Tacloban Rising

By Simon Roughneen 18 February 2014

SAN ISIDRO, The Philippines — Early morning on the morning of Nov. 8, 2013, at about 5 am, Vilma Carson and her family braced under the kitchen table, praying rosaries as the wind outside whipped up to 200 miles an hour. It was to be a six-hour ordeal that left the family in fear for their lives, while ripping the roof off their countryside home a 10-minute drive from the town of Palo in Leyte Province.

Despite the fearsome noise from the wind outside—and inside, once the roof was torn off—the schoolteacher listened for the beep of her phone, alerting her when husband George texted from Dubai, where he is one of the 10 million-plus Filipino emigrants working overseas.

“He said to pray, so we hid under the table, but we were so frightened,” the mother recalls, now smiling while recalling the tribulation she shared with her two teenage daughters and 11-year-old son.

Two kilometers from the Leyte coast, the house in San Isidro was spared the massive wavesthat devastated the coastal areas of Palo, a town of about 60,000, and swamped the nearby city of Tacloban, where the bulk of the 6,155 listed killed by Typhoon Yolanda (at time of writing) perished.

The death toll caused much soul-searching and recriminations locally, with people saying they were not warned in advance of the tidal wave that could come with such a strong storm. “Storm surge,” the terminology used to describe the inundation, did not accurately capture the size and power of the waves that eventually swamped much of Tacloban, catching thousands of people unawares.

That said, the death toll paled compared with the estimated 147,000 killed when Cyclone Nargis thundered through Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta in May 2008, though Nargis was not as strong a storm as Yolanda. The Myanmar military government of the day was slammed for initially refusing to allow international aid to the stricken regionsouth of Yangon, while in the central Philippines, there were turf wars between the Tacloban mayor, a relative of the Imelda Marcos, and the national government, headed by Benigno Aquino III. Imelda Marcos’ late husband Ferdinand ruled the Philippines with an iron fist until 1986, and is widely regarded as behind the assassination of the current president’s father in 1983.

And though power had still not been restored to much of the city by the end of the year, clean-up operations in Tacloban had made significant headway, bolstered by government cash-for-work programs and support from the International Labor Organisation and a Taiwanese Buddhist charity called the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Nonetheless, the damage wrought by Yolanda is significant. A half-mile away from her home, the school where Vilma Carson teaches had its books and equipment damaged or destroyed or blown away by the storm, and, like the Carson home, had the roof torn off.

And with over 3,000 schools damaged across the Visayas, or central Philippines, by Yolanda, school building is one of the arduous reconstruction tasks facing the Philippine government.

Altogether 4.4 million people of the total population of 16 million in the 14 most affected provinces were displaced—more than the 3 million left homeless by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar—with a total of 1,012,790 houses damaged.

Of the latter number, 493,912 were partly damaged and 518,878 were totally destroyed, according to a Philippine government rebuilding blueprint published on Dec. 16.

Back in Tacloban, Rico Rugal showed this correspondent around the remnants of his home, 20 meters from the waterfront.

“We have got nothing, no shelter,” he said, pointing to the eight families—all neighbors—now crammed into the house, their own homes now lying like bomb-battered timber ruins outside,such was the force of the wind and water that battered Tacloban on Nov. 8.

Looking much like a war zone, this part of Taclobanis among the starkest examples of the destruction wreaked upon the central Philippines by Yolanda, with the UNseeking US$791million for a year-long recovery plan while the Philippine government has separately launched a four-year, $8.17-billion reconstruction plan.

So far, however, the massive rebuilding effort remains in earlier stages. “We have no schedule for temporary shelter, nothing yet,” Mr.Rugal said. “I think they are planning.”

He said regardless of whether he is offered a shelter or not, he will stay put and try to cobble together some repairs for his house. “This is my homeplace, my hometown.”

Mr.Rugal’s home is within sight of the damaged bell-tower at Santo Niño Church, Tacloban’s main Catholic place of worship, a block from the devastated town shoreline.

A packed crowd crammed into a rain-sodden Santo Niño on Christmas morning, undeterred by the missing roofand the tap-like spatters of rainwater spilling onto pews and worshippers below, despite a plastic sheeting patch-up job.

As worshippers listened to a sermon by the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, Vicky Abelia served espressos and toasted sandwiches at the José Karlos coffeeshop across the street.

She said that the cozywood-veneered coffeeshop is the oldest establishmentof its kind in Tacloban. Located close to the shoreline, the shop was inundated with 6 feet of water the morning Typhoon Yolanda hit, damaging almost all of the shop’s furniture and equipment.

“Everything was destroyed, under water,” Ms.Abelia said. Now the onus is to get business up to speed after reopening, which it managed to do a week before Christmas.

“From the food to the drinks, we make everything here, including pastries and cakes,” she said. “Goods like butter that we use for baking cakes cannot be got, or are twice the price as before,” she added, echoing a common complaint about the impact of the disaster on the local economy.

According to Philippine government data, about 90 percent of the total damage and losses incurred from the storm have fallen on the private sector.Speaking to reporters in late November,Central Bank of the Philippines Deputy Governor DiwaGuinigundo said the storm-affected areas account for roughly 12 percent of the country’s economy, “so the impact on total GDP is contained.”

“The economic impact will not be that significant. But the impact on human life and properties was really, really significant and we share the pain of our countrymen for that,” he added.

On the upside for people of the region, the disaster has been a boon to local garment-makerschurning out “TindogTacloban” (“Rise Tacloban”) t-shirts. The white cotton, blue-letter t-shirts can be seen all over town, including on the backs of all the staff working at José Karlos.

In keeping with the message on the t-shirt, Vicky Abelia sounded upbeat about the recovery. “The town is cleaned-up, better than we expected it to be by now,” she said.

But the long-term recovery—expected to take up to four years,by government estimates—will be arduous. And in the meantime, memories of the day the storm hit are still raw.

“People were walking aroundlike zombies, shocked, unable to take in what had happened to them,”Ms. Abeliasaid. “There were bodies around, it was horrible.”

For 31-year-old Julio Galetal III, there’s not much left. “My house is all gone,” he said, shaking his head. “My mother lived next door. We joke that she did better out of the storm than I did: Her toilet was left standing after everything else was destroyed.”

But some losses were more serious than others. “One of my uncles was killed,” said Mr.Galetal, who like hundreds of thousands of others had to fend for himselfin the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

He and his family are now stayingwith a neighbor,with whom he sharesa generator that he bought after the storm crippled the local power grid. Besides getting him rent-free accommodation, the generator is also a source of income: For a few pesos, he lets people use it to charge their phones—a much-needed communications back-up in a town where electricity is still not fully returned.

“I’ll stay here for a while, and see what the government can do,” he said. “We hear they will help with some material for shelter, but we’ve seen nothing yet.”

Irrawaddy correspondent Simon Roughneen was in the storm-hit central Philippines in late December/early January.

This story first appeared in the February 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy.