Struggles to survive in an upside-down world 1 month after Haiyan's record surge

TACLOBAN, Philippines -- Millions of families displaced in the typhoon-torn region of the central Philippines will have to weather a rainy season set to begin in late January under the cover of donated blue tarps and scraps of metal as the government struggles with challenges related to land and property rights.

More than a month after Supertyphoon Haiyan made landfall Nov. 8 in low-lying Leyte province, causing one of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the world, residents are returning to their hometowns to find some improvements in the collection of cadavers, clearing of debris and restoration of electricity. But the destruction of the storm and its economic and social impacts on the island nation remain horrific.

The death toll has risen to 6,069 with 1,779 missing and 14.1 million people still affected, according to the latest estimates from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

"I prefer that we spend big in our rehabilitation efforts now, instead of repeatedly spending billions whenever a storm hits the country," Panfilo Lacson, a former senator appointed by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III to act as chief of rehabilitation and recovery, told reporters gathered Monday at a consultation workshop in the capital of Manila.


Mayors from Haiyan-devastated towns participated in the workshop, which aimed to streamline needs from the local to national level for a master rehabilitation plan to be unveiled next year. According to Lacson, the government needs close to $3 billion, which he said is an insufficient sum to fund long-term rather than reflexive efforts to build climate adaptation.

The questions left hanging over the 100,000 displaced families in the coastal city of Tacloban are where to safely build back their homes and when livelihoods will be restored to provide steady income. More than 4 million residents are displaced across the region.

Most residents, including children, have already taken the matter into their own hands to survive and rebuild from the rubble.

Homes smashed, schools gone, ships run aground

Since their elementary school has yet to reopen, every day Sebastian Buclatan, Christian Delingon and Brando Bentos make their way to a strip of land that the community now calls a shipyard because large cargo ships ran ashore in the area during the onslaught of a storm surge that reached up to 17 feet high.

The boys collect scraps of metal to sell for 11 cents a kilogram to a nearby junk shop and work in the manner of an assembly line.

One sets off to survey the yard to handpick metal scraps from the pile of debris and tosses it to the second child, who then tosses it to the third, who finally puts the scraps in a pile. They carry the pieces to the nearest junk shop to earn 34 cents each for the day. It takes the boys around two hours from start to finish.

Even without shoes, the boys said they are not afraid to walk over the debris as they test its sturdiness.

"We give the money to our parents to help buy food or gas for our light in the evening," said Sebastian, whose family owned a computer rental shop before the typhoon.

Their main worry is whether they can finish the latter half of the academic school year. The local education department announced earlier this month that classes will resume by January.

While temporary learning spaces are being established in typhoon-ravaged areas, an estimated 16,800 classrooms need repair or replacement, according to the latest report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"I do not know if we can go to class, our teacher died during the typhoon. I saw her body on the street," recalled a sorrowful Sebastian, a student in his sixth year of elementary school.

Christian, in fourth grade, and Brando, in fifth grade, voiced hope about replacing school supplies, books and uniforms that were washed away by waves brought by winds that ranged between 145 and 195 miles per hour.

"I want to study again to forget what happened," Brando said. "I want to graduate and take a job so I can help earn for my family, so we can have a normal life again."

Before the sun sets, the boys leave the shipyard for their makeshift homes. The city is engulfed in darkness in the evenings and electricity is patchy, except for the glimmers of light emanating from bonfires along the major roads and the candles or kerosene lamps in some homes. A curfew is implemented from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., but most residents try to be home as early as 6 p.m.

Based on an initial assessment from the Philippine Department of Energy in early December, half the capacity of Tacloban's electrical power has been restored, particularly in downtown areas. Last month, the DOE announced a target to fully restore power before Dec. 24, with Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla telling reporters he will resign if typhoon survivors have a "dark Christmas."

For much of the city, day-to-day survival is still the sole focus for many living in destroyed homes, shelters and tents in the typhoon-hit region.

Fleeting work, fear of disease, life among the unburied

Teodora Vinas, a 63-year-old widow, is among the residents of the government-owned lot in the district of Anibong in Tacloban.

Her small house lies buried beneath five cargo ships that washed onto land, tossed like small toys in the onslaught of Haiyan. Anibong is a few miles away from the Tacloban seaport, but the storm surge carried the ships over the bay, together with cargo containers, which some residents have converted into makeshift shelters.

The typhoon destroyed an estimated 1.19 million houses and buildings, raising total infrastructure damage to $805 million, according to the NDRRMC. The Philippine Congress is seeking to finance $2.28 billion for rebuilding typhoon-hit areas, but independent analysts peg the cost at $14 billion.

On the ground, aid workers worry about potential disease outbreaks with the detection of the rotavirus in a number of those displaced, stemming from lack of access to clean water and poor living conditions.

Vinas left the evacuation shelter at the Tacloban City Convention Center, locally known as the Astrodome, for fear she might contract a respiratory illness due to the congestion.

"It is better to build a temporary house for my family while awaiting the news on the relocation site," said Vinas, who lives with her seven children and five grandchildren under a makeshift tent protected by a donated tarp. They built the tarp over a concrete floor, a remnant of one of the houses that once stood on the spot before the typhoon.

Thousands of residents like Vinas do not have formal land titles to prove ownership of the area. Yet Vinas was quick to say three generations of her family have lived on the land, making territorial disputes between residents and the local government an obstacle for a coastal rezoning that is in the planning stage.

In addition to sustaining heavy damage to infrastructure and the agricultural sector, Tacloban also absorbed close to a third of the total deaths. Last week, retrieval teams were logging 40 cadavers each day. The bodies shrouded inside black bags were brought to mass burial sites in Suhi and Basper located on the outskirts of Tacloban.

Patrosinia Buena, a 78-year-old widow living with her youngest son and a niece, was rebuilding a home near the mass burial site where the stench of decomposing bodies hung in the air. The smell is stronger after it rains, she said.

"I hope they bury the bodies soon because it brings back the horror and what we have lost from the typhoon," Buena said.

The money her son earns from guarding equipment near the burial site allowed the family to purchase enough iron sheets, which are the scraps collected by children and older men in the area. They were pounded to make flat rooftops.

Body retrievals are still ongoing, although the majority of cadavers have been collected for mass burial, said Matthew Cochrane, an OCHA public information officer for the Philippine Typhoon Haiyan Response Team.

Locals do not need to worry about contracting diseases from the dead bodies because the bodies do not carry pathogens, he said. Yet Cochrane acknowledged how the sight and potent smell of the cadavers are taking a psychological toll on the survivors forced to live among the dead.

A church preaches hope; women collect scrap

A handful of groups have started providing psychological therapy for survivors.

"Stress debriefing offers support and affirmation that things can get better after the tragedy, especially for kids and the elderly," said Christian Poleno, a leader in the Archdiocese of Palo, which has been organizing local volunteers to hold the sessions.

"Filipinos are resilient, and this step is needed for them to move on and start again," Poleno said.

A cash-for-work program supported by the government and aid agencies is helping provide income for hundreds like Shirlyn Tomate, 30, a mother of five who said she is lucky to be part of a program that clears the streets of debris.

Many programs lack funds for the emergency employment in addition to providing adequate protective equipment and tools to jump-start and sustain activities, according to OCHA.

Tomate works with her 14-year-old daughter, Emma, in the tropical heat to collect debris along the main road leading to the capital. With their bare hands, they collect and carry piles of wood, clothes caked with mud and scraps of metal ranging from parts of electric fans to radios.

"We get work, but only for two days because that is only the program duration. We hope after this, they give us a regular job," Tomate said.

Tomate is one of 5.6 million workers, 2.2 million of whom are women, who were suddenly unemployed after losing their livelihoods and sources of income in fishing or farming. The Tzu Chi Foundation, which supports the program, gives each worker $11 for an eight-hour duty of collecting debris and delivering to a site for collection.

The U.N.-led humanitarian response drew pledges of $791 million from donors. About 70 percent of that amount has yet to be met. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to visit the Philippines on Friday to Sunday to travel to affected areas and meet with Aquino and senior government officials.

In a call on the deep diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the Philippines, Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia Jr. has asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to place the country under a temporary protected status.

That would allow eligible Filipinos to stay and work in the U.S. to assist in Haiyan recovery in the form of remittances provided to their families in typhoon-affected communities.

The man whose mangroves saved lives

As the nation continues to appeal for international aid, it is also examining what lessons could be learned from the devastation caused by one of the most powerful tropical typhoons to make landfall in recent history.

In a closed-door meeting in Tacloban last week, city Mayor Alfred Romualdez, along with international agencies including AusAid and USAID, discussed the importance of environmental health as key to a pending rehabilitation plan.

Emilio Dador Unyate is an unsung hero of his own community along the coastal village of Kawayan. Fifteen years ago, he planted the first mangrove forest in the area after attending a training workshop on mangrove rehabilitation in another city.

The fisherman plants mangroves in his spare time and has encouraged others to plant with his group, the Mangrove Mudcrabs Producers and Workers Association.

The group received a grant from Japan for the coastal reforestation, which proved beneficial during the onslaught of Haiyan. "When the storm surge hit, the mangroves bought us time to run to safer grounds. It slowed down the rushing waves from reaching us," Unyate said.

Before the typhoon, Unyate's group was about to plant 1,000 mangrove seeds in the area, but the seedlings were washed away along with other materials donated by the local government.

After the typhoon, Unyate promised to start again and grow another mangrove forest patch. He hopes other coastal communities in the province will join the efforts.

"I hope aside from the relocation, the local government will see the importance of reforesting coastal cities such as Tacloban. Instead of cutting them down, I hope more people will plant mangroves in coastal areas and trees in mountains," Unyate said.

"If we take care of them, they can take care of us. They can save our lives," he said.

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