Climate & Environment

Filipinos struggle three months after typhoon

MANILA — Three months after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines, some restaurants have reopened, and basic services such as water and electricity that had been wiped out by the storm have returned to a few spots.

But life is still a long way from what it was before the storm struck the island of Leyte.

“Life is terrible here,” says Jessalyn Palanan, 26, of the tent she and her family have been living in for weeks in Tacloban.

Palanan has been at an elementary school with her husband and three children since her home was wiped out by Haiyan, which sent waves 15 feet high into Leyte Gulf on Nov. 8.

“I miss home,” she says, “bonding with my neighbors and laughter. We were like brothers and sisters in my community — so many died.”

Haiyan, the largest typhoon in history to make landfall, left 6,219 people dead and 4 million people displaced, according to the Philippine government. More than 1.5 million homes were destroyed or damaged.

Almost 1,800 people are classified as missing, and the remains of bodies are found nearly every day under piles of debris that have yet to be cleared out.

According to the city’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, major roads are open and most of the large debris has been cleared. But 75% of the city remains without a reliable electricity supply, and a majority of the population is without access to safe water.

Romualdez says it could be another three months before power is fully restored and even longer to fix the water supply. The slow recovery makes it difficult for business owners to resume production and for people to get back to work. It also makes it harder for aid agencies to get their work done.

The operation of the airport and port is limited to daylight, slowing down the delivery of needed supplies. The city’s income-generating businesses such as the main market, bus terminals and meatpacking have yet to be rebuilt.

Romualdez estimates that 18,000 families such as the Palanans live in evacuation centers or tents while they wait for permanent housing. The city government plans to relocate 10,000 people away from the coastal communities at risk of being swamped again.

The area relies heavily on donors to build houses, and this takes time. World Health Organization representative Julie Lynn Hall says there are many impediments to recovery.

“The challenges are just enormous in terms of being able to rebuild enough quickly enough for everybody — the logistics, the materials, finding enough carpenters, the fact that it won’t stop raining,” she said.

A lesser tropical storm struck Leyte recently, damaging tents and stalling the progress of rebuilding efforts. Aid workers are worried about what will happen if people are still living in tents when the rainy season starts in July.

Health workers have prevented major outbreaks of disease, but the threat is there for an epidemic.

“We are seeing small outbreaks of measles, typhoid, other water-borne diseases,” Hall said. “The rains mean puddles for mosquitoes to breed in, and we have seen cases of dengue,” an infectious disease carried by insects that can be life-threatening.

Although health services are available, a large number of facilities are badly damaged and need rebuilding before they can run properly.

Efforts to vaccinate children are hindered by problems such as a lack of power to keep the vaccines refrigerated, medical records that were destroyed in the storm and no water to wash medical workers’ hands.

There is so much rubble on the ground that there’s no place to bury medical waste.

The Philippines has received $653 million in foreign aid, according to FTS-Financial Tracking Services, most of which has been used to buy food and provide water, sanitation and health services.

More than 2.8 million people have received emergency food support through a partnership between the government, United Nations agencies and non-governmental agencies such as international charities.

David Carden, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warns that more aid is needed if the area is to get beyond emergency care and back to normal.

“We need more aid to focus on livelihood projects as that is what enables people to get back on their feet. We know the Filipinos themselves are very resilient — we just need to support them to be able to do that,” he said.

Palanan says her family wants to take care of themselves but can’t. She said she has been unable to find work to add to the family income of her fisherman husband except for a two-week Cash for Work program set up by the U.N. Development Program. And the basics cost more than they used to.

“The price of commodities is too high,” she said. “Even transportation like pedicabs are high. We need to be able to buy more food.”

Most of the 6 million workers whose livelihoods were disrupted by the typhoon were in the service or agriculture industry. The government and international organizations have provided some workers with emergency jobs such as debris clearing.

The groups hope to help workers not only get new jobs but new skills that will help them go from emergency work to longer-term employment.

“We are looking at how communities are going to rebuild and training people as carpenters, electricians, plumbers,” said Lawrence Jeff Johnson, country director for the International Labor Organization. “We want to figure out how we can help them get on a recovery path that will lead to sustainable inclusive growth.”

Hall said the Filipino people are “self-starters” motivated to recover from the calamity.

“You go to the sites, and people are just trying to help themselves in any way — one hammers nails, finds wood to build something to live in — they want jobs and something to do,” she said. “You don’t see people sitting around helpless, waiting for handouts. Everybody that I’ve seen has just wanted to get on with their lives again.”

A normal life seems far off to the Palanans. The family relies on donated solar lamps for light and must take turns using the kitchen and bathroom at the elementary school that has been their home.

“Living in a tent is so congested,” Palanan said. “One of my children has to sleep outside the tent at night, so we have more room. And sometimes it takes a while for the food to come, and it’s not enough.”

February 10, 2014
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