After the typhoon: dignity amid the debris

In the middle of the devastation wreaked on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, people are beginning to rebuild with quiet resolve

 

If there are “lucky” people when a natural disaster wreaks destruction on a place, they might look rather like the people of Bogo. The city, which has a population of 82,000 and sits on the northern tip of Cebu island, took not quite the full force of the 260km/h storm when Typhoon Haiyan blew through the Philippines, eight days ago. But it took a lot.

If you travel northwest out of Bogo towards the town of San Remegio, you don’t have to go far to see what happened. The road dips down, bends to the right, rises again after about a kilometre and then proceeds in a perfectly straight line. On both sides of it is near-total devastation.

Hardly a house stands upright. Any that do – and they are few and mostly of concrete – are also damaged. Some are missing a few roof tiles, or perhaps some sheet metal, or maybe they have just been battered by the tonnes of debris that flew through the air.

Every wooden shack, a home to someone or to some family, has been smashed to pieces, and most of what was growing there is no more.

What stands out from the destruction on the road from Bogo is the sports arena. You approach the white concrete building through a scruffy car park. On either side there used to be a sprawling shanty town. Every one of those homes has been blown to smithereens.

“Hello! Welcome!” says one of three men sitting by a table at the entrance to the stadium. I am ushered inside and introduced to Santiago Sevilla, the deputy mayor of Bogo. He leads me to a classroom blackboard covered with figures. Each of the city’s 29 districts and outlying areas is listed in column one. The area has 18,295 houses, of which 10,447, or 57 per cent, have suffered major damage.

“Major?” I ask Sevilla.

“Totally destroyed,” he answers.

Almost 6,000 more homes – a further 32 per cent – are deemed to have sustained minor damage. And 1,879, or 10 per cent, have sustained wind damage but are otherwise habitable. The city escaped the further trauma of a large death toll: there were 13 fatalities and 84 injuries.

Because they knew the storm was coming, 18 evacuation centres were designated, and the blackboard lists how many people were living in each. The sports arena was the main evacuation centre and shelter when the storm came.

That was at about 8.30am last Friday, says the deputy mayor. By 1pm it was all over. But not before 6,000 people from 800 families, crammed into the largely open-sided arena, went through what must have been a terrifying ordeal.

As they crouched there, the mayor among them, large chunks of the roof were ripped off and flung far and wide. Thankfully, none fell on to the basketball court, which was packed with people.

Now a group of about 40 men, women and children are sitting on a stage at one end of the arena, smiling and chatting. I take their photograph, and they laugh and wave like a group of teenagers.

In front of them are bags of food, tins of sardines in tomato sauce and corned beef, and, nearby, dozens of bags of Lucky Me! noodles piled on top of each other.

“Thank you. Thank you for coming,” they all say as I leave.


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In contrast to Bogo and northern Cebu, the destruction on the island of Leyte and parts of neighbouring Samar was more widespread and the death toll greater. The sort of devastation that can be seen in large tracts of Bogo and in its hinterland is replicated many times in and around Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province.

The latest figures put the total death toll at more than 4,000 people.Yet amid such tragedy, people are rebuilding their lives with quiet dignity.

“We know that the Filipinos are used to this kind of destruction. They have very high resilience,” says a Médecins Sans Frontières aid worker, with apparent harshness. It carries a suggestion of haughtiness, of a sophisticated European being slightly patronising. But the more the week has worn on, the more one is struck by the phlegmatic approach of the people of this country to the appalling disaster that has befallen them.

There has been some looting, and a stampede for food caused a wall to collapse, killing eight people, but those whose lives have been turned upside down by the disaster appear, in the main, to be stoic and in good cheer.

The country as a whole is far from dumbstruck by what has happened: the streets remain chaotic and infused with a hint of danger; everything here is fast-moving, colourful, loud and rough-edged.

To the extent that the tragedy has affected people indirectly, it has been to initiate collections for the distressed. Just about everywhere one looks there are indications that people are doing what they can by collecting money or organising food parcels for the damaged areas.

They are not showing anger at the initially slow response of the authorities, perhaps understanding better than outsiders that this is a big, unwieldy and underdeveloped country in which doing anything takes time.

In Manila, the capital city, or in Cebu, the main city on the central Philippine island of the same name, life is much as it is most of the time. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is greater than anything one might see in Ireland. Here, that wide gap is visible everywhere. It is a very unequal society, and an outsider feels it immediately.


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Driving to northern Cebu on Thursday, I see a group of about six or eight women wading through waist-deep black water in a roadside ditch, lifting out plastic bags, binding tape and anything else they can find.

When I return, four hours later, their hoard is spread out neatly, drying in the sun, ready for wrapping and selling for recycling. It will probably bring mere pennies, if they are lucky. There is nothing unusual here in what the women are doing, but one would travel far in a first-world country to see the likes of it.

The Philippines is very much part of the developing world, even if it has done better than many others. Everything here is used over and over and over, but always from necessity, not adherence to some notion of environmental accountability or rejection of capitalist consumption.

If making the best, or the most, of what you have has come to the fore this week, it is clear also that family and religion are of importance here.

Religious exhortations are everywhere, from the fronts of private buses to the backs of motorcycle-sidecar taxis. Nonmainstream churches abound; they may be charismatic Catholic or evangelical Protestant, but they are numerous, as are more conventional chapels.


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The hum of small generators is ubiquitous. Santiago Sevilla, the Bogo deputy mayor, predicts it will take a month for electricity to be restored.

Next week he and the emergency co-ordinating committee, which was set up before the disaster stuck and includes all key senior council managers, plan to start a work-for-food scheme that they hope will get everyone in the community involved in pulling apart the wreckage and tidying up, in return for provisions from the council.

External accusations of a tawdry response to the crisis, particularly concerning Tacloban, are given short shrift by the authorities and some of the relief workers here.

They say it simply took time, in the absence of a functioning airport in Tacloban, and with impassable roads and a telecommunications breakdown, to assess the full extent of the crisis. That assessment is continuing; there is a dearth of information about many of the more remote parts of the island of Samar, for example.

According to members of an Australian medical team who arrived in Tacloban on Thursday, a shipment of aid that day had a significant impact in stabilising the situation in the city. Some refugees in Cebu air-force base are now talking about their desire to return home.

And just as mass relief begins to arrive in Tacloban, the road down the mountain from Bogo to Cebu city on Thursday is full of relief trucks on their way up.

Most display signs that read “Emergency relief – do not stop.” They carry rice and other food, as well as generators and building materials. Along the way, through the ribbon-development village of Ilihan, in which, a day before, swarms of children were begging from passing motorists, I count at least three trucks dispensing five-gallon bottles of water and one fire tender filling buckets.

The children are still here; perhaps there are fewer of them, but their pleadings now seem more to do with play-acting than with the more urgent message of previous days.

Down on the coast road at Catmon, five large open-back trucks overflow with provisions as they wait at the roadside under escort, bound for Bogo and other severely damaged areas.

In a hotel car park by the Médecins Sans Frontières offices in downtown Cebu, four women are cheerily packing food bags under two free-standing canopies. There are 40 50kg bags of rice, cartons of milk supplement, tins and other foods. Each of the parcels the women are making contains two kilos of rice, four tins of sardines, two bags of noodles and four litres of water.

I assume the women are from a relief agency. “No,” says the woman in charge, Sarrita Pimentel. “We just do this ourselves.” Between telling me about Ireland and the number of Filipinos they know there, having got as far as Bath, in England, themselves, they tell me they had a whip-round among friends and family, collected about $8,000 (€6,000) and are now doing this. “In our own way we want to help.” As I walk away, she says: “Thank you for coming.”

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