Tacloban devastated, but not cowed, by super storm

Friday, 15 November 2013 07:07 GMT

Signs were posted along the road from the Tacloban airport to the city, on Nov. 14, 2013. The one on the left, in the Philippine language Tagalog, says the city survived World War II, so why should it now be running away from a storm? It added, “Stand Up Leyte! Stand up Tacloban!” Thomson Reuters Foundation/Thin Lei Win

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Typhoon Haiyan, with sustained winds reaching 235 km per hour, may have damaged Tacloban’s infrastructure beyond recognition, but it strengthened the people’s will

Tacloban in the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan is mostly twisted metal and flattened homes, permeated by the stench of death and destruction. The snaking queue of people at the airport hoping to fly out gets longer and longer every day - proof of how badly the city was hit by the strongest typhoon on record to ever make landfall.

Yet the coastal city, one of the worst affected and capital of Leyte province, also boasts residents who refused to be cowed by the storm. Reports of looting and insecurity are rife but perhaps what is not as often mentioned is how the locals wait for hours patiently to charge their phones, still retain a sense of humour and have started to help themselves even as they wait for official assistance.

A perfect example is Ophelia Casio, a mother of eight who shares the Tacloban City Convention Centre, locally known as the Astrodome, with a few hundred other families who are now coping with a barrage of health hazards.

On Thursday, families were cooking and sitting around chatting amidst the stench of garbage and urine. Trash and debris were strewn along the rows of seats where dark pools of stagnant water had formed.

A few of the displaced were nursing their injuries. One man said he was cut by a corrugated iron sheet while trying to save a woman who ultimately drowned. A deep cut on the top of his right feet is starting to splay open. A woman with a bandaged arm said she needs someone to look at her wound soon.

Ophelia fled to the three-storey Astrodome a day before the storm struck, killing at least 4,460 people, displacing close to a million and affecting 11.8 million, according to U.N. figures.

Yet up until Thursday morning, when the International Organization for Migration (IOM) turned up to see what help Ophelia and others at the Astrodome needed, no government officials from Tacloban had come, she said. 

CREATING ORDER IN CHAOS

“We went into the Astrodome and asked who is in charge and just got blank stares," said Joe Lowry, a spokesperson for the IOM. Within minutes, however, IOM staff found volunteers willing to put the place in order. 

Ophelia was one of them. Within an hour or so, she busily went around the building with a piece of paper, writing down the details of people who would be calling the building home for at least a few more weeks.

She burst into tears when describing how she feels about having survived the storm.

“I’m thankful and grateful that I’m alive, but I’m also worried. I have no house, no jobs. How to move on from here?" she told me.

Formerly employed as a maid, the 46-year-old lost her one-storey wooden shed in the storm. Her employer has left town, and her family has been surviving on the generosity of neighbours and relatives.

Some families had not eaten for three days, she said. Luckily, unlike tens of thousands of others elsewhere in Tacloban, the Astrodome’s displaced have access to a water pipe outside the building.

She said the families all share what they have, and when there is no more food, “we just drink the tap water.”

She is planning to stay here for a while and felt they should organise among themselves to improve the living conditions.

“We have nowhere else to go,” she said, adding they wouldn’t want to leave for the capital Manila as their roots are in Tacloban, a major trading town in the late 18th century that had been occupied by Japanese forces during World War II until U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s forces arrived. 

SURVIVING WWII AND STORM

Jooel E. Madka, who was at the City Hall with his nephew to recharge their phones, echoed Ophelia's sentiment. He showed pictures of the devastation the storm wrought in his neighbourhood. Amidst the wrecked houses people were smiling and laughing, happy to be alive, he said.

On the road from the airport to the city, where mountains of debris and body bags are piled up on the side of the road, I saw shut awnings spraypainted with signs rallying residents not to give up.

“The eyes of the world is on us. Relax… but don’t quit!” says one in English.

Another, in the Philippine language Tagalog, said the city survived World War II, so why should it now be running away from a storm. It added, “Stand Up Leyte! Stand up Tacloban!”

On Wednesday, I walked through a devastated neighbourhood where few homes were left standing. Families camped outside the ruins of their former homes shouted out greetings.

One youth bathing with water from a plastic bucket smiled and said, “It’s more fun in Tacloban,” a play on the slogan to promote tourism in the country: “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”

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