Typhoon Haiyan Communities Gradually Recovering

Feature | 17 January 2014

Just over 2 months after Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, devastated the central Philippines, survivors in the affected areas have started the process of rebuilding their lives and homes, as they await longer term support from the government and donors.

"We are just awaiting a decision by the government on how people at the centers can be moved to temporary houses in an orderly way," said Alice Viason of the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development, who heads relief operations at the Astrodome, a sports facility and convention center which is the largest evacuation site in Tacloban.

While there has been progress on the ground, the situation remains far from normal in Tacloban City. Electricity is still not available, except for some street lights, in the city center. Cables, roofs, beams and other building debris still litter the ground in many places, and garbage is piling up on many streets.

The vast task of reconstruction has also been hampered by continuous heavy rain since December, as well as the unreliable supply of electricity.

But there is a new sense of optimism in the city, with houses adorned with the banner "Tindog Tacloban" (Rise Up Tacloban).

Business slowly rebounds

In downtown Tacloban, the market is back in full swing, with people buying their daily necessities from vendors using makeshift stands. Entrepreneurs have also sprung up with one innovative business using a small generator to charge mobile phones. Sales of flashlights are, understandably, getting very brisk, too.

Shoppers are lining up waiting for their turn to get into some malls and drug stores that are back in business, with police and security guards on hand to ensure order. Schools reopened on 6 January, despite some still being used as evacuation centers, and some hotels are gradually resuming partial operations.

Many families, whose homes were damaged by the storm, are carrying out their own repairs, with support from international nongovernment organizations (NGOs). "Now that the stage of providing food and other immediate relief goods is almost over, we are planning to provide timber and other construction materials," said Mana Abe of Japanese NGO ICAN Foundation.

Evacuation center challenges

Life in the evacuation centers, meanwhile, has created new challenges, including sanitation and security, along with keeping children occupied. There are about two dozen toilet facilities serving 2,000 people living in tents around the Astrodome, including about 20 pregnant women and 1,000 children.

"In addition to food and shelter, we need flashlights and garbage bags, and we also need to provide sports and recreational activities, especially for children," said Ms. Viason who oversees the Astrodome.

Ms. Viason said many children who have lost family members remain traumatized. Activities like badminton and basketball games, along with music and magic shows, need to be organized to help them cope. Without these activities, some young people could be tempted into gambling.

Restoring livelihoods remains another key concern.

"We need more food, but more urgently, I need a job to support my three children who still wake up in the middle of the night crying for their mother," said 38-year old Eddie Partota. Mr. Partota's wife died when she was swept away by a tsunami-like wall of water which surged through Tacloban as the typhoon hit.

Slower recovery in rural areas

Life remains difficult for those living in rural areas outside Tacloban who have received limited support so far.

"We are regularly getting some food and water in tanks from aid organizations but nothing more," said 60-year old, Bonifacio Loreno, who lives about a one-hour drive away from the city.

"We have to repair our damaged house but we do not have money to do that, and my son who lost his job, had to go to Manila to look for work."

Farmers will also have to find new sources of income with the destruction of coconut plantations. In one barangay, the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, near Tacloban, more than 90% of the trees were damaged.

"After planting coconut seedlings, it takes another 10 years before we can harvest so we must make our living by growing other plants for a long time," said Mr. Loreno, who is chairman of the barangay.

Amidst all these daunting challenges, however, people are showing their strength, resolve and self-help capabilities.

"We can't wait for support from the government. We have to start where we can. We have to rise up," said one young man burning garbage along a street in Tacloban.