The weather is erratic in Tacloban.
At one point, the sun scorches the earth; the next minute, strong winds shove angry dark clouds signaling a sudden downpour. This is exactly what it felt on Nov. 8, 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan battered the central Philippines.
Malou de la Calzada, however, is the exact opposite of the unpredictable weather. Her face is nothing but a calm sea waiting for the sun to rise across the horizon. A financial advisor based in Tacloban, she was one of many “exiles” from the “ground zero” of the catastrophe that have just returned from temporary relocation in other cities.
“We left the city seven days after the typhoon. It was an extremely difficult time. We had no food and water, we had no home. We sought refuge from neighbors, hopping from one house to another,” she recalls. “For the first time in my life, I had no sense of security.”
About 40 percent of the population abandoned Tacloban a week after Haiyan. With roads blocked by mountains of debris, limiting access to basic necessities, most families with ageing parents and/or young children packed their bags and fled to other places such as Bohol, Cebu or Samar, and even as far away as the capital. Malou and her family decided to seek temporary refuge in Tagbilaran, Bohol — a nearby island which was itself a disaster area when it was pounded by a strong just weeks before before the typhoon.
“Tagbilaran was unlike Tacloban. Although the magnitudes of disasters are incomparable, it seemed like [the residents] moved on with their lives quickly,” she said. “It was probably because even if their homes were destroyed, they could see it standing still. For us, we were literally roofless.”
Donna Diaz, a humanitarian worker, convinced her husband to leave for Manila five days later. After traveling by land for four days to reach the capital, they realized how lucky they had been to flee so their two children could have access to the basic medicines that had suddenly become unavailable across all the Haiyan-affected areas in the Visayas region.
“Indeed, there was an overwhelming outpour of support, but the medical missions that were set up were catering to emergency cases, not for the elderly who needed daily maintenance ... neither were there medicines available for children who might have [for instance] respiratory concerns,” she commented.
Six months later, Malou is also grateful she was able to make it out of the “ground zero.”
“We were blessed to have relatives who not only opened their homes for us, but were kind enough to stretch their financial expenses to accommodate our needs for months,” she said. “I often think of those who were in Tacloban and had no choice but to stay in displaced centers. Sure, assistance was provided, but when I think about the lack of privacy in cramped evacuation sites, it’s not healthy at all.”
Data from the International Organization for Migration shows that over 5,000 families are still living in more than 60 temporary shelters spread out through the Visayas. In Tacloban alone, 14,000 families are still homeless. An estimated 19,000 people lost their jobs, according to the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment. Ana although there is an increasing demand for labor in typhoon-affected areas, the skills of the survivors don’t normally match what is required for most reconstruction and rehabilitation jobs.
Malou and Donna tried to look for work to support their families, but in the end, they opted to look after their elderly parents and young families.
“Both my husband and I looked for jobs. Though we both got accepted, in the end, we had to be realistic that one of us had to stay home to look after the kids,” noted Donna.
Malou’s husband landed a position working an international aid organization: “At that point, even if I wanted to put my working clothes on, I had to prioritize my parents and my child — who needed some semblance of normalcy. I juggled my time in the past few months between home, hospital, school and personal healing.”
So why return home?
Although comfortable in their temporary settlements, Malou and Donna couldn’t take Tacloban away from their thoughts. Malou would often follow the news and share updates on social media as her own small contribution to the recovery efforts. In time, things fell into place: her parents became physically stable, her child was able to finish the school year, and she herself regained some measure of emotional balance.
In Manila, on the other hand, the Diazes had recurring conversations about going back despite the uncertainties they would face. By mid-March, said Donna, “the courts reopened and my husband, a lawyer, was getting calls from his clients. Then there was summer school — which my eldest had to catch up on due to the academic disruption caused by the typhoon. We know it would take years to restore normalcy. But it was time for us to go home.”
Donna went back with her family early in April, and likened their return to a parent giving a child moral support.
“There is a difference between your being physically present to cheer on your child after a performance and simply calling over the phone to say, ‘I am with you in spirit’” she said.
Malou agrees: “Don’t get me wrong, I will always be grateful for the love and support that my extended family gave us. But for some reason, I couldn’t find a ‘home’ in the places I went to. Tacloban is my place. It is my home.”
“Tacloban has been good to us. When I look around, there are definitely hard lessons to be learned but what happened left traces of inspiring portraits. At this point, Tacloban needs us. And I’m coming home with hope.”
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