Yolanda aftermath in Tanauan, Leyte
At the grassroots, a deep sense of neglect by government persists
TORONTO–Four months after superstorm typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit hard Tanauan, Leyte, the remaining scenes of devastation and the heartbreaking living conditions of the survivors attest to the still long road to recovery and normalcy for this once vibrant town of 50,000 people.
The survivors themselves are quick to smile, joke and be upbeat when you speak to them. They go about their daily chores of cleaning up whatever living spaces they have for themselves and their families, start up small entrepreneurial activities they can muster with meager resources, and care for their children’s school needs the best way they can.
But when they do speak about their uncertain future, after the days, weeks and months they’ve experienced in terms of government neglect in providing timely relief and rehabilitation assistance, which when it came at all was late and in insufficient quantities that left them still wanting for food, the hurt and sense of unfairness were always apparent in their constant questions and stories. But now they are more interested in positively rebuilding their lives, but what they have to say are for them important lessons to learn from – so that things do not happen the same way when natural disasters of such huge magnitude destroy their lives again. Hence, speaking out is still important for them.
You get the sense they’re not the complainers as the government officials and their apologists paint them to be. They are in general a picture of dignified patience and fortitude, despite the horrific tragedy that befell them, with the loss of family and kin, their homes, means of livelihood, and possessions. Everywhere we saw several townsfolk busy repairing their roofs; entrepreneurs tending their bakery, sari-sari stores, and market stalls; kids pitching what little money they have to keep their small barbecue stand going, right in the plaza where, on one side, the dead are buried, and on another corner, where basketball is played, children banter around Rizal’s statue, and a group of barangay volunteers huddle under an open tent for an afternoon chat, sharing pleasantries in between juggling family chores and errands.
At the back of a house, a whole pig was being grilled the traditional way that made Tanauan lechon known to be the tastiest in the country (“delicious even without sauce,” one elderly woman says) to commemorate the birthday of a long departed family patriarch.
The Philippine Reporter briefly visited Tanauan, which is about 20 kilometres from Tacloban, took photos, and interviewed survivors in Waray, Tagalog and English, according to their preferred language. It was amazing to hear the interviewees raise persistently common questions, as if us, the interviewers, had the answers, but we didn’t.
Among the constant questions raised by these survivors were: Why were we not told what a storm surge was? If government had just told us, it was like a tsunami, maybe all the family I lost may have survived, says one woman.
Emma Ripalda of Barangay Solano, Tanauan, for instance, a woman we saw by the roadside graveyard of nine of her family members who drowned, said she was helpless when Haiyan swept away their hut, along with her parents, husband, four children, and two grandchildren. She was saved by clinging to a coconut tree.
The same question was echoed by many more families we had spoken to. They said years back they had actually evacuated their houses when told a tsunami might strike with the forthcoming storm. However, with Yolanda, people indeed braced for the storm, thinking it involved mainly strong winds. Storm surge was something they did not understand. No one told them it meant stronger than tsunami waves rising up fast with the 300 km/hr winds that made some people feel they were inside a washing machine.
A distant relative of this writer whose house was on the main street near the poblacion centre, was drowned along with her husband and 20-year old son, as they were trapped in swirling waters that reached their ceiling fast, as the door and windows remained stuck. Other families avoided the same fate when window grills and doors were suddenly blown away by circling gusts of strong winds.
Hence to this day, people maintain there could have been a better way of making everyone understand the danger of a typhoon like Haiyan. They venture to suggest that a storm surge be explained in plain terms and even translated into the native dialect, by the government agency mandated to do this, which all levels of government should relay to the people, accompanied with firm courses of action to take, such as mass evacuation to appropriate places and structures.
Right now, four months later, when rehabilitation is the mantra of government, a foremost question is: Where are the corrugated sheets for roofing that the government has been promising them for three months now? The continuing rains have created a continuing shelter crisis to many who have tried to make do with temporary repairs of whatever has been left of their houses.
“Why is it taking so long for our roofing materials to come? Are those barangays where the town mayor had won being given priority over the barangays where the opposition won?” asked one barangay volunteer who would rather not give her name.
In a phone interview with Ina L. Gimenez, chairman of Barangay San Miguel and overall president of the Liga ng Mga Barangay, composed of the 54 barangay units of Tanauan, she confirmed that it was the perception of many people in the town that politics is involved in the priority distribution of roofing materials. “I hope this is not the case, but that is the perception of many.” She said since January 1, it was already announced that corrugated iron sheets would be given to all barangay households needing them – 20 pieces maximum and 10 pieces minimum per house, depending on the degree of destruction and the size the house. “Up to now, only 27 barangays have received their roofing materials, and the rest are still waiting.”
The Philippine Reporter noticed some areas where roofs were already installed but majority of the dwellings only had blue tarps on top. The once beautiful ancestral home of this writer, where we stayed for the night, had its badly battered concrete walls still holding up, but the second floor had its two wooden walls ripped off, and its roof blown away, such that some occupants on that floor had to sleep under a UN provided tent. The dirty kitchen and part of the dining room on the first floor – where the water leakage was minimal during rainy days – had a concrete roof, so it served as sleeping quarters during night time. Even in its roofless, partly wall-less state, the house was being shared by more that 20 people, including this writer’s 96-year old family matriarch and three small children who had miraculously survived the typhoon. With no electricity, we made do with flashlights, and since there were a lot of mosquitoes, everyone slept under nets.
The day we were in Tanauan, a non-profit Japanese organization donated and personally delivered one generator for each of the barangays. “It is groups like them who directly come to the barangays and equally treat us, without any politicking, and help the people without any publicity, and we are most thankful to them,” says one barangay captain. Assistance from groups like them such as the World Food program, the American, Japanese, German, and UN humanitarian missions, as well as OXFAM, Global Medic and others, are much appreciated, aside from the direct family assistance which proved crucial during the earliest days when people had no water and food.
In fact family networks were crucial life-savers. On those days immediately after the typhoon when the national government kept saying relief delivery was impossible as the roads were dangerously dangerously full of debris and “impassable,” family members managed to reach their loved ones no matter the cost. From funds hastily raised by relatives in Manila and abroad, they brought water, food and medicine and delivered them by land route to Tanauan which took them twice longer to navigate, then go back again to get more supplies for the needs of the huge family.
The funds raised helped also to transport relatives, especially children, the aged and infirm, to Manila, a practice done by many Tanauan families.
Barangay folk in Tanauan had their own creative way of expressing thanks to those who helped them most. The fallen massive acacia tree made into a Thank You Christmas Tree decorated with wooden placards with the names of the various donors, attest to this gratitude from the folks who made it. Malou Musca Salvacion, a mom of two who started the tree, speaks proudly of how barangay folks happily helped her complete the tree that has now been dubbed “The Best Christmas Tree in the World,” by a Singaporean magazine, and won a local award. Against the bright afternoon sun, it stands witness to the graciousness, creativity, fortitude, and positive energy, and team work bayanihan-style of the barangay folks looking forward and already starting to rebuild their lives.
A common sentiment of many townsfolk was that they would not have survived if not for the help of foreign medical missions, donations from private organizations and NGOs directly distributed to them, and direct assistance from relatives especially during the first crucial days when there was no food, water or medicine.
This was confirmed by Buntay Barangay Captain Reynaldo de Veyra Musca, the first public official reached and interviewed by national television on the fourth day after the storm. While on the air, Musca appealed for food, water and medicine, as the barangay folk also gathered around ABS-CBN reporter Ted Failon. Survivors emotionally spoke about losing several family members, and indicated that they had no food or safe water for already four days.
After the first media exposure of the hapless state of Tanauan, which did not have the same media attention as Tacloban and Palo immediately after the storm, and where as many as 1,250 dead bodies had already been accounted for – some of them rotting on the plaza grounds which could not be buried without a back hoe – help started to trickle in starting on the fifth day – with packs of rice from the DSWD, and some medicine. Since limited food packs were distributed per household, the families in the barangays were not fed enough. Musca suggested that it could help if food packs were distributed per family head, instead of individual households, due to the reality of several families sharing a single shelter, especially during those precarious times. The suggestion was well taken, as one food pack per family head was distributed, although not on the regular basis that they had expected.
Hence, people in the town still insist they would not have survived without direct family assistance, private donors, foreign organizations and NGOs. They noted the sacks of rice donations from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which directly reached the barangays. They claim that groups such as Samaritan First, OXFAM and other foreign groups, the spontaneously-created volunteer group of residents called Burublig Tanauan, the Catholic Relief Services and other non-government entities and volunteers,were much more efficient distributor s of relief goods that they were the relief providers that helped them most. Also mentioned was Tzu Chi Foundation Philippines, a chapter of a Taiwan-based organization which distributed cash to families – from P8,000 to P15,000 per family depending on the size of the family.
They were also thankful that Korean soldiers installed new roofs to the schoolhouses very quickly, a stark contrast to the Philippine government’s slow response to the people’s roofing needs.
One question which Tanauan residents continued to ask was: Why did basic food relief from DSWD, the principal government agency responsible for this function, not come until after Day 5, when people were already starving and getting sick from eating rancid rice, and children already dehydrating?
Pel Tecson, Tanauan Mayor explained that from Day One after the typhoon, his priority was medical assistance for the injured, many of whom immediately sought refuge at the municipal hall where he and other volunteers were holed up, despite the great damage to the building. Hence on the morning of Day 3, he and Gene Pumanes went to Tacloban in a convoy, straight to the airport. There he said he talked to the airport commander whom he told that he had to feed 10,000 families in Tanauan.
However, when the first C-130 aircraft arrived, a medical team, the Mammoth Medical Team from the US, happened to be on the plane, and was planning to go to Tanauan, upon the prodding of a Filipino nurse who was on the same plane on her way home to Tanauan to check on her family. The mayor said he was asked by the head of the medical team, upon learning he was the Tanauan mayor, if he could provide security for the medical mission, and second, if the town had a landing pad for a chopper that was going to transport the team and their equipment to the place.
Tecson said that in his eagerness to bring the team to Tanauan, he quickly replied yes to both questions, even as he knew very well he had only 3 policemen left at the municipal hall, for some perished during the storm, while others were attending to their families; as for landing pad, Tecson said he was thinking that perhaps the town plaza would serve the purpose, as his only interest was for the medical team not to change its mind about setting its mission headquarters in Tanauan.
Hence, on the first chopper from the Tacloban airport to Tanauan, the mayor said he had opted to bring the medical team first, and considered the DSWD relief goods a second priority to transport. The 16-member team took two trips to transport, with just the one helicopter travelling back and forth between Tacloban and Tanauan. The mayor said the chopper had to land at Bantay Dagat further down the town’s shore, instead of the plaza which was littered with debris. It was only on the third trip of the chopper that food was finally transported, which he said was distributed right away to the hungry people in the area that quickly ran up to the landing site. These were nearby residents, who said were disappointed the first and second time the chopper landed, and the food supply was also too limited to distribute to other barangays. So, Tecson, explained, while food was delivered to one area, the other barangays never saw any of the DSWD food supply that arrived that day from Tacloban.
Meanwhile, the Mammoth Medical Team set up its makeship hospital in the ruins of the Tanauan Municipal Hall, where life-saving surgeries were performed and babies delivered, some by caesarian operation. A heroic feat considering the dire conditions of the leaking tarp covered roof of the “operating room.” which used office furniture as operating tables.
Tecson said that the most important breakthrough event for him was the First Command Center Conference on Day 5 held at the Leyte Sports Complex, when DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, DWSD Secretary Dinky Soliman and other Cabinet members of the President met to discuss relief strategies, with Tecson among the observers. He said that was where he got connected to the various ministers resposible for relief and rehabilitation.
Tecson maintains that as mayor, he looks at all the relief needs on a macro basis, citing its priority components as medical attention first, then food relief, security, cadaver management, and temporary shelter. He cited at the time of the interview (March 1) that his office had accounted for 1,380 bodies to date, while townspeople interviewed insist that that number had already been reached on the fourth day after the storm, and that bodies were still being found everyday.
Apparently the body count issue was something that residents were concerned about, as they insist that if the count were to be truthful, and not being “doctored” to a minimum below the 10,000 figure, the numbers would be higher.
Meanwhile, there was word from Tacloban that a United Nations agency was conducting its own investigation into the body count matter. As late as March 12, a UN official had expressed concern to media that bodies were still being found on a daily basis.
Tecson said the rehabilitation stage had already started consisting of permanent shelter, livelihood, and infrastructure.
Tecson added that Tanauan had already a rehabilitation plan approved by Rehabilitation “czar” Panfilo Lacson, “who will use Tanauan as a template for municipal rehabilitation.” The mayor said Tanauan is one of the four pilot areas of the 171 municipalites, the others being Tacloban, Guimaras and Biliran.
The plan includes the rehabilitation of the public market, the co-locations of government services, the rebuilding of the local health center into an emergency hospital, the rebuilding of the town’s slaughterhouse, and the reconstruction of the town plaza, the latter to be funded by Mang Inasal founder Edgar Sia, a private business donor, in the total amount of P30 million. Tecson also mentioned the permanent relocation of families from the coastal areas to Barangay Pago where 1,200 permanent houses are starting to be built by the National Housing Authority and Gawad Kalinga. These homes, he said will each have private toilet facilities, unlike the temporary shelters which have shared washrooms. He said these homes will be given to the families for free, non-transferrable and that the first families would already be moved by the third week of March 2014.
Mayor Tecson’s enthusiasm, however, appears not to be shared by some townsfolk interviewed by this paper on the streets of Tanauan. They say he was nowhere to be found when they needed him most: when people were without food and water; when they needed help in hauling off tons of debris they had helped each clear from the streets; and when dead bodies fast piling up in the plaza had to be buried. Many relied on their Barangay captains who survived the storm for assistance during those crucial early days.
They also wanted a more equitable distribution of resources, like roofing materials, and want to be consulted on the town’s plan and projects, as they feel they have a stake in their own town that is being rebuilt.
Although they want to be positive in thinking that delays in goods delivery are already a fact of life for survivors, they still wonder whatever happened to all the resources that were supposed to be provided them as assistance, in terms of food, shelter and livelihood. They just don’t sit around waiting, though. They have gotten used to smart survival tactics and sharing what little they may have with others in the barangay.
“All we have now is rice, sardines and noodles. It’s the same package whenever government relief is available, but we do wonder where are the goods from abroad?” says Isabel Nogueras, who takes care of a 3-year old surviving grandchild. “However whatever we have, we are still thankful and we share with neighbors. In the early days when relief was not in sight, I managed to hike to relatives in a neighboring town where the water did not do as much damage as here in the poblacion, and I managed to get rice and some vegetables – sayote – which I shared with neighbors,” Nogueras said. She was thankful to non-government assistance such as those coming from the Catholic Relief Services which were more constant and accessible. Nogueras remains an active volunteer in her barangay along with other women.
Andrea Nirza also spoke of readiness to take on whatever shelter and livelihood projects they can develop with assistance to keep their lives moving forward “ We already have acquired hammers, nails and other materials we could gather to repair our homes, “pero waray pa gud sim (but no corrugated iron sheets yet), hence we make do with the trapal for now.”
There’s a joke going around good-humoured barangay folk waiting for three months now for the roofing materials: “When our corrugated sheets come, they would be new, shiny and clean. Better then than the “sims” received earlier, which would already be rusty by then.” One woman says that’s how they take in stride the unequal distribution of resources, which is colored by politics. Still they are thankful that some of town mates already have roofs over their heads, and that they too will have theirs someday.
Nirza, when asked if she knew about the mass action by the 12,000-strong Yolanda survivors called People Surge, she said she heard about it later and that people who participated were saying “If money given to the government by various international sources were equitably distributed to the survivors, by their estimation, one family would easily get one million pesos each.”
Some cannot understand what they call the waste of resources, such as the temporary structures built for the survivors. “It’s very hot and stuffy and cramped inside, we don’t know how anyone could survive living there. That’s why they remain empty,” another woman said.
Meanwhile, with a report from the Manila Standard that DSWD had buried loads of rotting relief goods in an area in San Jose, the issue of missing and insufficient relief assistance could only add to the dissatisfaction and cynicism of people regarding government relief.
As this report is written, the saga of how relief and rehabilitation of disaster areas, and the issues around them, continue to be the concern of many. But to survivors, the desire to live their lives as well as they can for themselves and their children is foremost as they go on, one day at a time.
Meanwhile in Manila, where the harsh living conditions of the typhoon survivors are far from being felt by the middle class, discussions about the disaster continue especially in media circles and business sectors. And almost the same questions are raised in a more macro way: Where are the billions of aid that poured into the country from international donors? Are they being kept in political coffers somewhere for use in the 2016 elections? In the Senate, investigation into the tens of billions of pesos lost to pork barrel scandal is aired daily on television. While it seems the new normal that massive corruption happens at top government levels, would disaster corruption be just a logical part of this systemic culture where the absence of accountability is the norm?