• A New Year – and a new life – for Yolanda’s survivors

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    Photo from Agence France-Presse

    Photo from Agence France-Presse

    They are not victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan); they are survivors.

    Of the citizens in Eastern and Central Visayas, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) recorded 16,078,181 individuals who were affected by the typhoon, with a death toll of 6,069 and 1,779 still missing as of December.

    A huge loss for a small population that relies on fishing and farming, our Visayan brothers and sisters did not only suffer the loss of their livelihood but mourn for the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbors, whose bodies they had seen—and continue to see—in their devastated communities.

    The reality of the destruction brought about by the world’s worst typhoon in modern history is now setting in on those who survived. With the “emergency phase” over, the government’s Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY) will focus on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of homes, the restoration of public facilities such as schools and hospitals, and also jobs generation and livelihood programs.

    It has almost been two months since the infamous typhoon slammed into the Central Philippines on November 8. Even Bohol, which was still reeling from a 7.2-intensity earthquake in October was not spared.

    Calm before the storm
    While over 800,000 individuals were evacuated to safety, no amount of preparation could withstand Yolanda’s level four-storm signal, with a maximum strength of 300 kilometers per hour.

    At 4:40 a.m., Yolanda first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, and moved with such speed and intensity to Palo, Tanauan, Tolosa, San Jose, and neighboring towns in Tacloban, which all suffered massive damage amid terrifying storm surges that went up 14 to 25 feet high.

    “Sa barangay namin sa Burauen [Leyte], hindi kami nasabihang mag-evacuate. Bigla nalang lumakas ang ulan. Nang may marinig kaming mga puno ng niyog na naputol at kumalampag, nagising kami—lahat kaming magkakapit-bahay. [In our barangay of Burauen, Leyte, we weren’t warned to evacuate. The strong rains just started to pour. When we heard coconut trees falling, we woke up—all of our neighbors included],” narrated Enabore Romulo, a 60-year-old businesswoman who lives by the coast of Dinagat River, which overflowed at the height of the typhoon.

    Related Jeffrey Kabangon, a 21-year-old automotive and electronic Tesda trainee studying in San Jose, “Thursday pa lang, pumunta na ko sa bahay ng pinsan ko sa San Jose, doon na ako nag-bantay. Kahit na may araw pa ng kaunti noon, napansin ko na wala nang hangin at nagtatago na ang mga ibon. Naramdaman ko na may masamang mangyayari, hindi ko inaasahan na magiging ganito kalubha. [It was only Thursday when I went to my cousin’s house in San Jose for safety. The sun was still shining that day but I noticed there was hardly any wind blowing, and that the birds were hiding. I felt then and there that something bad was about to happen, but I didn’t expect it would be this terrible].”

    Heavy rains continued until Yolanda officially left the Philippine Area of Responsibility at 2 p.m. on November 9. Families panicked as they tried to reunite with other relatives while left dumbstruck at the sight of the storm’s aftermath, and had no idea where to go and what to do next.

    “Yung iba naka-survive, marami ang nagkaroon ng black eye, nasugatan, at nasaktan. Noong tumila na ang ulan, lumabas ako ng bahay. Tinulungan ko ang nadaanan kong mga tao na nakaipit sa mga gumuhong mga bahay at nahulog na mga puno. May mga lumapit sa amin at humingi ng tulong, pero noong puntahan namin ang mga kasama nila, wala, na patay na [There were some who survived the storm. Many had black eyes and got hurt. I helped people who were stuck in fallen trees and houses. Others would come up to us and ask for help but when we reached their homes, their relatives were gone. They had already died],” the young Kabangon narrated, with a blank gaze as he tried to bring back the horrifying memory.

    “Maraming namatay, marami kaming nakitang survivors. Pero mas marami ang patay kaysa sa mga survivor. Pagdating ko sa eskwelahan, nakakita ako ng mga kaibigan, at maraming patay. Namatay yung mga matatanda at batang nasa first floor. Na-trap sila doon, at maraming nalunod sa kanila [Many died. We saw many survivors but there were more dead people than survivors. When I got to school, I saw my friends, many of them dead. The old and the young who were evacuated to the school on the first floor died from drowining],” he added.

    Romulo and Kabangon are just two of 35 survivors who are still at the Tent City in Villamor Air Base, Pasay City. They had been staying there since they were flown in from Tacloban Airport aboard C130s. The other survivors are now in different parts of Metro Manila, staying with relatives in Malabon, Taguig, Quezon City and Rizal to name a few.

    “Hindi siguro aabot ng 10 percent ang mga survivors na nakalikas. Marami pa rin ang naiwan doon [Less than 10 percent of the survivors were able to leave for safety. There are still many left behind],” said Levy Gacos, a 68-year-old retired construction worker who assured the safety of his wife, five kids, his two daughters-in-law and his four-year-old granddaughter by staying at the Tent City for almost a month now.

    Scenes of desolation
    The luscious green mountains and fields of Samar and Leyte have now turned brown after Yolanda’s wrath. Tall coconut trees toppled over structures now left in ruble.

    People had to walk muddy streets while they searched for their lost relatives and hoped against hope they would still see their homes standing. Debris covered the vast wasteland of coastal towns, and the place they once called looked as if they were war zones.

    “Nang tumila na yung ulan ng mga bandang hapon, hinanap ko na ang asawa ko na iniwan ko sa simbahan. Sama-sama kami ng pamilya ko na nag-punta sa isa kong kaibigan na nakatira sa isang four-storey na bahay. Doon kami nagpatuyo, at doon na rin kami natulog ng dalawang araw at dalawang gabi. Noong bumalik ako sa bahay namin, nakita ko pa yung Senior Citizen ID card ko na nakalutang, pero yung bahay namin wala na [When the rain stopped in the late afternoon, I looked for my wife who I left in Church. My family and I all went together to a friend’s four-storey house, where we tried ourselves and slept for two nights. When we returned home, I saw my Senior Citizen ID floating but our house was gone],” Gacos said, recounting how his Fatima Village home in Tacloban City was ravaged by the storm.

    Relief slowly came four to five days after Yolanda, with an impressive response from the international community who brought in food, water and equipment needed in emergency response operations.

    “There are different phases of emergency response. When we arrived, the area was in the survival phase wherein the main focus is to supply food and water to the survivors,” said Basile Ricard, operations head of SDV, an international logistics company based in France that was hired to assure the organized mobilization of relief goods and equipment from the Australian government and United Nations’ World Food Programme in disaster zones.

    “We first came in on Wednesday and one of the first things we did was to set up a field hospital in the Tacloban airport where they did surgery and suturing of physically injured survivors. We brought in the equipment, including fuel and water to run the hospital,” Ricard shared.

    Being one of the first groups to go into the disaster zones, the French logistics expert pointed out “geographical challenges” and “relative disorganization” in the availability of supplies, as well as lack of coordination between the government and different agencies, among many others.

    As for survivors, their immediate concern was finding their loved ones. “Nahiwalay sa amin ang dalawa naming anak, ang naiwan sa akin yung bunso kong babae. Naiwan kami sa bahay habang ang dalawang lalaki ko ay sumama sa tiyo nila at lumikas doon sa copra warehouse malapit sa amin [We were separated from our two children; my youngest girl was left with me. We were left home while my two boys went with their uncle for safety in the copra warehouse nearby],” Jessica Macariola, 29, a resident of Guiuan, painfully recalled.

    “Noong lumakas na ang ulan, lumikas na kami, pumunta kami sa kapatid ng asawa ko. Nang tumila na ang ulan, umiiyak na ko, akala ko wala na ang dalawa kong anak. Nakita naming sila doon sa gumuho nang warehouse, nagtago sila kasama ng mga ilang pamilya doon sa CR [When the rain poured heavily, we took shelter and went to the house of my husband’s sibling. When the rain stopped, I cried because I thought my sons were dead, but we saw them in the rest room of the fallen warehouse with a few other families,” the mother of three gratefully shared with tears flowing from her eyes.

    Life must go on
    “Gusto lang namin makauwi, [We just want to go home],” declared Macariola. It was the same statement—and goal—the other survivors told The Sunday Times Magazine as well. “Kahit na wala na ang aming bahay, yung lupa namin pagmamay-ari iyon ng asawa ko at yun na lamang ang natitira sa amin [Even if we no longer have a home, that land is still my husband’s and it’s the only thing we have left],” she added.

    Before the storm, Macariola ran a small sari-sari store in Barangay Cogon in Guiuan. Her 34-year-old husband worked as a fisherman, and her two boys were enrolled in nearby school. This is the same life Macariola wants to have again.

    On December 20, survivors in the Tent City were flown back to Tacloban. Gacos is undaunted as the head of the family, and enumerated his plans once they return home. “Sa bangketa nalang muna kami magtatayo ng bahay, maghahanap ng mga kahoy doon, at nabigyan din kami ng gamit pang-karpintero. Sa construction naman ako dati, at may malakas pa naman ako para makapagtayo ng temporary na bahay. Basta may mauwian lang, kaya kong buhayin ang pamilya ko [We will make a temporary home on the sidewalk. We’ll look for some wood, and I’ve been given some carpentry tools. I worked in construction before and I’m still strong so I’m sure I can build a temporary home. So long as we have our land to go home to, I can still take care of my family],” he confidently declared.

    The main concern of the survivors is shelter and safety. So long as they have these, they are positive they can rebuild their lives and their communities. For them, surviving the super typhoon is already a gift, and with support coming in from local and foreign communities, they know they are not alone in their journey to recovery.

    Sense of normalcy
    Life in Tacloban and other typhoon-stricken areas are slowly going back to normal. NDRRMC Undersecretary Eduardo del Rosario reported that almost 50 percent of electricity has been restored in Tacloban, as well as some parts of Western and Northern Samar.

    The Department of Public Works and Highways reported the completion of their one-month intense clearing operations in Tacloban, and vowed to complete 159 bunkhouse units for 3,816 families in Eastern Visayas for Christmas and New Year, while repairing and restoring damaged school buildings at the same time.

    Meanwhile, the Department of Social Walfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Dinky Soliman announced that the government has reached all affected areas. Their basic needs such as food and water have been provided thus far.

    Acknowledging the need to shelter displaced families, she added, “The next challenge is really a roof over the heads and that’s where we are focusing now.”

    The National Economic Development Authority estimated the total damage and loss from typhoon Yolanda at P 571.1 billion, as indicated in RAY.

    The Bless Yolanda Org., a non-profit organization comprised of concerned Filipinos, have been flying in and out of Manila to Tacloban every four to five days to provide stress debriefing and trauma counseling as they work together with DSWD.

    In their assessment, they have seen “pockets of improvement” in affected areas, where “small businesses are slowly opening. ATMs, gas stations and food stalls are now operational.”

    The cash-for-work programs assembled by private and public agencies keep people busy, as well as day-care centers and makeshift classrooms for children have been organized in many barangays.

    According to Kaye Estoista-Koo of Bless Yolanda Org., besides basic needs, survivors need psychological aid to overcome their horrific experiences. “They need to validate their experience and affirm that such things happened to them. Through counseling, they are able to leave that memory in the past, and move on from their traumatized state so they can plan their future and rebuild their lives.

    “Most cases are manageable. Everyone is willing to know what to do,” she said encouragingly.

    With the local government, NGOs, and humanitarian aid groups working to rebuild typhoon-affected areas, short-term solutions and long-term plans have been set in motion.

    Filipino resilience
    Despite the devastating loss of many Filipinos in typhoon-stricken areas, they continue to smile and celebrate the year-end holidays. As they clean up their towns and rebuild their houses and lives, one thing is certain: No super typhoon can ever destroy the Filipinos’ amazing ability to rise above challenges.

    As they pick up the pieces of their lives, they do so with a smile—with humor—and most importantly with prayer and unwavering faith in God.

    Whether strangers or neighbors or family, Filipinos are always united in times of need—that which makes them strong as a people.

    “Basta’t sama-sama kami ng pamilya ko, magiging masaya ang Pasko at Bagong Taon. Mahirap man ang sitwasyon namin ngayon, makakabangon din kami basta magkakasama kami [As long as we are together as a family, our Christmas and New Year will be happy. Even if our situation is difficult we will be able to rise above this as long as we are together],” said Gacos, who is grateful for the chance to spend another yuletide season with his family.

    With the help and concern of their fellow Filipinos and the rest of the world, Yolanda’s survivors, with their inextinguishable spirit, are indeed determined to look forward to the New Year and their second chance at life. They are truly champions and The Sunday Times Magazine salutes them.

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