Wading through knee-deep floods, 12-year-old Joana Yambao pushes her infant sister in a black wash basin along the surface of the filthy water in a typhoon-hit village in Calumpit, Bulacan, where residents have little to celebrate this Christmas.
Under sunny skies, their mother sweeps mud from the floor of her grocery shop in San Jose, one of scores of villages and towns still submerged and struggling to recover after being battered this month by Typhoon Nona (international name: Melor).
The storm killed 45 people and left thousands without food, water or urgent medical care.
“We’re just taking in the sights. I doubt Santa Claus will come tonight. The water’s too high,” Yambao said.
Instead of gathering by the Christmas tree to open gifts and eat a traditional meal of ham, cheese and sweets, hundreds of people in Barangay San Jose stood in flood waters with their own wash basins to wait for food aid at the Catholic church.
Residents of the village, home to about 5,000 people, have seen seasonal flooding before, but elderly villagers said it was the first time they had seen it during Christmas.
Other towns in the vast, rice-growing Central Luzon plains near Metro Manila also remain submerged and the government says 206,000 people are still either stuck in floods or dependent on government food rations, or both.
There were few signs of Christmas cheer in San Jose.
At Amelia Samblijay’s house, six plastic Santa statues hung from the rafters, suspended above murky brown flood waters littered by old shoes, plastic bottles and a dead rat.
But the white-bearded, red-robed figures brought little charm to the dark, tin-roofed house with bare walls, which has been without power for 10 days after authorities cut electricity to avoid electrocution accidents.
Samblijay, a 63-year-old mother of three grown children who was born in San Jose, said her family would not visit her for what would have been a traditional holiday reunion.
They could have traveled the 42 kilometers from Manila by boat, but it was deemed unsafe for her young grandchildren.
“It will be a sad Christmas without my seven grandchildren,” said Samblijay, who has had to cook on the rooftop to feed her bedridden husband, a former carpenter who recently suffered a stroke.
“They would not like it here anyway without electricity,” she added, speaking near her husband, whose oxygen tank sat submerged in water in the flooded basement.
Nearby, two dogs stood on the roof of a neighbor’s house to escape the water, as small wooden and fiberglass boats—now the main mode of transport in San Jose—floated along, chauffeured by fishermen who now charge a fee to ferry people around.
Sleeping at church
On the swollen Pampanga river near the town, Allan Gonzales escorted a boat with a white coffin bearing the remains of his 99-year-old grandfather who died in hospital days earlier.
“It’s difficult. It was night time when he had a heart attack and we also had to use a boat to take him to hospital,” the 34-year-old fisherman said from his own fiberglass boat.
Despite the difficulties, Gonzales said, the village was lucky that no one died as a result of the typhoon, voicing hope that the waters would soon recede to allow him and his family of seven to enjoy a traditional Christmas meal, normally eaten at midnight.
“Anything is possible with God,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, some 80,000 people were stuck at evacuation centers after fleeing the advancing floods, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
In San Jose, residents flocked to traditional pre-dawn church Masses in the days leading up to Christmas, with some seeking refuge in their parishes as waters refused to subside at home.
“My house is half-submerged until now. I realized it’s easier to sleep here,” said Solita Nebre, 53, who has slept on a cardboard box at San Jose church for three nights to wait out the deluge.
“God is merciful. He did not punish us,” she said. “He merely sent down the floods to test our faith.”