30 days on Tacloban remembers

Yesterday was a day of remembrance in Tacloban; 30 days after Typhoon Haiyan a mother and her daughter light candles for those who did not survive the super typhoon.
By Denis McClean

TACLOBAN, 9 December 2013 – Sunday marked thirty days since Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda locally) tried to rip the heart out of the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines with winds from hell that sucked the sea along with them to take the lives of thousands and leave millions homeless.

The strength of the Philippine people in the wake of one of the worst typhoons ever to make landfall, is something special to behold. Yesterday they even managed to turn on some Christmas lights in the centre of Tacloban, the commercial heart of the disaster zone, despite the continuing curfew and absence of street lighting.

The predominantly Catholic city remembered its dead on the Second Sunday of Advent as hundreds packed into the partly roofless Church of Santa Ninõ to give thanks for the gift of life and to receive the only kind of psychological support available here for those who have been traumatized by the loss of family and friends: the age old solace of religion.

The testimony of survivors was heard at the end of the service. One young girl Evedine Vadis wept as she struggled on the altar to tell how she lost her parents and four siblings in those awful hours after dawn on November 8 when nature’s fury shattered this tropical paradise.

She spoke in the local dialect Waray-Waray but even non-speakers were moved by her obvious distress. Many in the congregation sobbed quietly as they listened to her tale while swifts flitted around the nave of the church lit only by candles and the lights of camera crews covering the event.

Like many others who lived on the Naga Naga headland, her family did not heed the official appeals to evacuate because they did not believe the water would reach the place where they lived. She found herself swimming for her life in the storm waters and managed to rescue a young child who she placed on some floating debris and was in turn rescued herself by a stranger in the water alongside her.

A woman with a broken arm told how she recited the Catholic prayers of the rosary endlessly as the waters mounted the stairs in her home. She ignored her mother’s appeal to let her be and dragged her to safety.

Street lights have become as big a cause for celebration as any fancy Christmas lanterns for the captain of Barangay 70, Shirley Boca, a 33-year-old mother of two who was in the process of taking over the role from her neighbour, Gil Velasco, when the typhoon hit.

Barangays are small local government units and her predecessor, Mr. Velasco, now lies buried along with his wife in the rubble of their home somewhere underneath a large green ocean-going cargo ship which crushed it and several other homes as it was lobbed back and forth by an angry sea.

A total of six such vessels now incongruously straddle the coastline of Barangays 68 and 70, making the road impassable at one end, and providing a challenge to those enterprising families now rebuilding their homes on the sea-side of the road.

Barangay 70 was offered two pesos for every sack of cement which was unloaded from the bowels of another cargo ship, David, which lies at right-angles to the one which destroyed Mr. Velasco’s home.

Mrs. Boca proudly invested the money in six compact fluorescent light bulbs, some wire and timber. The light bulbs would barely illuminate a large room but are a welcome sign to the local residents that somebody is aware of the need to restore public utilities.

“It was like Christmas when we put on the generator last night and saw the six lights come on. We will put up more if we get the money. It makes people feel more secure,” she said.

Earlier, she wept unashamedly as she recalled how she decided not to evacuate even though she had gone from house to house with other Barangay officials to urge all her neighbours to leave. Many of those who lived in concrete houses on a slight elevation at the foot of a large hill on the landside of the sea road opted to stay.

When the tidal surge was up to her waist, she finally decided to quit the house where many of her neighbours had also come for shelter. They set out with hugs, tears and prayers to climb the mountain behind them in a desperate bid to escape the incoming tidal surge spurred on by powerful winds.

“It was really hard because we had three babies to carry and three elderly people,” she said but what really upsets her now is the memory of how her close neighbours Ricardo and Almirol Soleyao decided inexplicably not to attempt the climb out of harm’s way. They even called back some of their eight children who were escaping with everyone else.

“I think they all wanted to be together and to die together,” she said in a voice full of anguish. We walked down to the waterfront where four poles have been inserted in the ground to mark where the tiny home of the Soleyao family once stood.

There are 202 people dead or missing from a population of 1,200 in Barangay 70 compared to a death toll of 27 in the neighbouring Barangay 68 out of a population of 2,847.

The captain of Barangay 68, Maria Rosario Bactol (55), has been doing the job for seven years. She puts the relatively lower death toll in her neighbourhood down to the fact that everyone evacuated to the Anibong Elementary School after advice from herself and other officials.

“In this Barangay we don’t have so many concrete houses and people knew that a super typhoon was coming and their houses would collapse or be destroyed. Nobody knew what a tidal surge was. We had never seen that here before. People in concrete houses just expected some flooding but they were wrong.”

The Vice-Principal of Anibong Elementary School, Jovita Mantua, agrees. She and her family left their home 20 metres away with little or nothing. They put everything that could be damaged by floodwaters on shelves out of the way, imagining they would be back home in a few hours clearing up the usual flood damage.

“We were left with nothing but our lives. The whole building was destroyed. We never expected that. We did not have clear information,” she said.

There can be little doubt that Typhoon Haiyan will bring significant change to disaster management in the Philippines and a review of how warnings are communicated.
VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018 VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018.
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