December 24th, 2013
No end in sight
On December 16th I was in town and walking around with Jenn and Ruchelle doing some shopping for the kids and realized that it was Ruchelle’s birthday tomorrow. I told the girls that we were going to celebrate with a lunch and asked Ruchelle what she liked to eat. She said that we don’t have to celebrate and I told her that just because there was a typhoon doesn’t mean everything has to stop and insisted that we get some chicken, other Filipino favorites and a birthday cake. I then asked them to invite Bella and Gemma and we can have a celebration. Ruchelle’s brother cooked up a feast and we all got together for lunch. It is a tradition here that the person celebrating share the food with neighbors and it wasn’t long before a small line of children gathered in front of the house with plates and spoons in hand. People here are not shy about receiving free food and there was a lot to go around. Ruchelle was very touched by the gesture and it turned out to be a day for her to remember. If you were there to hear the girls singing and laughing, you would never know that each one of these girls lost their homes and all their personal possessions.
It has now been 19 consecutive days of living without electricity, which may not be that long for people here but is certainly something we in the Western countries are not used to. It means going to bed far earlier than usual but also waking up before 5:00 am as the roosters, dogs and pigs come to life. There are now some streetlights in downtown Tacloban but still no electricity in the homes and businesses across the entire province of Leyte. There are however, lots of advantages to not having electricity, namely no television and computers. I spend a lot of the evenings talking to the family instead of everyone being distracted with other things. The father of the house is John and one night I bought a few beers and we shared them while he told a few stories about the typhoon.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest mistakes made here is that the weather forecasters used the term “storm surge” when warning people about the potential danger of the approaching typhoon. The people were not familiar with the term so ended up seeking refuge in many places close to the sea. The concern was the wind so they sought out cement structures without considering the distance to the sea. One of the refuge centers was the Astrodome, the local convention center that is literally a dozen meters from the edge of the water. The storm surge was up to 7 meters or 23 feet and it came as a large series of waves. Many of the people who died were actually in the relief centers but trapped on the first floors when the water rushed in. Here is a picture of a building with a faint watermark halfway up the top section of green. The green building is about 100 meters from the edge of the sea.
John told me that his home is 1.2 kilometers from the sea and the water was about 12 feet high here. It was the same damage as a tsunami but thankfully didn’t have the loss of life that Indonesia and Thailand experienced on Christmas Day in 2004 where up to 250,000 people died. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the there was warning of the typhoon and that the significant wind and storm surged occurred between 7:00 and 11:00 am, during daylight. The tsunami in 2004 caught everyone completely off guard as it occurred on a calm sunny day.
John related stories including many that he participated in. The home here is 3 floors and the building is concrete so a lot of neighbors came here when the wind reached peaks of over 300 kilometers per hour and the water started rushing in. There is a neighbor across the pathway and 5 people were trapped in their single level home. They punched through the roof but the water kept rising. There is 10 feet between the homes and John pulled out a ladder and laid it down from his second floor to their roof and all of them climbed across and were saved. John had about 60 people in his home for almost a week, all of them eating and sleeping on the 2nd floor. People had to sleep sitting up, as there was no room to stretch out. It was 3 days before they were even able to get out on the streets to see what was happening in the rest of the town. They would climb on the roof to try and get a birds-eye view of Tacloban. The biggest risk in those 3 days was the lack of water so the people tapped into the city water line and diverted it to a hose to drink. They didn’t have much food as all the homes were flooded but they managed to get rice and eat some of the coconuts that were scattered around. They even slaughtered one of the pigs to eat and cooked it on an open fire and shared with the large group.
The family dog Blackie was let go of his leash as the water rose but was swept away. A few days later he was found wandering around and happy to be reunited with his family. I give him a long stomach rub everyday and congratulate him on being a survivor.
The family also has a few pigs they raise and fatten for the local fiestas, celebrated every October in Barangay 64. They only have one left as the other was slaughtered in October. The pig was not chained but in a cement pen that became flooded as the water rose. Pigs can swim and this one also survived and was found after being swept towards the sea. I bought the pig some food and congratulated him too but he just grunted.
One of the really unfortunate things about the storm is the amount of men killed while trying to protect their homes. In many cases the women and children were sent to the schools or other shelters while the men stayed by their homes to protect the belongings from looting. In some areas, the storm destroyed and swept away every single home and the men with it. There are now even more women raising children on there own, an epidemic here in the Philippines even before the typhoon.
On December 21st, we woke up to a 5-hour downpour. I was in the house and it felt like watching a waterfall outside the window. After it stopped I went to Jenn’s house only to find paths to her home underwater. I went around the back and found them in their flooded homes, once again having to clean up. We are re-building Jenn’s home and will be raising the floor and also adding a second level to try and limit the damage of future flooding.
As I noted earlier the most successful program in terms of relief was the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation’s Cash for Work program. They paid local people 500 pesos (approx. $12.50) per day to clean up garbage. The same foundation then provided cash envelopes to people as a Christmas bonus. The idea is to stimulate growth by giving people cash but I don’t think that is a good idea, it never works when you just hand out money. Last week outside Ruchelle’s home there were gunshots and people fighting with knives over money, the same day that the people in her area were handed cash. You have people standing in line to get up to 15,000 pesos (approx. $375) with very few banks open to deposit the money so they have to carry it home. You also start the dependency chain where people are less inclined to work if all they have to do is stand in line and money is given to them. They could have paid the same money to people and have them accomplish something like rebuilding the schools or cleaning up the mountains of debris.
The UN followed up with the cash for work program and on Saturday December 21st started handing out rubber boots, shovels, rakes, hats and shirts to workers. They delivered 20 sets of worker outfits to my families home and organized a group to clean some of the waterways here that are clogged. They are paying hundreds of people 260 pesos (approx. $6.50) per day for 15 days. The idea of paying people to clean up was a lesson learned after the earthquake in Haiti 3 years ago. The disaster relief there was and continues to be another disaster with most of the people still living in tents despite hundreds of millions being donated from around the world. They realized too that simply handing people food and money is a very short-term solution that cannot last for long. It is my fear that the same thing will happen here as time goes on.
When I was in Bangkok from November 8th to the 15th, CNN was covering the typhoon 24 hours per day with reporters flown into Tacloban to report in person. Now there is barely a mention of it. With the absence of coverage and people being occupied with Christmas, it is easy to forget that approximately 4 million people are now into Day 46 without electricity and most still without permanent shelter. The risk that the people here are still living in tents 2 years from now is almost a certainty.
In Tacloban, large groups of people do not own the land their squatter homes were built on and are now in UN supplied tents. They were initially told that they would be relocated to another area in 6 months where they will be provided a permanent home. I expressed doubts about that based on all the other disasters that have occurred in poor countries. It’s always the same, money floods in and promises are made in the immediate aftermath of disasters and after the world’s attention is gone, the people here without homes continue to suffer for years.
Yesterday, we heard that instead of being moved to a permanent area in 6 months, that after 6 months they will be moved to another temporary shelter for 1 year and then moved to a permanent area. That means they will be living in temporary shelter for at least 1.5 years as of now. The same story is already repeating itself and you can expect those delays to continue as landowners fight over government for the rights to build homes and everyone seeking to maximize profit.
On November 17th, I had planned to bicycle around the world to raise money for the Angel House Orphanage. I delayed my plans after the typhoon hit Tacloban and came here on November 28th. I am very worried that the financial support will stop for the people here that I will now continue to try and raise funds for the relief.
On January 3rd I will fly back to Tacloban after spending a week in Cebu to visit the home that we are building in Bogo for Tita’s family. I plan to stay about a week in Tacloban and will then go back to Bangkok about January 10th. Around January 17th (2 months after my initial plan of leaving on November 17th) I will start out on my bicycle trip around the world. I will by starting in Bangkok and ending in the Philippines and will cycle 50,000 km through 40 countries and arrive back here by Christmas 2015. I will be aiming to raise money for both the Angel House Orphanage and the victims of the typhoon.
We can’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again by ignoring people in disasters just because the cameras stop rolling. If we are ever going to change the repeating pattern it has to start somewhere. The money and support provided by so many around the world can’t go to waste; it has to mean something so I plan to keep the relief efforts in mind for the next 2 years. Hopefully people can find ways to help continue showing support. It can be a change jar at work or some fundraiser event but we can make a permanent difference instead of just a Band-Aid solution to a repeating problem. I will be carrying a Philippines flag on the back of my bike and use the opportunity of meeting people around the world to try and remind people that the survivors are still in need of help.
Merry Christmas from Tacloban.