On the ground in Tacloban: The long and winding road to recovery

A man stands on a pile of debris when Super Typhoon Haiyan struck Tacloban. A month since the disaster hit, many people are still scrambling to rebuild their lives. Photo by: Joe Lowry / International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

A month after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, people are still homeless, hungry and injured — both physically and emotionally.

I saw it myself this weekend in Tacloban, Leyte, the so-called “ground zero” of the catastrophe and where despite the huge relief operation, it seems the road to recovery will be long, hard, and winding.

Covering disasters is new to me. Volunteering in them is not. When tropical storm Ketsana and two weeks of nonstop monsoon rains submerged most of Manila in 2009 and 2012, volunteering became a way for me to help out my country and fellow Filipinos. During Haiyan, I had a different role — I was covering it, albeit remotely. I talked to people involved in the efforts, scientists explaining the anomaly of Haiyan’s strength, and aid workers who are on the front lines seeing the situation on the ground.

But I still wanted to see it with my own eyes, so when the opportunity came to go to Tacloban, I packed my bags and boarded a C-130 military plane from the Philippine Air Force.

On the way there, I thought I was given a glimpse of what to expect. We flew with soldiers exhausted but never losing focus of their responsibilities, volunteers who never get tired of helping, mountains of relief goods to give, victims going home and a dead man in a metal casket waiting to be buried in his ravaged hometown escorted by his family. I thought this was a microcosm of what’s happening on the ground. I was wrong.

Tacloban, in all its former beauty and grandeur, is still a city on its knees. A month after the devastation and despite the help extended so far, it’s pretty much a wasteland. Although the airport is operational and transportation is back, traces of the tragedy are everywhere. Houses destroyed, cars flipped and hanging from lamp posts, garbage and waste littering every corner of the city and even decaying corpses yet to be pulled from under the rubble.

I smelled the death and decay, but not any hopelessness. The people, despite the undeniable devastation around, are showing a different disposition.

Unique sense of optimism

As of posting time, almost 6,000 deaths and around 35.5 billion pesos (over $800 million) in damage to property have been recorded, according to the local disaster management bureau. These figures, however, don’t reflect the kind of human spirit shown by survivors.

I went to Tacloban with a group of volunteers focused on giving counseling to the victims. It was a different kind of aid. We operated on the idea that people don’t need material goods alone. Much of their recovery relies on how they deal with the horrors they faced and how they can move forward from there.

“There are more signs of life. Through the narration of their stories and knowing that they are going through the same thing helps in how they will move on from the tragedy. People acknowledge the hardships but they are carrying on well,” said Joyce Gray, national coordinator of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy of the Philippines and team leader of my group.

In the evacuation center we visited, people had a curious sense of community and optimism. Despite the tragedy right before their eyes, they were upbeat. It is true that Tacloban and the other hard-hit areas may smell of death and decay, but if you cover your nose and open your eyes and ears, the attitude of the survivors paints a wonderful example of human spirit.

Beyond the mountains of garbage, both children and adults are singing, dancing and playing sports, particularly basketball. If you ask them how they feel about the whole tragedy, they shrug their shoulders and instead talk about how they will move on from this. Although most people are still oblivious of how they will rebuild their lives, they are, at the very least, sure of one thing: They will do it.

The Filipino spirit is so strong it is sometimes hard to believe.

Aid distribution

There is no lack of aid supply. The problem is how it is delivered and distributed.

Delivery of relief goods has not been a problem in Tacloban. In San Jose Elementary School, relief goods are stockpiled at the UNHCR tent. People usually get 10 kg of rice, 8 cans of food and a dozen or so packs of instant noodles.

But elsewhere in Leyte, the situation is very different.

A member of our team discovered that certain parts of the nearby city of Ormoc and other remotes areas of the province have not been reached by relief goods. People are getting desperate, eating spoiled and soiled rice to survive.

In some parts of Leyte, foreign relief goods are being repacked, I learned from a soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity. Boxes of goods with the USAID seal had been emptied of their original contents and refilled with locally-sourced and lower-quality commodities. The half-empty boxes are usually filled with a small sack of rice and a handful of canned goods. And this follows reports of foreign relief goods being sold at shops in other parts of the country.

I found it hard to believe that some people can do these things when their countrymen are dying of hunger. The leaders may not be involved in these abuses, but the fact that they happen time and time again prove there’s something missing. Philippine politics, as I have learned through the years, is messier at the core.

Roaming the streets of Tacloban made me realize how vulnerable everyone is, regardless of social and economic status, to disasters. But on a deeper analysis, it also made me realize how vulnerable aid is to twisting and turning to gain political favor. Never mind the people dying. Never mind the foreign governments who extended their help, as long as people in power remain on top of the pyramid.

Long road to recovery

A number of survivors have opted to stay in Manila and Cebu to seek refuge. But many have stayed behind. Maybe it’s because of their love of their hometown, or maybe they just think their future still lies in their ravaged communities.

In my second day in the city, I saw lots of people in the streets holding rakes and shovels. They were cleaning their destroyed communities. Piles of mud, garbage and occasional bodies were laid by the road side. People were up on their feet because a Taiwanese NGO had promised to give them money at the end of the day if they help clean their communities. The sun is scorching hot and the smell putrid, but they carry on, thinking they have survived worse scenarios.

People’s lives are characterized by an endless procession from one donor to the next, from one evacuation center to another. Riding a military truck through the streets of Tacloban, we got stuck in traffic. There was an ambulance behind. Its sirens blaring. I thought there was someone dying inside. Traffic was at a standstill. When it was given way, the ambulance sped through, holding nothing but boxes. I felt relieved.

In the market, iron nails are pretty much as common a commodity as food. Shops are filled with men waiting for their wood saws to be sharpened and hammers fixed. People are looking through the rubble of what used to be their homes to salvage wood and metal sheets that can be used again.

They are trying to rebuild their houses — but whether the new structures will be  durable and resilient enough, no one knows. The road to recovery for these people is long and winding.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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