The people on the plane—mostly men—were straining their necks to look out the windows as we descended toward the Tacloban airport. The site was grim: nothing but endless brown land, with nary a structure, and few trees.
Landing is no different. While the tarmac is clear, to one side is a sea wall now in shambles, in front of which stands an airport facility standing only on its posts. There is no welcome to be had here, and the people in charge are tired. Stepping outside the airport grounds means only dust and heat, and an endless view of leafless trees.
The roads of San Jose where the airport stands toward Tacloban is littered with debris. These have been swept to the side of the road, and frame the devastated and unlivable homes, the fallen structures, the vehicles in skewed positions and unexpected places. Six dead bodies are newly found. They are but skeletal remains. That is also what the next day’s dead will look like.
The men of Brgy. Burayan speak of how the dead continue to be washed towards the mangroves from the sea. They point to different areas filled with mangroves: there are two there in Coca-Cola t-shirts, three there with one woman, another two over here. They had just unearthed the body of a child when we walked into their ground zero.
These mangroves surround the community that used to sit on sandy land facing the sea; the mangroves do not save them from what they describe to have been a huge wave—that one that was called a storm surge by the warnings they received. Kuya Joseph says they should have been warned that it would be a delubyo. All of them would’ve evacuated. He is certain that 6,000 died in his barangay alone. That’s more than the current number of dead that the national government has deemed acceptable. These are not the numbers that will be acceptable.
Many of the able-bodied survivors are earning P500 a day through cash-for-work, as set up by a foreign non-government organization in Tacloban. It is the people who have lost everything, the ones who are still mourning their dead, they are the ones who are also cleaning up the city, moving debris to the sides of the streets, recovering what they might in the process. Certainly the story can be about hope: money is being earned, work is being paid for, that has to mean something.
Yet: goods are at double their original prices, and I’m not even talking about the makeshift market on the streets of downtown Tacloban. I mean the whole chicken being sold near Palo, at P210 each. I mean eggs at P12 each. I see a line of people at one large hardware store. These are not the cash-for-work takers. DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman says: cash-for-work allows people to pay for the things they would like to buy. The answer is no.
Where is the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) at a time like this? Instead of controlling prices in places like Tacloban and Palo, it brings the Diskwento Caravan into these towns. Instead of doing its job of monitoring and controlling prices, it decides it shall earn from this people and sell them cheaper goods. Goods that should be given for free by government in fact. Goods that people should be showered with at this time of rebuilding.
But the DTI is not the only government office that is absent from the daily life of these towns ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda. Many barangay in the towns of Tanauan to Palo, San Jose to Tacloban might be getting relief goods; but too many are underserved by the DSWD. At the DSWD headquarters in Tacloban, a staff member tells me that their work has gotten easier since they started distributing goods to municipalities. I tell her we had just fed kids and senior citizens in Brgy. Guinda—punan in Palo, and they have yet to receive goods. There’s also the politics, I tell her. And she says: Hindi na kase namin problema ‘yon.
And yet one wonders whose problem it will then be, if not the social workers’, that the people are not getting the relief goods that they deserve?
Some Taclobanons I talk to seem forgiving of this misstep: there are just so many in need, it is impossible to serve everyone, and serve them well. But serving them well requires even more from the DSWD, and with that I mean not just giving people rice, sardines, instant noodles every two or three days. I mean actually having a sense of what the people might deserve at any given point after this storm. Without the urgency of a week or two after the typhoon, is it not time to give people better food? Is it not time to reconfigure what those relief packs might contain other than sardines? Is it not time to think of the possibility of soup kitchens across the towns of Leyte, if only to make sure that children are getting the nutrients they need, if only to make sure that the people who have survived are eating better than just de lata?
It is easy to believe the idea that Tacloban is going back to normal, and that it is becoming business as usual, if what one is seeing are images of the town proper. There are a couple of restaurants open after all, there is an old grocery open for business, there is the wet market, there are the people working every day through cash-for-work.
Yet anyone who cares enough to talk to people in Tacloban, and Palo, and Tanauan, and San Jose, would realize that there is no normalcy here. Just like these ravaged towns, people are frozen in time and place. They are moving but not covering much ground, from one day to the next.
Government insists that this state of affairs is normal. Yet you’d have to be blind to think piles of debris and a sign that reads “SOCO: May patay dito!” Normal. You’d need to kill your sense of smell so as to escape the stench of death in many places where too many have died and have yet to be recovered. You’d need to be deaf not to hear the need and hunger in people’s voices.
We ask them at Brgy. Burayan if there’s anyone we can report the dead bodies in the mangroves to. They say no.
The only ones who are back to regular business, it seems, is government.