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Long road to recovery after Philippine quake

Experts say return to normalcy may take years amid frustration at government response in worst-hit areas.

Last Modified: 22 Oct 2013 17:29
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Bohol, Philippines - It has been almost a week since a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the central Philippine island of Bohol, and Jasmine Genaro is still pleading for help to dig out her grandmother and uncle, buried alive at the bottom of a collapsed mountain in the village of Cantam-is Bago.

Rescuers arrived from the capital Manila and pulled out the remains of her grandfather Ireneo on Sunday, Genaro told Al Jazeera. But they needed a backhoe to remove the tons of earth, rock and mangled coconut tree trunks before doing the rest of the work. Digging equipment is not expected to arrive soon, as the site is only accessible on foot or by motorcycle. Al Jazeera was the first to reach the area and called for help, a day after the October 15 disaster.

A few villages away, farmer Abundio Restefecar had to carry his pregnant wife, Issa, from their house to the roadside to seek help for her injuries. There was no ambulance waiting for them. A family happened to pass by the detour route, and gave them a lift to the nearest town. Issa eventually made it to the hospital by boat, as roads and bridges were cut off.

Wary and grieving residents across the island-province are still trying to come to terms with the calamity, which killed at least 190 people, injured almost 600, and left tens of thousands of families homeless. More than $20m in damages were incurred to infrastructure, including on the neighbouring islands of Cebu and Siquijor.

That's a failure of government, and we cannot allow this to happen.

- Manuel Roxas III, the Philippines' interior secretary

While some communities have started to shift their focus on the recovery, which experts say could take years, others have expressed frustration at the government's response, particularly in delivering food and water to the worst-hit areas.

"That's a failure of government and we cannot allow this to happen," Manuel Roxas III, the Philippines' interior secretary, told a meeting of Bohol officials on Friday, after hearing complaints from evacuees through the media.

Unable to wait for the government's lead, several organisations have decided to deliver help straight to the evacuees. Even television networks covering the disaster set up competing humanitarian relief efforts. Airlines and shipping companies also offered to transport donations for free, while several organisations of Filipino migrants around the world have started collecting money for the victims.  

In the tourist town of Loboc, Mayor Helen Alaba told Al Jazeera they need to recover as fast as possible to support many of its residents who are relying on tourism-related employment. She said the town will reopen to tourists on Thursday.

"This is just a test of our will," Alaba said, as she finished distributing food packages to residents of the town. Alaba said recovery may take a while, but she wants it to start immediately.

On the way to the town centre, workers were already seen repairing the cracked roads. Although there were no reported fatalities in the town, its 375-year-old Catholic church was damaged with the Baroque-style facade and Neoclassical altar reduced to ashes.    

Loboc, which is famous for its river cruise and floating restaurants, draws at least 500 visitors a day. Along with the centuries-old Jesuit church, the tiny primate called tarsier and a new zip line, these attractions contribute an average of $1.3m, or half of the town's annual income, making it crucial to the town's economic survival, according to Lynn Banares, Loboc's treasurer.

On Friday, only a few locals and one photojournalist were seen milling around the main square, where the town's parish priest, Andres Ayco, was camped out after the church residence was destroyed. Tourists who usually visit by the busloads never came. The empty floating restaurants were all grounded along the Loboc river bank.  

In the nearby town of Carmen is Bohol's most popular tourist destination: the "Chocolate Hills", a group of at least 1,200 dome-shaped hills that turn brown at the peak of summer. Aerial photos after the quake showed some of the hills cut in half, while others looked like they were bulldozed or hit by dynamite. The area, which is close to the quake's epicentre, also remains closed to tourists.

In 2011, there were an estimated 553,000 visitors to Bohol, according to the province's tourism office.  

Also among the more visible images of the destruction were that of the centuries-old churches, the oldest of which is the Baclayon church built in 1596, the first seat of the Jesuit mission in the Philippines. The church, frequented by tourists, houses some religious objects said to be from Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, and St. Ignatius of Loyola.

In all, at least 10 Catholic churches considered to be heritage sites were destroyed by the quake. The Philippines' culture commission has vowed to help rehabilitate the buildings.

Across Bohol, many Sunday services for the predominantly Catholic population were held outside, for fear of more aftershocks.

With many classrooms in Bohol also destroyed or damaged, Wilfreda Bongalos, the provincial head of schools, told Al Jazeera that classes remain suspended. The buildings still need to be inspected by structural engineers, and the aftershocks are not helping in the process, Bongalos said.

According to the Philippines' election body, the village elections in Bohol scheduled for Monday have also been postponed.

The Philippines' seismology office has reported more than 2,000 aftershocks, including a magnitude-5.4 quake on Monday morning. It said aftershocks could persist for two to three weeks.

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Al Jazeera
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