In typhoon's wake, Christmas amid tragedy

JIM GOMEZ
Last updated 04:17 25/12/2013
Tacloban Christmas tree
Getty Images

LIGHT OF HOPE: Typhoon Haiyan survivors in Tacloban cheer as a Christmas tree they built out of storm debris is lit up on Christmas Eve.

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Christmas lights blink in a handful of restaurants in Tacloban, but at nightfall, much of this city flattened by Typhoon Haiyan slips into darkness.

A few downtown shops have reopened. Roadside vendors peddle fruits of the season: oranges and red apples. There is rebuilding, though much of it consists of residents hammering shelters out of scavenged debris.

The November 8 typhoon killed more than 6100 people in the eastern Philippines, displaced at least four million others and left its most gruesome mark on Tacloban, a city of 240,000 that will need years to recover.

Soon after the storm, Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla promised to restore power by Christmas Eve or resign, and indeed, electricity has returned to nearly all of the more than 300 towns that lost it. But relatively few people are able to use it. Officials say many storm-ravaged houses and shops will spend the holidays in the dark because their wiring systems are damaged.

City Hall, a seaside hilltop complex surrounded by ruins, buzzes with typhoon relief work, with dozens of staffers and foreign aid workers busy on the phone or huddled in talks.

"I am hoping by a year you'll see some significant improvements," Mayor Alfred Romualdez says. But he's not sure when his city will fully bounce back.

Christmas Day Mass here will be celebrated by the papal envoy. There will be a Christmas Eve dinner for foreign aid workers and local officials.

But mostly, Christmas will be a celebration amid deprivation, in tents, makeshift homes and damaged churches. The smell of death remains in parts of the city. Thousands of people have simply left.

"Many of them, I know, prefer not to spend it here," Romualdez says. "Maybe a change of scenery first and then come back after the holidays."

Fire officer Rolando Unay gently lifts a black cadaver bag left on a roadside by villagers in Tacloban city. "It's a child," he tells his team of corpse collectors.

As their orange dump truck cruises along a main road adorned with Christmas trees, motorists and passers-by cover their noses.

More than six weeks after Typhoon Haiyan struck, leaving well over 2000 people dead in Tacloban alone, this sad work continues. Soldiers, police, firefighters and volunteers have cleared what had been a heartbreaking landscape of bodies strewn across the ruined city, but the stench in scattered mounds of debris means there are more left to find.

Unay, a doting grandfather with five children, says that although the work is difficult he sees the good in it.

"Every time I lift a child's body, I could feel that the agony of a parent, a family somewhere, is about to end," he said Friday.

At a corner, a distraught fisherman, Hubert Labanan, waves at Unay's truck to stop. He points to the remains of his mother by the roadside. Villagers found her remains under a pile of wood and other debris that they cleared while preparing to repair a house.

Holding back tears, Labanan tells Unay's crew that he had lost his own home in the storm and was too poor to bury his mother in a cemetery. He begged that she be taken to a mass grave.

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As Unay's team left with his mother's remains, Labanan waved goodbye, then stood motionless until the orange truck vanished from his sight.

In early November, Eledio Moro thought he had Christmas figured out. He was going to surprise his two-year-old daughter, Aubrey, with a pink toy motorbike. For his wife, a gold bracelet, or maybe an expensive Western-brand shirt.

He owned a restaurant and a money-lending business. His new house was one of the grandest in the poor coastal neighborhood. Last year, he draped it in the best and brightest Christmas lights.

"We worked hard and were doing well then suddenly, like a bubble that burst, I lost everything," he says.

Like many in Tacloban, Moro ignored an order from authorities to evacuate as Haiyan approached, thinking his house could withstand the storm.

He and his family were huddled by the staircase when a cargo ship, swept inland by the massive storm surge, smashed into the house, knocking them into the water.

He survived by grabbing a piece of bamboo. Now all that is left of his home is the staircase, a wall and a second-floor balcony beside the huge, steel-hulled ship, still stuck by the road.

Moro, 41, now lives with his sister. Sleeping tablets have helped him get through the worst of the past six weeks, he says.

On Christmas, he will visit the graves of his wife and his daughter, "to ask forgiveness for not having been able to save them."

There are thousands of families desperately searching for lost loved ones. Sometimes, their stories have happy endings.

A website run with backing from the International Committee of the Red Cross allows people to report missing relatives and gives survivors the ability to tell them, "I am alive."

As of December 17, more than 840 people were reported missing by relatives through the website, and about half the cases were resolved by the Red Cross, ICRC spokesman Atishay Abbhi says.

Meanwhile, aid workers on the streets try to reconnect survivors with worried relatives.

Red Cross worker Cheka Lontabo's team found a five-year-old boy named Gabriel sleeping on a garbage heap in Tacloban city last week. A circuitous search eventually led the Red Cross to the mother, who lost her shanty in the storm and had taken shelter with her four children in a fly-strewn former gym. The boy got lost when her mother left the gym to get food aid.

"She wept and hugged the boy tightly," Lontabo says. "They had nothing but each other."

At night in Tacloban's dark and dreary downtown, Joseph Bonavitacola's restaurant is filled with chatter, mostly of foreign and local aid workers. His brick oven hardly gets any rest.

Red Christmas lanterns, lights and decor adorn window panes and a brick wall at Giuseppe's, which has the ambiance of fine dining in Manila, the Philippine capital.

It's hard to imagine how the Italian businessman, who has lived in the city for 20 years with his Filipino wife, reopened the place less than three weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated about 4000 businesses. Only about 5 percent have reopened, officials say.

"The water was about this high," Bonavitacola says, pointing to the chest-high wooden cashier counter. "The bar was down. The chiller was by the door. The doors were broken. There was lots of mud. Everything was upside down."

Frightened by a jailbreak and lootings, he left for Manila with his family but returned after three days to start a massive cleanup with 20 employees. He fixed damaged equipment and got supplies from another branch of his restaurant.

Despite a power outage, he reopened November 24 with candlelit tables. His message, exclaimed on a big sign outside: Rise Tacloban.

He also owns 10 meat shops that were inundated, and has begun to reopen them, keeping prices at pre-typhoon levels.

Outside his crowded restaurant, armed policemen stand guard. Most nearby shops remain shut.

"We try to make it feel as normal as possible," says Bonavitacola's wife, Catheryn. "Because outside, it's still depressing."

- AP

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