Rainwater hammers down on Santo Niño church floor in Tacloban during Christmas Eve Mass (Simon Roughneen)


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On Christmas Day, woman washes using broken waterpipe running along Tacloban's destroyed waterfront (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
On Christmas Day, woman washes using broken waterpipe running along Tacloban’s destroyed waterfront (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

SAN ISIDRO, LEYTE PROVINCE, PHILIPPINES – Early morning, about 5 am on November 8 last, Vilma Carson and her family braced under the kitchen table, praying rosaries as the wind outside whipped up to 200 miles an hour. It was to be a six hour ordeal that ripped the roof off their country home, which sits about a ten minute drive from the town of Palo in Leyte province.

Despite the fearsome noise from the wind outside – and inside, once the roof was torn off – the schoolteacher listened for the beep of her phone, alerting her when husband George texted from Dubai, where he is one of the ten million plus Filipino emigrants working overseas.

“He said to pray, so we hid under the table, but we were so frightened,” the mother recalls, now smiling, recalling the tribulation she shared with her two teenage daughters and 11 year old son.

Two kilometers from the Leyte coast, the house in San Isidro was spared the massive waves, or “storm surge” that devastated the coastal areas of Palo, a town of about 60,000, and swamped the nearby city of Tacloban, where the bulk of the 6155 listed killed by Typhoon Yolanda (at time of writing) perished.

A half mile away, the school where Vilma Carson teaches had its books and equipment damaged or destroyed or blown away, and, like the Carson home, had the roof torn off.  Some of the children returned to school in early December, but formal classes will only resume sometime in January, facilitated by tents donated by UNICEF – “temporary learning spaces,” to use the humanitarian jargon.

With over 3000 schools damaged across the Visayas, or central Philippines, by Yolanda, school building is one of the arduous reconstruction tasks facing the Philippine Government.

Across the region, timber government-built shelters are being erected for people left homeless by the storm, temporary accommodation for some of the 101,000 currently in other evacuation locations – such as schools – or for some of the estimated 900,000 thought to be staying elsewhere, such as with with extended family or friends or neighbors.

Battered Tacloban waterfront (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Battered Tacloban waterfront (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Altogether 4.4 million people of the total population of 16 million in the 14 most affected provinces were displaced, with a total of 1,012,790 houses damaged. Of the latter number, 493,912 were partly damaged and 518,878 were totally damaged, according to a Philippine Government rebuilding blueprint published on December 16.

Back in Tacloban, Rico Rugal showed  this correspondent around the remnants of his home, 20 meters from the waterfront.

“We have got nothing, no shelter,” he said, pointing to the eight families – all neighbors – now crammed into the house, their own homes now lying like bomb-battered timber ruins outside,, such was the force of the wind and water that battered Tacloban on November 8.

The battered, wartime-like destruction in this part of Tacloban is among the starkest examples of destruction wreaked upon the central Philippines by Yolanda, with the UN seeking $791m for a year-long recovery plan and the Philippine government has separately launching a four-year $8.17bn reconstruction plan.

“We have no schedule for temporary schedule, nothing yet,” Mr Rugal said, “I think they are planning.”

He said regardless of whether he is offered a shelter or not, he will stay put and try to cobble together some repairs for his house. “This is my homeplace, my hometown.”

Mr Rugal’s home is within sight of the damaged bell-tower at Santo Niño church, a block from the devastated town shoreline.

Rainwater hammers down on Santo Niño church floor in Tacloban during Christmas Eve Mass (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

A packed crowd crammed into a rain-sodden Santo Niño church on Christmas morning – the roof was torn off by Yolanda and the plastic sheeting patch-up job cannot hold back the tap-like runs of rainwater from spattering onto pews and worshippers below.

And while churchgoers listened to a sermon by the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines, Vicky Abelia served espressos and toasted sandwiches at the José Karlos coffeeshop across the street.

She said that cozy wood-veneered shop is the longest-established such enterprise in Tacloban, and re-opened a week before Christmas. Located close to the shoreline, the shop was deluged with 6 feet of water the morning Typhoon Yolanda hit, damaging almost all of the shops furniture and equipment.

‘Everything was destroyed, under water,” Ms Abelia said. Now the onus is to get business up to speed after re-opening. “From the food to the drinks, we make everything here, pastries and cakes,” she said.

But prices have gone up since the storm, making recovery more challenging for those businesses that have reopened. “Goods like butter we use for baking cakes cannot be got, or are twice the price as before,” she said, pointing to a much-remarked downside of the post-disaster recovery period.

About 90 percent of the total damage and losses incurred from the storm has fallen on the private sector, with the remaining 10 percent on the public sector, according to Philippine Government data, with the combined share of the service sector to GDP in the storm-affected areas around 11.7 percent in 2012.

On the upside, several local garment-makers have gone into the tshirt business: churning out widely-worn “Tindog Tacloban” (Rise Tacloban) tshirts, now so popular around town after the disaster, including among the José Karlos’s staff, who are all kitted-out in the white cotton, blue-letter tshirts.

And while the recovery to rebuilding effort will be arduous – taking up to four years according to the Philippine Government – there are signs that now, finally, the town is starting to rise – in keeping with the meaning of ‘tindog” on the tshirts

“The town is cleaned-up, better than we expected it to be by now,” Vicky Abelia said, discussing the recovery.

That said, memories of the day the storm hit are still raw.

“People were walking around, like zombies, shocked, unable to take in what had happened to them,” she said. “There were bodies around, it was horrible.”

For 31 year old Julio Galetal III, there’s not much left. “My house is all gone,” he said, shaking his head. “My mother lived next door, we joke that she did better out of the storm than I did: her toilet was left standing after everything else was destroyed.”

The destruction wreaked by the wind and particularly the storm surge made it a miserable Christmas for the families living in the area, particularly those who lost loved ones. “One of my uncles was killed,” said Julio Galetal III.

As well as death, there is destruction. All along the streets near the waterfront are piles of wood and metal – debris from wrecked houses sorted and stacked before being recycled to make temporary shelters for those left homeless by the Typhoon Yolanda.

Like hundreds of thousands of others affected by Yolanda, Mr Galetal III had to fend for himself and his family in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. “I had a few bucks, so went out of town and bought some things, like a generator,” he explained, the machine chugging a few meters away as he spoke.

The family is staying with a neighbor, who is not charging any rent, but Mr Galatal III shares the new generator with his hosts, who allow him run a new-fangled small business, charging a few pesos to locals to charge their phones – much-needed communications back-up in a town where electricity is still not fully returned.

“I’ll stay here for a while, and see what the government can do,” Galetal III said. “We hear they will help with some material for shelter but nothing yet.”

Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez gets plaudits for his work after Typhoon Yolanda from Santo Niño priest Fr Alex Opiniano (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez gets plaudits for his work after Typhoon Yolanda from Santo Niño priest Fr Alex Opiniano (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
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