Typhoon Haiyan six months on

MESS: A boy wades in a polluted river to collect recyclable items in Bacoor town, south of Manila.
MESS: A boy wades in a polluted river to collect recyclable items in Bacoor town, south of Manila.

More than six months after the devastation of super-typhoon Haiyan, thousands of displaced survivors are still without homes.

In Tacloban, where the storm - known by the name Yolanda in the Philippines - destroyed more than 20,000 homes, mayor Alfred Romualdez admits not a single permanent housing unit has even been built.

"What's clear is that our main problem now is having to relocate 12,000 families," he said.

"We've addressed only about a little less than 2000 temporary shelters. And permanent homes, we've not even finished - not one unit yet."

Some 400 or 500 residents are still in evacuation centres, while another 3700 are encamped in tent shelters across the city.

But bureaucracy has stalled rebuilding efforts. Mr Romualdez says the city has been in discussion with the national government over the definition of housing.

Alex Gomez is eager to move out of the cramped unit he shares with

his two grandchildren.

Alex Gomez is eager to move out of the cramped unit he shares with his two grandchildren. Photo: Jan Villalon

"It's important because while you define it as temporary shelter, then it goes under the Department of Social Welfare. But if it's considered a permanent house, then it goes under the National Housing Authority," he explains.

Confusion over international standards for shelters means temporary homes are constructed without regulation, resulting in substandard and even dangerous living conditions.

A woman and her six children who were in one shelter  have all died after a fire swept through their tent. The fire was caused by a kerosene lamp and quickly consumed the canvas tent on Tuesday, Tacloban city disaster management officer Derrick Anido said.

The shelter was one of 40 in a "tent city" in San Jose district, which was wiped out by  Haiyan in November.

The children - who died from burns and suffocation - ranged in age from four months to 12 years old, Mr Anido said. The woman and her seven-year-old son survived the fire initially but both died later in hospital.

"It happened around 12:20am . . .  but it was so fast that by 12:30 it was over," Mr Anido said, adding that everyone was sleeping when the fire broke out.

He said the family apparently had trouble opening the tent's zipper door.

Questions have also been raised over the construction and cost of around 200 transitional bunkhouse shelters across the city.

A Senate inquiry released on May 21 found contractors had skirted international standards, but said this was due to a lack of available materials and resources. The report also said "extremely bureaucratic processes" prevented many displaced families from immediately occupying the units.

Alex Gomez, who has been living in a bunkhouse unit since early April, was told his family would be transferred to their own home in a year.

The former carpenter says the 17-square-metre space he shares with his two grandchildren is sufficient, but he's eager to move.

 "I can't trust this construction," Mr. Gomez said, knocking on the coconut timber framing.  "It's not stable enough to hold in case of another storm ... I'm afraid another typhoon might come and blow this place away.

"We just want to be safe."

A few kilometres away, in a coastal neighbourhood decimated by the typhoon, where ships remain washed ashore, survivors have rebuilt makeshift homes amid the rubble.

They have no legal right to be here, however, as the government imposed a "no-build zone" 40 metres from the coast in December. 

But resident Thelma Fevidel sees no other option.

After living in an evacuation centre for nearly two months, she and her two young children returned to their home, building a tiny shack from tarpaulin and plywood just metres from the ocean.

"I've been here all my life. I have no other relatives," she says. "We have nowhere else to go. We cannot build another place - this is our home."

But residents living in the no-build zone receive no support from the government. There's no electricity in the area, and Ms Fevidel says a medical mission that was once here ended in March.

"If the government would provide us a place to relocate, we would leave," she says.

To make ends meet, she cleans and irons clothes for a living, but like many others relies heavily on foreign aid.

But this too has been fraught with bureaucratic hassle. A recent bungle saw 175 cargo containers of food and donations held at Cebu International Port over unpaid storage and transport fees, with further delays for the proper import permit delaying shipments of the goods. The matter of funds was only settled last week.

For the most part, world aid organisations have been vital on the ground, distributing much-needed supplies to survivors in the weeks following the disaster, including solar lanterns, tents and housing materials.

UNCHR spokesperson Kent Bolisay says the humanitarian agencies are here to complement the government's work.

"It's actually the government leading the recovery phase of the humanitarian work here in Tacloban," he says.

The UNHCR is also working to address needs beyond housing, aiding locals with civil registration and documentation. Since launching the initiative in April, more than 43,000 have been issued birth, death and marriage certificates.

While there has been progress, Mr Bolisay agrees Tacloban still faces a long road to recovery.

"There's still a lot that needs to be done, especially with shelter and livelihood," he says.

Survivors  remain vulnerable as another rainy season approaches, not only threatening homes but also bringing back unpleasant memories.

"The fear is still with me," Ms Fevidel says. "I'm still afraid when it rains."

with AP

Sydney Morning Herald