MANILA — Six months after the most powerful typhoon ever recorded tore through the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and throwing into disarray millions of lives, life is getting better.
But many Filipinos here have yet to recover. And a new season of typhoons is weeks away.
“The biggest challenge is not simply to get a roof over people’s heads — it’s in the long term to get better quality, storm-resistant houses in place to help families survive future storms,” says Conor O’Loughlin, a spokesman for Save the Children in the Philippines.
Four million people lost their homes when Typhoon Haiyan lashed the Philippines on Nov. 8 with screaming winds that drove the ocean into cities and villages along the Leyte Gulf. The city of Tacloban, population 210,000, was largely wiped out by a massive surge of seawater that upended roads, washed away homes and cut power.
Today, more than 2 million people remain without adequate or durable shelter, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. About 100,000 people are still living in tents. Many have not even begun rebuilding their flattened homes.
In Tacloban, a steady supply of water, power and communication has returned to the majority of people, and businesses have reopened. The city’s airport is operating regularly during daylight. With rebuilding and reconstructing efforts everywhere, parts of the city resemble a construction site.
“A few months ago, businesses were hesitant to reopen because they were scared,” says Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez. “Now they are building glass store windows whereas before they would have grills on them.”
With the reopenings, some lives have returned to normal.
“The public transportation grid is working again. Food, clothing, electronics and services have reopened.” says Martin Nawawa of ChildFund International, a child assistance group based in Richmond, Va.
“I walked into a little corner fast-food eatery for lunch. They had a full menu, an LED TV mounted on the wall, and at the next table were a few school-aged girls giggling over Facebook over their phones and tablets.”
But some people continue to do the things that led to such a high toll during Haiyan. Daryl Dano lives in Manila but returns to her native Tacloban often.
“People are rebuilding, but a number have gone back to their old ways, building in same at-risk areas,” she says.
“Streets are cleaner, but when one goes ‘inside’ communities, there are still mountains of debris,” she says. “Business is striving but more expensive, and dead people are continuously discovered.”
Romualdez agreed that too many people have yet to get into safe shelters ahead of the rainy season in July.
“We need more temporary shelters — made of wood or local materials, to keep them safe until permanent houses, which take time to build, can be built,” he said.
In Tanauan, a city 10 miles from Tacloban, authorities were well aware that leaving people in tents or in crowded spots close to the water, as was their usual way of life, left them vulnerable to the new cyclone season.
Families are being moved to concrete homes on land located in an area protected from the kinds of storm surge caused by Haiyan that washed away their neighborhoods.
“This has greatly increased their quality of life,” says the city’s Mayor Pelagio Tecson. “Many of their old homes did not even have private toilets.”
The homes were built not far from jobs and designed to withstand the force of typhoons. The people who moved in helped to build their houses, instilling a sense of pride and ownership, he said.
It was always going to be a challenge to persuade people to abandon the neighborhoods they knew for safer spots. Romualdez says he sees more people who used to resist moving away from coastal communities ready for change.
“They want out,” he says. “This was a wake-up call that we can’t do the same things we have always done.”
The majority of people are still worried about how to provide for their basic needs in the future, says Praveen Agrawal, director of the World Food Program here. He says his group is by providing funds for Filipinos to clear land so they can plant for the next season.
Various agencies are providing people with fishing boats and pedi-cabs or training women in reflexology or cosmetology to help families get back on their feet.
Emerita Avila, 56, has five children and 18 grandchildren with her fisherman husband. Her family is still living in their storm-battered home, under a partial roof and between broken walls.
“We don’t have a sufficient means of income since our boat and nets were damaged,” she says. “Before it was better, since I do own a small canteen and sell food. But right now there was nothing left, we are like orphans.”
Amelia Alicando, 40 and the mother of eight children, became the family’s breadwinner when her husband was killed in the typhoon. She says she “will do anything to support her children.”
So far she has found temporary work as a housemaid, dishwasher, laundry woman and cook.
“The resilience of the Filipino people is the real ingredient to improvement,” Agrawal says. “No one is sitting back. They are working.”
The $788 million appeal for humanitarian aid has been 56% funded, says Klaus Beck, U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Philippines. He says more money is needed to sustain the gains made so far.
“The challenges are indeed great but also surmountable. The response over the past six months has proven what we can do here with proper resources.”
Bernard Kerblat, Philippines representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says the reconstruction efforts are seeing some success because of a strong combined effort of government agencies, non-profit groups, humanitarian workers and private companies.
“There are reasons to be positive,” he says. “Normally in such a situation, you could expect there could have been widespread starvation or epidemics, high levels of neonatal death, mass exodus of population. None of this has happened.”
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