Typhoon Haiyan – Four months on

Director Allison Todd’s report as she visits the rebuilding work on Bantayan Island

It’s almost four months to the day since typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it was called here, struck the Central Philippines causing utter devastation, loss of life and brought whole areas to a complete standstill. I was privileged to be among those who were quickly on the scene to help in some small way. Returning 3 months later was an exciting and daunting prospect. I knew of course that at Mercy in Action, we had maintained a presence in Bantayan where we had first visited and are now building homes, repairing houses and providing practical help. The opportunity to visit these newly constructed dwellings and to see others being built was a good enough reason to make the eight hour round trip.

As we sailed across the the sea I was reminded of my previous trip with a large medical team; of witnessing the bewilderment of families trying to come to terms with the loss of homes, crops, livelihoods and community. Fallen trees entangled in the remnants of homes and vehicles, whilst others were perched precariously on yet more trees waiting for the next gust to finally fell them. Everywhere I looked were piles of sticks and bricks that someone had once called home. How, I wondered had these people fared since I first met them?

The first thing I noticed was the quietness. Where had all the people gone? Emily asked if they’d moved away. “No,” came the response, “just trying to get back to normal, the kids are in school again.” Ah, that explained the silence!

I don’t quite know what I had expected in revisiting. Some areas had been cleaned up, while others were still covered with fallen trees and broken homes. The ubiquitous blue tarpaulins had largely been replaced by dozens upon dozens of tents. There were signs of NGO involvement everywhere, with different logos jostling for positions on tents, housing and T shirts. One thing I realised was that back in late November I had seriously underestimated the number of homes destroyed or damaged beyond repair. It wasn’t a hundred or two, it was several hundred. And yet, somehow in this one inconspicuous town on this small island away from the glare of the television cameras, help has come together to rebuild an entire community. Dozens of new homes have sprung up – yellow ones from Korea, small ones from another group, and tents from the UN. Faith groups from around the world have arrived to help. Nuns from Cebu have a local boat builder who is replacing lost boats for every fisherman in the town and his wife is making the nets. This is truly a global relief effort that speaks volumes to the people here who are overwhelmed with gratitude to every single person who has made it possible.

Visiting Mercy in Action houses was the reason we’d come and speaking to the families who proudly showed off their new and sturdy homes was exciting, humbling and emotional. Each of them were keen to introduce us to neighbours and friends still in need and to ask us to keep helping. One girl, Miriam was at school in Cebu when the typhoon struck and she made her way back to her parents to help them as quickly as she could. Sadly this means that she can’t finish her school year and has also lost her scholarship. Thankfully Miriam is not easily deterred and has decided to go to the local school in June and complete her education a year later. We were eager to visit another family who we had built a home for and who had suffered a tragic loss only three weeks ago. Alice had accepted a two week job from the government on a clean up scheme. She was to be paid 250 pesos (£3.50) a day for working on the clean up for two weeks. Although it meant leaving her two year old with a neighbour, Alice was keen to accept it as her son’s third birthday was coming up and she wanted to buy him a present and have a celebration. One day, little Mark ran out of the neighbour’s house and was hit by a passing bike. A local doctor checked him and gave him the all clear. A few days later Mark was complaining of a head ache which continued to get worse and worse. The doctor insisted it was a virus until Alice and her husband took Mark to a local hospital where sadly they were told he was dying. They rushed to the port and caught a ferry to mainland Cebu hoping for a better hospital but Mark died on the journey. Alice told me her earning were used for his funeral instead. She wakes every morning hoping it was a dream and looks for him… The casualties of this typhoon continue to this very day.

Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day, and nor will Bantayan be put back together overnight. But the combined efforts of so many and the determination of the local people will surely see this community not just repaired but restored and prospering to the level they deserve.

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