Hope battles despair a year after Haiyan

For survivors of the super typhoon that killed 6,300 people, life in the Philippines remains a struggle.

Reconstruction continues after 6,300 people were killed a year ago by super typhoon Haiyan [Jason Gutierrez]

Tacloban, Philippines – One year after super typhoon Haiyan decimated entire communities across the central Philippines, killing at least 6,300 people, thousands remain stranded in evacuation sites where every day is a constant struggle to get by, and where hope is the most precious commodity.

For fishermen Jerry Paa, 63, this means portioning off meagre food rations for his five children and six grandchildren now living in squalid conditions under tents that leak when it rains, but turn into virtual ovens at noon.

“The food aid comes less and less,” Paa told Al Jazeera as he sat beside his wife on a wooden bench made from salvaged drift wood in Baybay, once a bustling fishing community turned into a grey wasteland by rampaging seven-metre-high waves, churned by Haiyan’s super winds that peaked at 300 kilometres an hour when it hit slammed into the Philippines on November 8 last year.

Haiyan one year later

The Paas are among thousands of families who still live in temporary shelters in and around Tacloban, a bustling port city of about a million people that bore the brunt of Haiyan, and where a majority of the casualties were reported.

Hundreds of bodies and debris piled up on Tacloban’s streets in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the strongest in recorded history.

Upturned cars littered the roads, houses were destroyed, and for months corpses continued to be recovered from rotting piles of debris, while the city and national governments battled to bring in aid.

All in all, Haiyan ravaged 171 municipalities in 14 provinces as it cut a deadly swathe across the central regions. Fourteen million – more than a 10th of the country’s total population – were affected, about four million of whom directly displaced.

An imperfect plan

Emergency relief had been rapid with global aid groups, led by the United Nations, providing much-needed assistance as the government juggled its stretched resources. But as the response transitioned from a relief effort to one of recovery, bureaucracy, mis-coordination, and a lack of foresight – especially on relocation sites – have placed many of the most vulnerable into more precarious situations, survivors and officials said.

This chaotic transition came into sharper focus when a 170-billion peso ($3.8bn) rehabilitation and recovery master plan met critical delays. President Benigno Aquino said last month he was not satisfied with the plan, and he wanted more detailed timelines from the ground.

Aquino finally signed off on the plan just days before the first year anniversary of the disaster, in what many see here as a move to silence some critics. The plan will release funds to repair and reconstruct more than 116 kilometres of roads, six airports, 35 seaports, nearly 20,000 classrooms, as well as hundreds of local health centres and municipal buildings.

We want to relocate them, not because we want to use the land where they are staying, but because we need to move them to save their lives.

by - Alfred Romualdez, Tacloban mayor

The plan also calls for the construction of more than 200,000 permanent housing units in the heavily affected areas. A year has passed and less than one percent of it has been achieved, however, official figures show.

“The shelter issue is really the problem here,” Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said. “I received the initial funds for Tacloban from the national government only five months after the typhoon. The bottleneck is in the resources and getting all these national agencies to coordinate with each other, and to start immediately implementing the plan.”

Locally, he said, the city planned to build a new township for those affected, a massive project that would relocate thousands inland and away from the coast. This, however, entails building entire support infrastructure and a change of mindset from many impoverished communities used to living by the sea.

“But since we are adjusting to a new normal – climate change – people have to realise that the situation has changed. We want to relocate them, not because we want to use the land where they are staying, but because we need to move them to save their lives,” he said.

“If they continue to stay there and another storm like Yolanda [local name of Haiyan] comes, they will be wiped out.” 

A cluster of tents, however, remain within a 40-metre no-build zone imposed by the local government in areas near the shore.

Issues ignored

British aid group Oxfam said reconstruction plans appear to have ignored key issues – including jobs at relocation sites – and a lack of consultation with those who are to be relocated. Oxfam said many of those displaced were already living in poverty before the disaster and chose to stay by the shore as a necessity. Bringing them to areas where there is no stable livelihood from the sea could make them poorer and more vulnerable to disasters, the group said.

The problem, however, goes beyond the number of those still living in cramped transitional shelters who survived the storm, but are now despairing over what the future holds.

“We’re not sure if there are jobs there,” said mother-of-four Melita Marcial, 45, speaking on behalf of 250 families staying in bunkhouses in Tacloban’s city limits. She said some of them will be transferred to far-flung permanent sites in a few weeks’ time, in what will be another round of uncertainty for those still not fully emotionally recovered from the tragedy.

“My husband still cannot talk about it without crying,” Marcial said. “Our house was swept away, we had nothing except the clothes on our back.”

To survive in the immediate days after the storm, the couple looted homes and stores that were partially destroyed and abandoned.

“We were very hungry, but we only took what we needed,” she said. “But I am grateful we are all alive and there is still hope.”

But for some such as Juanita Golong, despair often overtakes hope.

Golong’s husband, Alfonso, was a fisherman who managed to return to sea after receiving a boat from an aid agency. But because the nearby municipal waters remain choked with debris – from petrol-filled submerged cars and ammunition washed from a nearby military base to unrecovered bodies – the catch had drastically dwindled.

Weeks ago, Golong strayed into fishing grounds far from local waters and was shot dead, apparently by rival fishermen.

“He never thought he’d be in that kind of danger. He was just earning a living like he’s always done,” Golong sobbed as she held her three children, including a baby just a few months old.
Source: Al Jazeera