crowded, unsafe and polluted. I went back here to my town because life is much more decent," a frustrated Hidocos said while watching her children play from afar.
"Then Haiyan happened, and my family is living on the streets. Worse, we are facing eviction from the landowner, who will also have to rebuild his demolished home here any day now," she added.
With most of the town still crippled by the typhoon, Hidocos said her chances of having a job in the near future are close to nothing. Residents in the area have little money and food items barely sufficient to help them survive the coming weeks.
Hidocos and her children have yet to bathe since the typhoon struck, due to the lack of sanitation facilities. For now, the ocean that swept away their homes and livelihood provides the only way to clean their faces and bodies.
"I hope apart from the temporary tents they give us, there will also be help on house repair so we can return to our homes or build them up again. Living in the tents will take a toll on the kids over time, especially the young ones," she said.
'Just roll with the punches'
The community is weary of aid relief trickling in to parts of the island from local nonprofit organizations and residents of the neighboring island of Cebu. Many said that offering livelihood opportunities will allow them to rebuild.
Hidocos' husband, who hopes to fish again, has requested a boat and fishing gear from relief workers, adding that one boat could help provide food for the community.
"Our family's history is tied to the sea. Fishing is the only work I know," said Hidocos, standing near the remaining pieces of her husband's destroyed boat.
In addition to fishing, the island is also considered the "egg basket" of the central Visayas region, providing 500,000 eggs each day to the provinces.
Robert Valiente is afraid he will lose his job after a local poultry farm that employed him sustained heavy damage from the typhoon. The owner said that he may close the farm to cut losses and focus resources elsewhere.
About 15,000 of the farm's 80,000 egg-laying hens survived the typhoon. Haiyan's wind tore apart rooftops where chickens were kept and sent the livestock flying along with other debris.
"It was like watching those action movies, except that it was true," Valiente recalled. The short supply of eggs has more than doubled their price on the island. Many of the surviving chickens are unable to lay eggs since being exposed to intense heat and rain for more than three weeks after the typhoon. Food pellets were also washed away, leaving the owner no other option but to sell the chickens for less than a dollar.
Valiente was busy repairing the damaged cages, while others collected eggs.
He earned $48 each month from working at the poultry farm, which allowed him to send a younger brother to school and support his mother. He is considering temporary work as a porter helping visitors on the island unload their belongings.
"If ever I lose this job, well, I just have to accept it, right? Just roll with the punches," said Valiente.
Dreams of revival with tourist dollars
Lolita Escaran Salvado, said that there was much that the people of Bantayan should be thankful for because there were no corpses on the road in comparison to dead bodies still lying uncollected in parts of Tacloban in the nearby province of Leyte, where more than 2,000 deaths have occurred from the typhoon.
There were 30 reported fatalities in Bantayan, most of whom were fishermen who stayed at sea to protect their boats, according to Emily Omega, an administrative aide in the local government.
Bianly Coronas, a groundskeeper at Villasin Resort, one of the many tourist destinations along the stretch of white sand beach in the island, was combing the sand and collecting debris.
Most of the resorts are made of traditional houses called nipa huts. Carpenters were repairing rooftops in anticipation for the influx of tourists during the holiday season. The allure of Bantayan Island, compared to more popular and developed international destinations such as Boracay in Aklan or El Nido in Palawan, is its rustic beauty.
Coronas recalled how after the typhoon, there was a lot of activity at the Santa Fe seaport of locals returning from Cebu or Manila to find family and bring aid to the area. She hopes that this will be followed by tourists.
"The beaches of Bantayan are never too crowded, and I think that is one of our selling points, aside from the nature and the hospitable people," Coronas said.
JP Ecarma Maunes, a relief worker whose lineage comes from Bantayan Island, said providing aid and psychological services for post-traumatic stress disorder should be a priority during the first month, but the following weeks must focus on "helping the Bantayanons help themselves," he said, by providing boats for fishermen and promoting tourism.
"The stream of income will nurture the local economy and give jobs to people," said Maunes, founder of the Gualandi Volunteer Service Program (GSVP), which seeks to promote equal rights for persons with physical and sensory disabilities.
Two weeks after the storm, GVSP, along with the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) and Islamic-Relief USA, built temporary tent shelters on donated land.
Earlier this week, the government announced a 2016 deadline for complete rehabilitation of the typhoon-hit areas, but local groups working in Bantayan Island are hoping to do it sooner.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III yesterday appointed a former senator to lead rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. The government will also unveil a rehabilitation program in January of next year and plans to first prioritize the repair of infrastructure, hospitals and schools to be completed in one year, according to the Department of Public Works and Highways.
"In my more than 70 years on this island, I had never seen a typhoon that strong," said Isabelita Batuhan. "I am happy the typhoon left some of my roof so I can still sleep at home."
Batuhan is no stranger to powerful typhoons, having lost 20 of her immediate and extended family members -- four sons, eight nephews and nieces, and eight grandchildren -- to Typhoon Fengshen in 2008. Her family was aboard the ship Princess of the Stars when it capsized at sea during the onslaught of the typhoon.
In memory of her family, she had them drawn by a local artist on pieces of cardboard that hung inside her home.
"I chose to stay in Bantayan because I believe we can rise after this calamity. We need help, of course, but in the form of jobs and shelter so that we can help ourselves also," Batuhan said.