Rebuilding homes and lives in typhoon-hit central Philippines

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 24 Jan 2014 13:00 PM
Author: Thin Lei Win - Correspondent, Southeast & East Asia More news from our correspondents
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Typhoon Haiyan devastated the central Philippines. Almost three months after the storm hit, our correspondent revisits the area to meet survivors and see their recovery and struggles

Text and photographs by Thin Lei Win

  • This boy was crouching in front of a grave with a wooden cross, struggling against a light breeze to light two small candles. He saw me approaching with my camera, looked up and continued his task. Once the candles were lit, he quickly covered them with a plastic bottle with the top cut off, so the wind wouldn’t extinguish them. He then quickly walked away.
    My translator and I tried to stop him. He turned around, shook his head and continued walking.

    I decided that I had intruded enough and decided not to bother him, even though I wanted to know more.

    Was he visiting the grave of a family member? A friend?

  • This grave was one of many on the grounds of a church in Palo, a town next to Tacloban in Leyte province. The media have dubbed Tacloban “ground zero”, as the area where super storm Haiyan showed its full destructive potential. However, Palo was devastated, too, with hundreds dead and homes flattened.

    Haiyan, the strongest storm on record to hit land, slammed into the central Philippines on Nov. 8, leaving close to 8,000 people dead or missing. It affected 14 million people and damaged 1.1 million houses. More than 4 million people remain displaced.
    The graves at this site tell of the community’s heartbreak. Many graves are for the elderly or the very young.

    Dolls, soft toys and photos of chubby-cheeked babies abound. So do fresh flowers. One of the graves has a sign listing the names of people from a large family that perished.
    I counted. There were 20 names.

  • Driving out of Tacloban on Wednesday, we chanced upon two mass graves. This is one, located on a traffic island at the entrance to Tanauan, where more than 1,200 people died. This grave is smaller than the one in Palo, but sitting right at the entry into town, it was difficult to miss.

    Many of the graves here also had fresh flowers as well as rosary beads. There were family graves, too, but this one, which I believe is for one victim, has packs of snacks and bottles of flowers.

  • Ugly remnants of the storm - upturned trucks, fallen trees, tall piles of debris - still litter what was once a very beautiful coastline. Here, a damaged oil drum and broken electricity cables give an indication of the ferocity of the storm.

    Many houses are still wrapped in tarpaulin sheets, but many survivors are starting to rebuild and repair their homes.

    In many places, I heard the industrious sound of chainsaws and hammers.
    Life goes on in Tanauan, where I caught glimpses of a ghoulish sense of humour.
    On the side of a heavily damaged two-storey building that was leaning so dangerously it looked like it could collapse at any moment was a sign: “Rest at your own risk”.

  • One person who has not been able to rebuild her home is 47-year-old Marilyn Ocena. Marilyn, her husband and their nine children used to live along the coast in Tacloban, but the government has now declared their old fishing ground and neighbourhood a “no-build” zone due to the risk of typhoons.

    The family is now staying in a tent provided by the United Nations and has no income. They’ve been told they would be permanently relocated, but they don’t know when or where.

    Marilyn is worried that resettling somewhere inland will mean no jobs or income, as well as separation from her husband, who wants to continue working as a fisherman.

    Her eyes welled up as she told me about the prospect of the family splitting up.

  • Some, like the owner of the half-finished house on the right in this picture, decided to rebuild on the coast anyway. Another storm could head their way, but Marvin Tabataña took a calculated risk by rebuilding here, opting to provide a stable, if temporary, home for his family.

    Marvin says the makeshift shelter they’re currently sharing with another family is too small. Faced with a lack of information on resettlement as well as prolonged displacement, he and many others believe it could be months before they are moved.

    “Whenever a storm comes, we’ll just evacuate,” he told me.

    And if they have to move?

    He shrugged and said, “We’ll just re-use the new materials.”

  • The government has been trying to build these temporary shelters, known locally as bunkhouses, for people displaced by the storm, like Marilyn and Marvin.

    Unfortunately, the project has run up against controversy, with critics saying they’re overpriced and substandard. The government has denied allegations of corruption.

    Each bunkhouse has 24 one-room units with shared showers, toilets and cooking areas at the back. The bunkhouses are built quite close to each other, and at one site I visited, a worker said the roofs of some units leaked during heavy rains in recent weeks.

    At another bunkhouse site, the rains have left green, stagnant water under the units, raising health concerns.

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