December 11th, 2013
Searching for a few kids
I am staying at a hotel in Tacloban for one week and compared with most people here it would be considered luxury but it really is more like camping. I have a bed in a room with a roof and doors so in that sense things are easy. However, with no electric fan, no lights, no running water and a toilet that does not flush it is similar to many campgrounds where I slept. The hardest thing for me is not the lack of running water or light, it is the heat at night. I can leave the window open and get eaten by mosquitos or shut the window and sleep in 90-degree heat in the room. I tried to get a mosquito net in Cebu before coming here but they were sold out. Last night I slept on the floor with a light blanket beneath me as it is cooler than the bed so things are looking up.
The front of the hotel has a generator so I can access the computer each night, a blessing considering it is dark by about 6:00 pm and there is not much else to do. The connection can be sporadic though as can the cell phone coverage. Tacloban is under military law with a curfew from 8:00 pm to 5:00 am. I saw a sign coming into town that read, “After 7:00 pm, shoot to kill.” For those people who only heard about the curfew starting at 8:00 pm, they might want to reconsider moving indoors an hour earlier.
My typical routine here is to get up at first light, about 5:30 am and take my bath. A bath consists of using a pail of water to soak yourself, then apply soap and rinse. When I lived with a family here I did that everyday and it is very refreshing, I never missed having a hot shower. I then have breakfast, usually just rice, scrambled eggs and a piece of fruit. I had gone without dairy products for 6 months but there is nothing else to eat here. The first day they served canned corned beef but I really couldn’t even force myself to try a bite and with the other option being hot dogs, I will stick with rice and eggs. They also have 3 in 1 which is just milk powder and sugar with a few grains of coffee. I bought my own small packages of black coffee but it is Nescafe instant and for anyone used to brewed coffee, it is difficult to drink. I really miss Bo’s coffee shop for my daily brew. I walk by my old hangout everyday hoping beyond hope that they are open and Starbucks is becoming a distant memory. I then go out into the town or surrounding areas and have to be back here by dark so there is limited time in a day. I don’t want to be out at 7:01 pm.
On Sunday morning I made it my mission to find some of the children from the MC orphanage. I had heard that Michael and his family survived and I knew the area they lived so that should be easy. I had also heard conflicting reports about April and Angel, the twin girls. I didn’t want to speculate about their situation so without any idea of where they were located I set out.
I made my way to the airport area to find my friend Ruchelle. It is handy to have a local person who speaks the Waray dialect as most of the poor people here struggle with basic English. English is taught in schools from a very early age but many people in the poor areas left school early and do not use the language in day to day life. Ruchelle was in her home cooking for her family when I arrived.
Ruchelle is only 23 years old and I think of most girls back home that age just finishing University or working and it is a world apart from life here. She left Tacloban the day before the typhoon hit to get to Cebu to arrange paperwork for a job in Taiwan. She is here to visit her brother and his family and will go back to Cebu for Christmas to be with her mom.
The government has ordered that the people in this village can stay for another 6 months and then they will be forced to evacuate to a location 1 hour from Tacloban. They will be provided a home but in an area with no town or jobs. Last week they were saying the homes in the new location would be built in 6 months and I had to laugh and wonder if anyone actually believed that. Yesterday, I was reading in the Philippines newspapers that the rebuilding could take 5 years. Considering the people most affected are poor and homeless, I think even 5 years is far too optimistic, but the only hope is that there is a national election in a few years and someone may use the disaster to move things along for the votes.
There is a small town called Palo near Tacloban and I drove through there the other day and noticed they were frantically working to store electric power. It turns out, a government official from the area is related to the head of the organization that provides electricity so they are taking priority. Palo is a very small town and Tacloban has over 250,000 people but it’s who you know that counts for a lot more than need.
In another report, relief goods from the UK have been intercepted in Manila and are now being sold on the streets there and never made it to Tacloban. If you want to ensure your donations get to the appropriate persons, just avoid any government intervention. Since all goods coming by plane or ship have to go through Customs (one of the most corrupt departments) and then to the local mayor or Barangay captains for distribution (another big source of corruption) the chance of goods getting to the poor are almost zero. I was in the worst hit area in Tacloban, in a school hosting about 2,000 refugees and not one of them has received a single piece of clothing 30 days after the typhoon, despite countless shipping containers sent from around the world. They are long gone by the time they get to the poor. The various government officlals take the best goods for their families and supporters and if there is anything left it gets to the friends of their friends.
Ruchelle’s village will not get electricity or plumbing since they will be evacuated so the temporary shelters being built quickly now is home until June. That is a long time to live with hundreds of people without electricity or toilet facilities. They can access water for cleaning but the water is contaminated and not for drinking. Here is the shower area with Ruchelle taking her bath.
As mentioned Ruchelle is 23 years old and the lack of privacy and being in the open for your bath and going to the bathroom would be difficult for the young women here. Most young girls spend hours in the bathroom so imagine how she feels every day.
I had mentioned the large scale clean up effort on the main streets with dump trucks, excavators, backhoes and the other heavy machinery. However, at the local village level things are a little more primitive. Many people do not have any tools to clean up. At one point I saw lines of people moving in and out of a few homes and watched as they all dragged various scrounged containers to the piles of debris on the roads and then returning to collect more. They were happy and singing, a different way to spend your Sunday.
In Ruchelle’s village they had shovels and would go through the massive piles one shovel at a time. There were 87 people killed in this small barangay alone, with most likely being swept into the sea. They go through the piles sorting out the wood and other materials that can be used to help build the temporary shelters.
They are starting to set up large amounts of tents that will house people for the 6 months until they can be relocated. The government has said all schools will open on January 8th and most of the schools are in bad shape and filled with the refugees escaping villages like this one. They have to move those people into tents and then clean up the schools. It has now been a month since the typhoon and that means exactly 1 month until the schools open. It is really going to be a race against time. Here are some of the tents set up near Ruchelle’s home.
There are still fires burning everywhere and the smell of smoke combined with the heat and humidity makes breathing difficult. They can’t put the fires out since they don’t have running water. Most people walk around with masks and I use a small towel over my face. The smells for the most part are okay so it appears the bodies of animals and humans have all been recovered.
Ruchelle and I took a jeepney and then a motorcycle and were able to locate Michael’s family. Michael is still very sensitive and almost started crying because there was such a fuss when I walked through the gates. He must have heard a number of people call out his name and didn’t know what was happening. He is also very shy and would look at me, wondering who I was and why I was there. His mother took out a picture she has saved with me and Michael and he kept looking from the picture to me and back to the picture.
Michael is from a family of 7 children with the eldest being 15 but all very small. Here are 6 of the kids.
The father drives a bicycle and earns about $4 per day and the mother cleans clothes and earns about $10 per week. Not a lot of money to care for a total of 9 people. They are safe and escaped most of the damage from the typhoon, as their small 1 room house is concrete and well protected. The area they live is far enough from the water to have escaped the storm surge. I asked the father to drive us to a nearby market where I bought the family some rice, fresh fruit, eggs, milk and candy for the kids. I also gave the mother some money and asked what she needed for her kids. They need vitamins, milk, fresh water and food. They did not have the damage of the other homes but after the typhoon the roads were blocked so the father did not have work for almost 2 weeks. They have very little money to provide for Michael so their biggest need is money. I will only give money to the mother, as the father will likely spend it on alcohol. The best option is to buy them food and supplies. I told her I would be renting a van to go to Ormoc this week and will buy the kids new flip-flops and something for Christmas. They also need candles, a flashlight, cleaning supplies for the home and fresh bottled water. I told her I would return in a few days.
The next stop was trying to find the twins. Angel and April were 2 of the young children admitted to MC in 2011. They were joined by their brother Jerry Boy and were the sweetest children I ever met. The twins were admitted because of severe malnutrition and stayed much longer than most because they were not recovering. At one point when I was there we thought April would die as she was infested with tapeworm. One day she was eating and a worm crawled out of her mouth. After taking medicine she seemed to recover but it was a slow process. I spent a lot of time with them, often walking around the compound with one in each arm. Near Christmas in 2011, MC started playing Christmas music and I would pick up Angel and dance with her until she fell asleep and then pick up April and do the same. They loved that and they would just smile as we danced. I think that is my best memory of my time at MC.
When I was visiting MC on Friday I heard reports from the workers and even the sisters there that Angel and her mother were killed in the typhoon but April, Jerry Boy and the father were alive. I was crushed and couldn’t believe it. Ruchelle however heard that they were all alive so I have been really anxious to find out the truth.
I had no idea where they were but as we drove past a large elementary school I noticed it was packed with people so asked the driver to stop. We went in to the grounds and I was shocked by what I saw. It is a massive school for grades 1 through 6 and probably 7 classrooms for each grade or a total of 42 rooms. Each room held 6 or 7 families so if there is an average of 5 in a family, that would make about 1,500.With people in the courtyard and on the roofs and many out during the day, I would easily estimate 2,500 people were cramped in various rooms. In the school there is no electricity or toilets, a disaster waiting to happen. These are the people in the hardest hit area and they have no homes left. They will all be relocated to tents for the next 6 months.
Here is a picture of one of the rooms that held 7 families, likely up to 35 or 40 people.
The scene reminded me of the refugee camps set up in Haiti or Pakistan after their earthquakes. Those camps are still in operation years later and that is what I fear will happen here. As soon as you get people moving to other areas, you start getting corruption with inflated prices and government officials taking a piece of the action. People will be charged a “fee” for the best portions of land and the family members of the mayors or Barangay captains will bet first choices. If you happen to have voted for the respective government official, you can also expect preferential treatment.
Ruchelle and I asked around and were told that people in the village the twins lived were located in the far end of the compound so we walked across the massive field. Then Ruchelle asked a lady and she pointed to a far room. I entered the dark room and heard someone say “it’s Kuya Fred” and my heart skipped a beat. I asked Ruchelle who that was and she pointed and said it is the twin’s mother and I asked about Angel and April and she pointed to them standing in the corner. I climbed over some small partitions and gave them both a hug but of course they had no idea who I was or why I was there but that’s okay. The mother hugged me and thanked me for searching for them. She said she was hoping I would show up. Here is a picture of the twins with their older sister and parents. Jerry Boy was not there but he is also safe.
The mother looked exhausted. I asked her what they need for assistance and she said everything from fresh water to mosquito nets. The girls look severely malnourished again and they have very little fresh water or food. I told her I would return shortly with vitamins and milk for the kids and as many supplies as I can fit into a van. It is very difficult now as they are living in a small room with 6 other families and you can’t just give to one family. The need is overwhelming. I gave the mother some money and told her to buy whatever her family needs and I will keep checking up on them. She started crying and wanted to say thank you to everyone who donated to help.
I may have reduced computer time soon as I will be moving to live with a family on Thursday and they do not have a generator. My plan is to rent a vehicle to Ormoc about 2 hours away and load up on vitamins, milk, eggs, fresh food, cleaning supplies, flashlights, batteries and a Christmas present for all the kids. There are now 8 families we are helping, a total of 45 people, mostly children. It is a small number but for those families it means a lot.
For those of you who donated money I wanted to outline where the money has been spent and will be spent in the coming week. It is running out fast so if there were any ideas on how to raise more it would be greatly appreciated. Coin drop boxes at work, telling your friends and co-workers, organizing an event can help more people as all the money is going directly to those in the most need.
In Cebu, Tita’s parents are building a new home which relieves the financial pressure on Tita and her 8 siblings. Yesterday, 2 trucks full of building materials made the drive up to Bogo and construction is now starting on a new home.
In a small town outside of Tacloban, Cristina’s mother and 2 daughters were given some food and money and I will return later this week with supplies from Ormoc.
In Tacloban, Ruchelle’s family (brother, sister-in-law and their 2 children) were given some money and we will get supplies for them. I paid to bring Ruchelle back here and for her return to Cebu.
Jennifer’s family (mother, father, 3 brothers) are working on estimating what they need to rebuild their home. We will be adding a second floor and construction will begin as soon as we can get the materials. They will also get supplies from Ormoc.
Michael’s family (6 siblings and 2 parents) were given some food and cash and we will return with supplies.
April and Angels family (2 siblings and 2 parents) were given food and cash and we will return with supplies.
The 2 women at MC who saved the 16 children (Bella and Gemma) and their 4 children will be given money and supported as they have lost everything. I can’t give them supplies as there are too many families there but I will provide personal items of clothing for them and their daughters.
That makes 8 families and about 45 people impacted by your generosity.
I have to get a visa renewal before December 28th and the immigration office here is closed so I will go back to Cebu on the 26th and then go up to see the progress of Tita’s home in Bogo before coming back to Tacloban in early January to follow up on the families we are helping. I don’t know how long I will be here but will stay as long as I can be of some use.
The people here are grateful for the worldwide response to the typhoon.