They spent the first few weeks after the typhoon hunting for food and their two small children. They walked through the rubble of their city, among the dead and the living, like zombies, asking neighbours and scanning ad hoc burial sites. They even waded into the oily waters where their house once stood – before the ships pummelled their waterfront neighbourhood, leaving a mess of bloated bodies, twisted metal and broken concrete.
It was one of those ships that saved Urwin Coquilla, 37, and his wife, Ethel, that early grey morning of 8 November. Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history, tore through the Philippines at speeds of 195mph, ripping up farms, levelling villages and leaving more than 6,300 dead. The family hadn’t evacuated their home in Tacloban – Ethel believed they would weather the storm, as they had every other – so when the tidal wave shattered the floor from underneath their feet, and the ships came rolling across the land, they were swept out into the swirling black water. The children clung on desperately to their parents, but they were torn from Urwin’s arms and disappeared into the storm. There was so much in the water – debris, people, animals, filth – that when a massive ship hurtled towards him, Urwin could only just grab the rope hanging from its deck and fling his wife aboard. Then, shakily and clumsily, he climbed on as well, only to fight off the ship’s enraged captain, who was screaming, through the howling wind, that the couple weren’t authorised to use the life jackets hanging in the storeroom.
When the waves receded, Urwin looted destroyed shops for supplies and searched under piles of rubble for his children, coming across small bodies with mud-covered faces, swollen with seawater. He found lifeless babies who could have been his, but weren’t. Even after they began rebuilding their home and spent their days queueing for relief goods, still the couple searched.
To give up felt impossible, Urwin says now, a bald, light-skinned man with patches of vitiligo that streak his forearms and legs. “After how many weeks,” he says slowly, “we decided to accept the fact that our children were gone. We had to move on and continue living.” Like so many others who lost everything to the storm – their home, their family, their livelihoods – he shrugs at the question. How does a person, a city, a whole country even, recover from such a horrendous event?
A disaster-prone nation, the Philippines sees, on average, 20 typhoons a year, in addition to a host of earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts and landslides. But never before had its 100m-strong population been witness to such a violent display of nature as Haiyan – a category-5 super typhoon, known locally as Yolanda. Tacloban City, a provincial capital, was hardest hit, but the devastation went far beyond. In the aftermath of the storm, local and national governments were left with a logistical nightmare: roads and airports to disaster zones were blocked by debris, thousands were dead, thousands more were missing, millions had been displaced – and there was no clear strategy as to how to get the worst-hit areas back on their feet.
“The preparation of the local governments and the national government agencies was not equal to the strength of the typhoon,” admits Corazón “Dinky” Solíman, who, as head of the Department for Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), oversees the nation’s disaster response.
She lists some of the factors that contributed to the mayhem. A population accustomed to living with typhoons had underestimated the strength of Haiyan, causing many people to stay in their homes when the storm made its devastating landfall. Evacuation centres became death traps after they filled with water. Emergency response teams, such as medics and police officers – who could have helped in the wake of the typhoon – were also victims of its wrath, leaving whole regions lawless and vulnerable as desperate survivors scoured the streets looking for food, water and medicine.
The aid, when it finally did trickle in – by local accounts some four days later, but by Solíman’s much sooner than that – was unevenly distributed. Tacloban residents complained that only barangay (wards), and in some cases voters, of the same political affiliation as president Benigno Aquino III were getting help. Some locals were having to sneak into other districts just to eat or claim assistance. Others who lived near rubbish tips alleged that whole boxes of edible food had been dumped by large trucks and buried in front of them, with the grounds closed off so no one could dig it up again.
The allegations were astonishing, not only because they spoke of a political rivalry that had plagued the nation for years, but because that rivalry was being played out on such an international stage and at such a crucial time. Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, had complained for months after the storm that his city was suffering because of bad blood. But in September, startling revelations were made, via a 102-page Independent Commission on Audit report: Solíman’s office had wasted nearly £1m worth of food packs due to improper storage or handling; had failed to distribute nearly £10m in cash assistance to victims; and either stored in government bank accounts, or spent on government operations, tens of millions of pounds originally intended for relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Solíman admits there was a breakdown of communications and “political differences” which led to “difficulty working with the mayor himself”, but claims that what resulted was beyond the control of her department. Glossing over the accusations of buried aid, she points her finger instead at shipping crews that failed to secure the relief. “The goods were not covered at all,” she says, “exposing [them] directly to the elements of weather – seawater, rain and direct sunlight – resulting in the spoilage.
“Nevertheless,” she adds, “we’re investigating the incident, and those who are responsible for this will be asked to answer.”
There is a gun Guillermo Ramirez keeps in his now derelict upstairs bedroom which he toys with sometimes, playing with the idea of an easy way out. Life for the 87-year-old former boxer and rebel soldier is bleak: the two-storey house he built half a century ago is almost entirely destroyed, bar the dark living room he now sleeps in with his 81-year-old wife, Teresa, and their two grandsons. Their ceiling – a badly fastened tarpaulin – leaks a permanent drip on to the cot they share at night. Finding food, and work, is a daily worry.
“It is very, very hard,” says Guillermo, holding back tears. “My wife has tumours in her uterus. We can’t afford the medication and the doctors say it is too dangerous to operate. But she is bleeding, every day.” He waves to the piles of concrete rubble that still fill their veranda, a wide space that once boasted views out towards the sea and now looks on to a mass of debris. “I am angry, and I have no hope. Some days I get so depressed, I think about getting my gun and shooting myself in the head. But I can’t leave my wife like that.”
Teresa shakes her head. “It’s no good,” she says softly, in English. “But where is the help?”
Nowhere in Tacloban is Haiyan’s destruction, and its aftermath, seen more clearly than in Anibong, the coastal neighbourhood home to both Guillermo and Urwin. The area was once vibrant, full of homes, schools and businesses shared by civil servants, teachers, food vendors and cock fighters. “It was beautiful,” Urwin says. But the storm brought with it tidal waves, and with those waves came the handful of large cargo ships and oil tankers – and a number of their containers – that washed on to the land and flattened everything in their path, eventually settling on the rubble like tombstones.
Today, the neighbourhood is little more than a chaotic shantytown. Nearly 90% of the 7,000-odd residents have come back, say local barangay councillors, and nearly all of them have rebuilt their homes in the same location as their former dwellings – but this time with materials salvaged from the storm. Battered corrugated iron, white UN tents, mouldy cardboard, old blankets and bits of tyre now make up walls, roofs and doors, leaving the inhabitants vulnerable to even light rainfall, let alone another typhoon. Along the waterfront, near a smattering of shanties in clear violation of the government’s new “40-metre no-build zone” signs, groups of children play badminton in oversized flip-flops. A thick layer of broken glass, shredded plastics, litter and decomposing organic waste serves as their playground.
“For people who know how governments should be working, how resources should be used for recovery, it’s been slow,” says Sabyte Lacson-Paguio, Oxfam’s humanitarian and policy advocacy coordinator, of Tacloban’s progress one year on. Like many others, she blames this on politics. “According to law, when a disaster is this huge, the national government has to come in,” she says. The fact that Manila failed to act in time says something profound. “They weren’t prepared at all. They lost communication. That’s why it’s going to take a long time to rebuild: they’re going to have to rethink their entire development framework.”
Mayor Romualdez, an affable 52-year-old who barely survived the typhoon himself, is regarded locally as a man who has tried hard to improve his city, shaping it into a regional powerhouse that wins awards and has low unemployment rates. But Haiyan helped thrust other issues into the public light: namely the Shakespearean family rivalry between Romualdez and President Aquino.
While both men come from powerful family clans, their bad blood goes deeper than that. Aquino’s father was a much-loved politician who returned from self-exile in 1983 to liberate the Philippines from the dictatorial Marcos regime. But he was assassinated on the tarmac as he stepped off the plane – a hit largely believed to have been ordered by Romualdez’ uncle, Ferdinand Marcos himself.
Today, the mayor lives in a tiny room above his wife’s beauty salon, a bolt hole they moved in to after their home near Tacloban airport was destroyed. He expresses great remorse that he can’t show more for the regeneration of his city, despite the $1.6bn that was pledged internationally to help rebuild the Philippines after the typhoon.
“I have real difficulty answering organisations and agencies when they visit,” he sighs. “They look around the city and then come to my office and say, ‘We sent thousands of dollars to Tacloban through the embassy, or through this or through that.’ I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, it didn’t go through us – it went through the mechanism of the national government.’”
The mayor claims to have received only 250m pesos (£3.5m) in aid from Manila, £2.7m of which was required to be spent on rebuilding government offices and infrastructure projects. The rest, he was told, could go towards livelihood or rehabilitation efforts for victims.
It’s barely enough to help relocate the 14,000 families who need to be moved from disaster zones such as Anibong and San Jose, he says, let alone to initiate programmes to jump start the economy, or help launch his “master plan”, which takes in disaster mitigation, revamped building codes and civilian participation.
“When I get into a bad relationship with the central government, my people suffer,” he says. “So I’m trying to walk on thin ice to get things done, but at the same time my hands are tied. It’s a very difficult position.”
President Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, calls such allegations “entirely inaccurate”. “Political rivalry is a convenient excuse,” he says. “[But] politics has no business getting in the way of providing assistance to affected areas and should not be used as a scapegoat.” Aquino has directly charged national government agencies with the task of rehabilitating all affected areas, Lacierda says, and consequently some local governments have made better progress than others.
One recent Wednesday morning not far from Romualdez’ former waterfront property, a crowd of a few hundred people surround a former mansion, its windows and doors still missing. Everyone here lives in a white UN tent – intended to fit up to 10 people, or two families – and a queue has formed as aid workers prepare cash vouchers to help people begin rebuilding their old homes. Like so much of the assistance locals say they’ve received in Tacloban, this funding isn’t coming from the government, but from an NGO. Some 8,000 pesos (£110) have been earmarked for each family whose house suffered total damage, or 5,000 pesos for partial destruction, explains Charlie Reyes of the Green Mindanao foundation. It’s not much, he says, but this is the first real aid many of these people have seen. “The people [here] really feel abandoned by the local government,” he says. He has seen a high level of aggression among survivors, which he believes is proof of the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Even now, men who go out scavenging for wood or to go to the toilet in the grasses, they will come across a skeleton, another body that was never found after the typhoon.”
A petite girl, her toddler on her hip with a smartphone in its mouth, is queueing with her brother in the stifling mid-morning heat. Sherryn Escon, 17, has been living in a tent for six months. Although her clothes are clean, her slicked-back ponytail is teeming with lice eggs. “After the typhoon we started looking through all the stores to see if there was any food or supplies we could take,” she says, shyly. “If we found any dead animals we would check they were safe to eat.” Life one year on is little better, she says. “Drinking water is very hard to find, and when it rains, the rain comes straight into the tent, so we have to sleep on platforms to avoid the flood.” She motions to the aid workers filling out vouchers, and smiles. “At last we’ll live like normal people.”
Before Haiyan, San Jose, where Tacloban’s airport stands, was a vibrant neighbourhood, full of two-storey homes and lower-class dwellings. Now the road from the airport into the city centre is lined with shelled-out structures, shanties cobbled together from salvage, and hundreds of filthy white tents. One recently burnt to the ground, killing the family inside, after a candle set the place alight.
“Tacloban will take a long time to come back,” says Emilia Sumalinog, 45, a former tent resident who has since been moved into one of the relocation sites on the northern edge of the city. “There are too many people like us, people who need support. People don’t want to be relocated when there’s no livelihood. If you move fishermen into the mountains then you have to assure them they’ll make a living somehow.”
Two brothers, friends of Sumalinog, nod in agreement. The pair still live in this “tent city”, spending their days out on their boat, catching the small amount of fish that the post-typhoon waters provide. The government has promised them a temporary home by 8 November, the first anniversary of the typhoon, but they say they’ll likely come straight back here to build a small, illegal shack on the water, to serve as their weekday home. “What else are we going to do in the new site?” one of them asks. “It’s so far from the sea, and we are fishermen. We’ll go to the new site only at the weekend to visit our wives.”
Life in the temporary relocation sites doesn’t promise much in the way of hope. Far from their former homes and old jobs, many residents suffer from a lack of drinking water, intermittent electricity and nothing to do: most of them are whiling away the days until the government provides them with new work – whenever, and whatever, that might be.
Located up a northern stretch of two-lane highway roughly 45 minutes from the city centre, New Kawayan is made up of around 100 thatch huts with a shelf life of three years. Rain regularly seeps in through the crisscrossed thatch walls, and the roofing – in some cases corrugated iron, in other cases thatch, too – doesn’t extend far enough over the windows to prevent sunlight or water from entering inside. “We’re happy to not be in a tent any more, but at night, it’s just unbearable,” says Amilia Palanas, who shares the one-room space with her husband, father-in-law and two children. “The solar power works only during the day, so even though we have a fan we can’t use it at night, and it’s impossible to sleep.”
Families here still get by on relief goods – rice, noodles and instant coffee delivered by the DSWD or charities – and there are community courses in subjects like candle-making, in an attempt to give residents something to do.
“This is the process: first you stay in an evacuation centre, then the temporary shelter, then the permanent housing,” says camp manager Joanne Dollette, who admits that many of the residents need jobs. “Once the permanent housing is completed” – she waves her hand to a nearby site under construction, where UN-Habitat and the local GMA TV station have begun building concrete homes – “then new tent people will move in here, to this site. It is like recycling.”
Nearby, at the temporary relocation site Tagpuro, a hillside construction that looks out on to rolling green fields, we stumble across a funeral for a one-year-old boy, his tiny body wrapped in a white collared blouse. His mother, Rhodora Latorre, has spent her few spare pesos on his white and gold, glass-topped coffin and an oversized crucifix and candelabra. His father left soon after his birth, she says, and her parents were washed away in the typhoon, leaving her to tend, all alone, to her sick son from a tent in San Jose. “Every day in the tent, he was sick,” she says of her son. “It was so hot in the morning, and so cold at night. Nine months in a tent is a long time for a baby.”
Although Filipino politicians have called for a probe into the national government’s disaster response, President Aquino has said he stands by Solíman and the DSWD. Full reconstruction and rehabilitation will take years, and there are glimmers of growth in Tacloban city – roughly 90% of its 240,000 residents are back, says Romualdez; the streets are teeming with markets, new shops and restaurants (some of them named “Haiyan”); and the Pope’s visit in January will buoy spirits. But a year on, much of the hope one might expect to see is still not present.
For Urwin and Ethel, who have submitted DNA to the National Bureau of Investigations to try to locate their children among the scores of unidentified corpses at Holy Cross cemetery, the only progress they see is their own: Ethel is expecting a new baby before the new year – a gift granted, they say, by their two “angels”. But still they have no closure.
“Up to now, the results are still not with us,” says Urwin. “We are still waiting.”
• Watch Urwin Coquilla talk about typhoon Haiyan at theguardian.com/video
The comparison between Basey and Tacloban is a tale of two cities. One rose from the rubble, the other is still deep in muck.
Three hundred sixty-five days after the strongest typhoon ever recorded obliterated Leyte, Samar and other provinces, the dyads of heroism and villainy; despair and resilience; sagacity and idiocy; devastation and recovery are themes that continue to define the after-effect.
With apologies to Charles Dickens and the immortal classic, A Tale of Two Cities, nothing captures the emotions and thoughts of post-Yolanda better than words written in Year 1859.
It was the worst of times.
Haiyan was the worst catastrophe of all time, leaving 7,200 people dead or missing. Almost ninety percent of Tacloban was wiped out. Up to 16 million people were affected, among them 4 million who were displaced. 1.1 million homes were wrecked.
At present, the United Nations estimates that about 95,000 households or 475,000 Filipinos are living in hazardous makeshift shelters. They are highly exposed because of their inability to recover without external help.
It was the best of times.
The world showed kindness as relief poured in almost instantly a few days after the tragedy. Private sector initiatives amounted to over P12.9 Billion as monitored by the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR). The international community responded generously in cash and kind.
The Aquino government launched the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FaiTH), an online portal to monitor and publicize received and/or pledged foreign aid. To date, FAiTH has reported that the total amount of foreign aid pledged is at P73,307,438,834.36 or $1,643,038,277.66.
UN has received US$ 845 million in donations. Private individuals and organizations have generously given $190 million. The United Kingdom donated $123 million.
It was the age of foolishness.
Dr Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, a research fellow in resources, environment and development from the Australian National University surveyed residents in Tacloban, which had the most number of casualties. She found out that the 221,000 residents “were not given sufficient information or logistical support to move to higher and safer ground.”
She added: “Elected government officials only opt for relief distribution immediately after disaster events... relief offers more photo opportunities, which I have personally witnessed, as politicians distribute bags of food and relief with their faces printed on them.”
The harsh commentary is credible as we recall that Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez himself was caught by the super typhoon at his resthouse by the coast. Interviewed later, he said among others, that he did not understand what a “storm surge” meant.
It was the age of wisdom.
One year later the Philippine government has approved a master plan to rebuild the devastated areas. The recovery plan is based on the principle of “build back better.” The six-year plan needs $3.8 billion in funds to construct 205,000 permanent homes for about 4 million people and provide more sustainable jobs for the 2.6 Filipinos living below the poverty line.
It was the epoch of incredulity.
Romualdez claims only 100 of 14,500 promised permanent homes have been built. He also said 3,000 people were still living in danger zones, including many in tents.
In recent harangues, the mayor seemed incoherent. “Bakit natin minamadali ‘yung turnover kung lahat ‘yan hindi pa naman tapos, ‘yung 100?... Pangalawa, mas¬yado nang epal ito e. Sa dami-dami, ‘pag natapos ang sampu pwede ba i-turnover na natin?
Did he want the turnover of homes to be in tens or hundreds? Faster or slower?
It was the epoch of belief.
About 75.6 billion pesos is earmarked for new townships where the rebuilt homes would be able to withstand winds up to 250 kph.
Although the government has released about P51.9 billion to start the recovery work, only 450 homes were ready for turnover to displaced families by the first anniversary.
It was the season of Darkness.
Bureaucracy, unavailability of safe and appropriate resettlement land, lack of resources and petty political squabbles were cited as the main reasons for the slow pace of rehabilitation.
It was the season of Light.
According to Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., 30% of the 25,000 projects will be finished by end-2014. Half of these projects will be undertaken next year, while the remaining 20 percent will be done by 2016.
It was the winter of despair.
Some survivors have lost patience, if not faith. In one TV interview, survivor Lacandazo of Palo, Leyte, who lost 22 relatives in the tragedy, said: "Hindi na ako umaasa (sa tulong mula sa gobyerno), dapat noon pa. Kung magbibigay ng tulong ang gobyerno, inasikaso na dapat noon pa..."
It was the spring of hope.
Climate Commissioner Naderev "Yeb" Saño, the country’s chief climate negotiator, organized the Climate Walk as a “tribute to those confronting the impact of climate change, especially the most vulnerable." Governments will meet in Paris next year to agree a pact. He hopes that the walk underscores the urgency of forging a new global deal that "responds to the latest science and prevents further dangerous climate change."
We had nothing before us.
In Tacloban, protesters led by a group called People Surge burned an effigy of President Aquino, demanded his resignation and accused his administration of diverting aid and reconstruction funds.
OPARR Secretary Lacson called the group “communist pawns” out to agitate the people and discredit the government. Some Leyteños like Toby Amara Jr. agree. “… I believe there is another group behind those protesters… these individuals came to Manila to protest even though their dire condition and sufferings are far from over. How could they afford the travel expenses and sustain their stay here?"
We had everything before us.
At his anniversary visit to Samar, PNoy announced the building of more than 205,000 permanent homes for displaced families. He also unveiled the plan to relocate the Tacloban airport from the coastline citing safety reasons, a move bitterly opposed by Romualdez.
Also in Samar, Philippine fashion company Banago, has doubled its workforce to about 1,000 weavers. Basey's women weavers are cited the most resilient and industrious. They weave bags and home accessories from tikog reed. Their production facility was washed away but they restarted their business a few months after they rebuilt their homes. The Banago range is a top seller at high-end retail stores.
We were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The comparison between Basey and Tacloban is a tale of two cities. One rose from the rubble, the other is still deep in muck.
The truth is salvation from any adversity, depends only on one thing: OURSELVES. - Rappler.com
(Sources: Reuters, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council)
For Rappler's full coverage of the 1st anniversary of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), go to this page.