Meagre rations for typhoon survivors with nothing left

The relief effort in the Philippine city of Tacloban is distributing vast quantities of food one small bag at a time


Inside a warehouse near the centre of Tacloban, women and children sit on the floor, filling plastic bags with rice and other food – three small tins and three packets of noodles in each.

There is no sign outside announcing the fact that this is a food warehouse but an armoured personnel carrier at the entrance and several soldiers armed with assault rifles tell you something here needs protecting. Once inside, you see why. Food is piled high, floor to almost the roof, more than 50,000 50kg sacks of rice. And there are also thousands of boxes containing bottled water and tins of food, mostly sardines in tomato sauce, and packets of noodles. Outside there are people surviving on next to nothing.

The warehouse was acquired before the typhoon by the Philippines’ National Food Authority, a state body involved in the distribution and storage of food, subsequently sold through shops. When the disaster happened, the entire contents were bought by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). In three days last week, from the initiation of its food distribution on Tuesday until Thursday, the WFP oversaw the dispersal throughout the typhoon-affected areas of 63,000 family food packs, helping feed about 320,000 people. While that may seem a lot, revised UN figures estimate 13 million people in the Philippines have been adversely affected by the typhoon, two million of whom are homeless.

The amount of rice the women and children pack in each bag is 3kg – sufficient to feed a family of five for two days: 300g of rice per person per day. Also into the bags go three of the tins and three packets of noodles. The tins are tiny, a mere 155g each. A family of five, for two days. That’s 10 meals.

As the women and children work inside the warehouse, there is a light-hearted banter and chat. Men and teenage boys do the most strenuous tasks such as taking the 50kg sacks down from the top of the piles. All the 100 or so local people are volunteers, paid in kind for what they do at the end of four-hour shifts.

Working with them are about 150 staff from the Philippines department of social welfare, as well as the military.

We go to see where some of the food parcels end up. Down a stinking, squalid muddy lane about 5km away, people are queuing to collect their allocation. One bag per household.

The people queuing are essentially slum dwellers – or the residents of what used to be a slum and which is now not much more than a pile of smashed-up shanty homes – a filthy, muddy mess that more resembles a rubbish tip than a cluster of homes. It is as if a short, sharp war was fought here and the combatants have left destruction in their wake.

The official name of this place is Barangay 83c. But to the people who live here, their little townland is Taguiktik. Tacloban is on the sea and faces Cancabato bay. Looking out to sea, the land licks around to the right to create a peninsula on which is the airport. A bay is thus formed and when the typhoon came, the surge of sea water that accompanied it behaved like a tsunami. The water rushed over the airport peninsula, across Cancabato Bay and on to land again. Taguiktik was just one of many places by the shoreline to take the full force of the surge, water travelling at speed and reaching a depth of about 3.5m. One of the aid workers dispersing bags filled with food is Joey Mercado, a 26-year-old who shoulders his responsibilities lightly but knows what he is about.

In preparation for just the sort of disaster , the local community had squirrelled away its own stock of food and, so that this would be used fairly, Mercado and others had generated a list of everyone in the community and what he calls a “star book” – essentially a ration book. Locals entitled to food must present a slip of paper from the book to get their food parcel. The system has come into its own in recent days for the current distribution system but even Mercado is daunted by the longer-term task ahead. Surveying the devastation about him, he says: “We don’t know where to start. We have nothing.”

‘God saved us’
One of the more fortunate residents is Lucila Morales, aged 58. “God saved us!” she says. Her concrete, breeze-block house is just a few feet away from the food distribution canopy and withstood the worst of the storm, unlike other homes in the area, although it lost most of its corrugated roof.

She invited us in, through sheet-metal blue-painted doors, to a cement-floored, austere building, perhaps 8m long by 4m wide, and divided into several tiny rooms. Mrs Morales had made an heroic effort to clean the place and it showed. Everything was as neat and tidy as possible. Her family’s belongings were the stuff of basic living: a two-ring burner for cooking, utensils, three motorcycles, a row of neatly hung shirts and little else.

Mrs Morales wastes no time in telling us that she is a Seventh Day Adventist, a minority in a country of devout Roman Catholics. She points seriously to a purple bag, safe out of harm’s way on a wall. “My Bibles,” she says. She is sure God had a role in her and her family’s survival. She and her husband, their three sons and three grandchildren, two boys and a girl, got on to the roof when the waters surged. Others around them were not so fortunate.

I ask about employment. We only have our own work, answers Mrs Morales. This transpires to be filling juice bottles at a local school.

Walking back up the muddy lane past once more the muddy mess, the filth, the debris, the smashed homes and the epic scale of what is damaged, we are accosted by a walking-stick-wielding toothy granny wearing a nightie and a baseball cap with the word “Swag” written on it in pink, and clutching her bag of WFP rice.

“Hey!” roars 86-year-old Rosario Artisano. “Hey you, take my picture!” Standing on the back of a flatbed truck gingerly picking its way out of Taguiktik, there’s that smell again. It’s not the filthy, fetid water in the swampy patches, strewn with smashed-up homes. It is something else. Something utterly unmistakable once you have clocked what it is.

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