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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dispatches from Leyte: From Ruin to Resilience

CJ Chanco is a freelance writer, photographer, and research officer at the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. In late January, he joined volunteer doctors from Balsa and Samahang Operasyong Sagip as they made their way across Tacloban city and neighbouring barrios in a five-day relief caravan.

Everything seems frozen in place.   Every tree, branch, every root sticking out from the ground, stretches out toward an unseen horizon as though reaching for a sun that will never come, or shine as bright as it once did.  The trees are twisted out of true, like the bodies in the bags that used to occupy nearly every intersection of Tacloban city, the ones the disaster’s first responders would have seen as they passed along the way here (and would have seen, in their half-decomposed state, weeks after the storm).

Rows of coconut stand eerily in place, their graceful swaying brought to an abrupt halt by gale-force winds that have forced their fronds to face permanently East – or is it West? It’s impossible to say. The wind had come from every possible direction, shifting as it did with the walls of saltwater that came with broken logs and torn roofs of corrugated iron that brought low the homes of some five million families, and tore Eastern Visayas away, for seven days that felt like eternity, from the reckoning of the world and the local energy grid: leaving two provinces in total darkness, as the days turned into weeks that turned into months.

Tacloban itself is a frozen photograph, a silent sentinel on the edge of Nightmare. Or a portent of things to come.  The city has changed beyond recognition, at least physically, yet something beneath its surface-facade seems unchanged, almost permanent. Its economic life, the social conditions of its people, the rigid divisions of class and geography that determine who lives and who dies – none of this has been altered in any profound sense.

Not even by the strongest typhoon to make land-fall in recorded history.

I’d come on this journey with Balsa, an alliance of people’s organisations, churches, progressive media outfits and individual volunteers from across the country. This was its third or fourth major deployment in Eastern Visayas, a Caravan bringing aid and relief to communities  worst affected by supertyphoon Yolanda (int’l. Haiyan) that tore Tacloban apart last November.

Balsa has been doing so for close to a decade now, responding to nearly every major natural disaster to hit the country with a unique combination of grassroots mobilization and long-term, community-led rehabilitation efforts.  Despite its limited resources, Balsa has banked on the power of collective action to match or even exceed in scope the well-funded projects of some of the best aid agencies in the world. Encouraging the full participation of people directly affected by tragedy has ensured its efforts are deeply rooted with their needs on the ground.

In Leyte, Balsa came not with an elite corps of engineers or disaster experts bearing blueprints from on high, but with community organizers, religious missionaries, teachers,  volunteer scientists and medics – “people’s doctors” – even farmers from Luzon and Mindanao who’d saved seeds all year for just this purpose: to donate to fellow farmers in Visayas who’ve lost their crops. These were people with little to share individually but much to share at a collective level.

It was with them that I saw clearest the difference between passive charity and an active, community-driven response to tragedy;  the gap between what governments promise and what they deliver,  and the need for action from ‘below’ amid damning neglect from above.  It was a glimpse into human vulnerability that persists in the face of persistent poverty. It was also a portrait of human resilience and will to life that will come to define Tacloban (and the rest of the country) as the place where a people, levelled by countless storms, rose again.

Day 1 – January 24 – Matnog

… Or rather, Day 2.  It’s taken us 7-8 hours by bus to reach Sorsogon from Manila. It would take us another eight hours or so, more than half a day, to get past the port of Matnog, the main entry point to Leyte.

So after hours on the road, my legs are killing me. My friends and I get off for breakfast and a brisk walk.  At the port, vendors sell us hot pandesal, fried buns, sauteed veggies and tiny red native bananas that we eat with relish, before settling for a meal of tomatoes and fish roasted over an open charcoal fire. 

There’s little else to do but gorge ourselves, after all, and talk, as we wait for our turn at the barge.  The early morning sun beats down on lush rice fields by the coast – it’s almost too warm, but in the faces of the people we meet is a cold tension, which is easy to miss until I approach one of them.

At a bamboo stall next to our bus, a woman shelling mussels eyes us first with trepidation, then sympathy, as she spots the truck behind our bus bearing relief goods for Tacloban. It would be a long wait, she says. An endless line of buses and trucks, some stamped in bold-faced letters, “Relief”, crawls its way past us.

It was, of course, a lot worse right after Yolanda. For weeks, a glut of good intentions and aid from Luzon and abroad clogged up - for miles on end – the only major thoroughfare to Leyte.  There was no other way to get to Tacloban unless you travelled by air (and even the airport was down for some time). It was a logistical nightmare.  With no transit fleet of its own, even the government had to rent trucks, lorries and cargo ships from private contractors to get goods to people on the ground.

In Matnog, it opened up a separate route for relief caravans in an attempt to cut traffic, but this actually slowed things down. Many of the trucks weren’t carrying relief at all. It was commercial freight, scrambling for a quick opening to drop off goods to sell in Visayas. 

This sort of thing has been happening more often since the calamity. In fact everything we passed en route here, from overpriced bunk beds, to rising fuel costs, to boiled eggs that cost Php 17-a-piece, to restroom visits at roadside bus stops that cost Php 5 for a pee (Php 10 for a shower; another Php 10 for something else) - seems an opportunity to squeeze the most out of the calamity’s aftermath.   

After a few more hours, our boat, the Penafrancia, finally arrives. Boys as young as four climb twelve feet above the deck, diving gracefully into the cerulean blue sea to catch coins tossed by tourists with uncanny accuracy.

We get on the barge and set sail for the Port of Allen. From there, we’d take another bus ride to Tacloban city, arriving there by midnight.

Crossing the narrow channel between Samar and Leyte, San Juanico Bridge is cloaked in darkness, with only the lights from our bus guiding our way.  Even in Tacloban city proper, rotating black-outs are a fact of life and dozens of public hospitals, schools and thousands of homes still depend on diesel generators for electricity at night, months after Yolanda.

Despite this, government reports insist electricity has been restored in at least 60% of affected areas.

Day 2 – People’s Surge

A boy, around 8, shifts his gaze from the aid trucks outside to the camera I have in my hands.  We’re by the window of the school gym at Eastern Visayas State University (EVSU), where I strain to find a scene, any scene, to latch on as I adjust my lens to just the right shutter speed.  The early morning sky filters through the gym awning as we peer over the balcony at the courtyard.   

I soon find my scene.

Below us, the first few hundred people gather for what would quickly grow into one of the largest demonstrations I’ve ever been a part of: a “People’s Surge”, including at least 12,000 marchers – young and old; families, farmers and fisherfolk from at least two dozen towns and rural barrios from across Samar and Leyte. They’d come for aid and relief, but above all for solidarity and a collective sharing of grievances, in protest against the government’s scant relief efforts post-Yolanda.

For two days in this school auditorium with a portion of the roof still missing, there had been singing and story-telling and shared meals of canned sardines and rice wrapped in palm leaves, puson-style.  
This is what the boy’s family had come here for, assuming he still had one. The boy’s otherwise stoic face contrasts deeply with his eyes, which have perhaps seen too much, far more than his youth deserved.

He looks straight into the lens of my camera, and not without some guilt, I snap a shot.  He doesn’t smile.  Pity or shame tugs at me: was I taking advantage of these people?  These “victims” of what is surely the worst natural calamity the country has faced in a century?  What if the boy had lost a sibling in the storm? A cousin? A parent? His whole family? 

 It was a dilemma I would struggle with throughout my trip.  I’d been commissioned as a photographer for the alternative media outfit, Kodao Productions, and I had no clue where to begin. I never managed to get the boy’s name, or the names of some of the others I would meet along the way. It felt rude, somehow, to intrude on their grief, though it was this same grief that prompted many of them to tell their stories, in minute-long chats that often drifted into night-long conversations.

 Maybe I was being melodramatic. At any rate, the simple fact of having survived Yolanda has brought people together, making all such social formalities irrelevant.  I stop for coffee or a boiled egg at a road-side stall, and random strangers, spotting my press pass, would break into instant conversation, first in Waray-waray or Bisaya, then in Tagalog, once they learn I’m from Manila.  

A volunteer sounds the call for breakfast and the boy rushes past me. I exit the classroom we were in, and make my way through the crowded corridors - dark, dank, and in some places filled up to the ceiling with balikbayan boxes, long since been emptied of used clothes, canned goods and medical supplies.

In the next building is the gym we’d slept in the night before, and here too hundreds of people lay crammed on the upper benches or shuffle to and fro the courtyard below.  Elderly couples sip coffee, their grandchildren play basketball; one mother nurses her daughter, only days-old. A nun thumbs the beads of her rosary.

All are waiting for their cue for the march to begin.

 By the university entrance is a blue tent, put up there by the doctors I arrived here with, from Samahang Operasyong Sagip and Health Alliance for Democracy. For a couple of days now they’ve giving free check-ups and medicines to a long line of people that now stretches past the gate to the next block, probably more than half a kilometre away.

Many of the patients – one man crippled from the waist down, one woman blinded by cataracts– are joining the march.

Renato Reyes of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan sounds the call. The march begins.

My camera ranges overhead.

The sun approaches noon and beats down hard on groups of protesters that converge in an intersection just past the university gate. It’s stifling. For most of the year, Tacloban city is one of the hottest parts of the country, regularly making it to the top of Kuya Kim’s temperature charts.  Even after Yolanda.
I zoom in. On the faces of the protesters is a flood of emotions, from suspicion to curiosity to excitement. On my own face is sweat, lots of it, pouring down in steady streams.  

Dust from thousands of marching feet form a cloud that rises above us and descends on the city, adding to the surreal scene.   I knew there’d be a lot of people, but not this many.  How many were we? A thousand? 8,000? 12,000?

This was a surge. A surge of humanity on the edge of despair; a surge of relief in a desert flooded by a supertyphoon, a wave of well-meaning if short-lived aid, and months of government neglect. Each one in turn.

I stand on tip-toe. There seems no end to the march. I take my first few, tentative shots.
Many think I’m from the media, and break into hasty, shy smiles. Others doubt my motives. Soldiers, government officials or policemen in civilian clothes have been known to take photos of the scattered protests which have been taking place here with increasing regularity.  

The distrust was understandable: Eastern Visayas had long been the playground of Jovito Palparan, a general held responsible for commanding the torture and arrest of hundreds of activists, and for a suite of other human rights violations, in the early years of the former Arroyo administration.  It was during this period that sections of the military turned into a de facto mercenary defence force for hacienda owners, commercial plantations, and large-scale mines that were pit against communist rebels. 
When hundreds of soldiers arrived in Leyte in the weeks following Yolanda – in fact, they arrived before government relief, to ensure security by cracking down on “looters” – they arrived, bringing back memories of fear, dispossession and landlessness that have made their mark on a region that is one of the poorest in the country.  


In the crowd something catches my eye. Among the marchers is a woman, in front of me, ambling slowly under the noon-day sun. She’s clutching her son’s arm.  A small towel, stained with the sweat and grime of work on the fields, is the only protection the two have from the glare of the sun.
The woman, Teresa, is well into her eighties and has lost sight in both eyes. She was the same woman we’d given a medical check-up this morning.  Her middle-aged son is a fisherman, like many of the marchers – farmers and fisher-folk from rural villages across Leyte and Samar. Some had come from as far away as Luzon or Mindanao, just to march, donate seeds to fellow farmers, or help out with relief efforts.

Mother and son inch forward with the marchers.  Eventually I lose sight of them, with people cramming the road from end to end. We turn a corner and spot Gaisano grocery store, the main target of ‘looting’ binges in the days after the storm. Few of the looters, of course, were the ‘professional criminals’ commonly portrayed by the cops. The victims of the Manila-based media’s smear campaign were in reality families just scrambling to survive (among their ranks: the wife of the mayor, who managed to snag a pair of jeans from a looted department store).

We cross a few more blocs and reach a small clearing by the coast.   A small stage in the middle of the road – built with a few crates and an old pick-up truck - rises above a few market stalls.

 The first thing that catches my attention are the streamers, banners and placards. They’re everywhere.
Ipadayonan Relief tubtob kina hanglan sa mga Biktima! Speed up relief efforts – aid to the victims!
Ipakigbisog an Pagkaon, Pabalay, Pakabuhi ngan Serbisyo Sosyal! Fight for the Right to Food, Housing, Jobs and Social Services!

40K Subsidiyo, ihatag ha kada Pamilya! Php 40K Subsidy for every family! (the estimated amount, in goods or direct cash,  needed by every family hit by Yolanda)

NO-BUILD ZONE: Kontra-mamamayan, Land-grabbing! The government has prevented thousands of   displaced families from rebuilding on lands they were originally on, claiming they’re far too dangerous for residential occupation. The catch: despite the alleged risks, many of these neighbourhoods are on public land bought up by private real-estate developers a few years ago.   The survivors will have to be relocated to temporary bunk-houses built out of flimsy plywood and corrugated iron, long since criticised by Architect Felinio Palafox and the United Nations for failing to meet international standards for basic safety.  


Then I hear the voices. Each one – from farmers, community organisers, a student who lost her father in the storm - builds up to a poignant crescendo. Each one speaks of promised aid from the government that simply would not arrive in time, if it would arrive at all.  

Each one speaks of death, destruction and loss, but also of hope, resilience and rebuilding, stressing clearly the difference between victim and survivor.

Days 3-4 – Beyond Tacloban

We spend another night at the University of the Philippines-Tacloban, before making our way through the coastal suburbs of Tacloban to the municipality of Alangalang, further inland.

Our rented jeepney drives us through endless fields of rice: many only now throwing up the first tentative shoots of new life after months of. Nearly all the coconut trees that pass us by face East, as though bowing, prostrate, before a distant Mecca.

After a brief stop-over at Palo, our caravan reaches Sitio Bigaa. a small cluster of homes on the outskirts of Barangay Langit, Alang-alang.  We manage to hand over relief goods – clothes, food, medicines, cooking utensils, construction materials - to some two hundred families from Bigaa and neighbouring barangays, but on the way out, our aid truck gets stuck in a mud pit. 

Jerry, a local kagawad overseeing local relief operations, rushes to my side. We watch helplessly as more than a dozen villagers push the truck, unloading and reloading goods to lighten the load. The engine shifts to high gear to no avail. It takes us another two hours of heaving and hauling to shake it free.
It reminds Jerry of the days after Yolanda, but this was a minor trouble compared to the horrors they’d suffered in its aftermath. At the time, roads were blocked and helicopters would fly overhead, as crates of relief parachuted down to a desperately hungry crowd, floating past the traumatized faces of people scrambling for crumbs.

Still, Jerry considers himself lucky. He and most of his relatives escaped the storm relatively unscathed, apart from a few scratches here and there – and a home completely destroyed. While his family huddled in their tiny bathroom, a single, strong gust of wind tore off their roof and sent it flying to the next barangay. They waited for days before the first signs of contact arrived from Tacloban city. They ate wet palay, inedible under most circumstances, picking through the remains of their crops to survive.
Then the days stretched into weeks, and relief goods came pouring in from people in Manila and around the world eager to reach out… but today  aid  has slowed down to a trickle, even in the city proper.

 The World Food Programme still distributes about a sack of rice per family each week (around two kilos or more for every child) - and a handful of charities still visit them on occasion - but aid from the government itself has been sorely lacking.  A few weeks ago, representatives from the Department of Social Welfare and Development arrived in Bigaa, asking hundreds of families to move to temporary bunkhouses that are as distant from their livelihoods as they are unsafe.

The plywood shacks on offer have sagging floors and flood after barely half an hour of rain. And rain has been pouring down constantly since Yolanda, like aftershocks from a big quake.

 Jerry and his family, among hundreds of others, rejected the offer. People would rather build their own homes near lands they have cultivated for decades.  Give them the resources needed to rebuild, he says, and communities will recover.  What people need here more than ever is long-term support, and above all cash, jobs and tools for reconstruction.

Bigaa suffered fewer casualties, he tells me, than those in communities along the coast.  Yolanda’s impact on local agriculture, however, has been devastating, wiping out vast tracts of coconut groves and rice fields literally overnight. This has been especially difficult for the majority of small farmers who don’t own the lands they till. Already in debt before the storm, many have taken on even more loans to rebuild their homes and replant their fields.

In Carigara, the next town we visit, Edwardo Bastol and Melecio Llagas, tell me a similar story.    
Melecio is Edwardo’s uncle, pushing into his late fifties. Both of their homes were levelled by Yolanda, which saw a whole river redirected from East to West, flooding hundreds of acres of crops.

When I visit them in their half-built home near Carigara elementary school (its roof still plastered with donated UN tarpaulins), Melecio is balancing himself on a single wooden plank, hammering away and eager to share their tale.

Construction materials promised them had not arrived in time. In fact they received nothing in any kind of aid, apart from food. Barangay officials assured them there was no need. They had already begun to rebuild their home, after all, and thousands were in.

There’s the catch. Edwardo has indeed managed to carve out a small but sturdy cement shack for his wife, two children, and his uncle who has since moved in with him – but only after taking out a hefty loan from his employer, a local vulcanizing shop owner.

Without it, it would have been impossible to rebuild. Thousands like Edwardo have dug themselves deeper in debt as a result.

Food, seeds, electricity, fuel, clothes, school supplies for their children, yero - corrugated iron roofs - are expensive. Post-disaster inflation, brought on partly by the difficulty of shipping goods to Leyte and the lack of proper public subsidies, has sent prices soaring.


I arrive at a small grove a few blocks away, hidden by coco palms.  I look around me, and note in passing the austere, almost deceitful, beauty of the place, perhaps concealing more than it reveals.  A mountain on the other side, after all, used to be covered entirely with coconut trees and green shrubs, locals tell us. Now green is the exception, appearing only in isolated patches between emptied-out fields slicked in mud after the storm.

I stumble on a ruined shack.  Tattered curtains are draped on a few walls still standing. Bits and pieces of chicken wire lay scattered about. At first I mistake it for a chicken coop, then realise it’s someone’s home – or used to be. Torn clothes, some still damp, lay, as if to dry, on a bamboo pole.    

Sunlight pours in from the emptied-out frame of the roof, like a wooden skeleton.

The place looks abandoned, so I turn to leave, before a woman approaches me from a corner, shyly, cradling a boy in her arms.

Estelita Garantinao is in her sixties and lives alone, with her husband and three-year-old grandson. Like most other families, the child’s parents have moved to Manila, hoping to send money back home. 
Her husband is paralysed from the waist down. He would have died in the storm had she not pushed him away in time as the wind heaved a tree from its roots – a kind of pillar in the middle of their nipa hut that had been its foundation – and hurled it down in front of them.  

It was a caimito tree that had weathered countless storms for over twenty years – until Yolanda.
It crushed everything from their bedroom to their tiny kitchen.  

Estelita has no money to spare to rebuild or even clean up. She washes clothes for her neighbours, and earns just enough for her family to eat. She’s too weak now to rebuild from scratch, all by herself.
So three months after the storm, their tiny home is in shambles. They live in a temporary shack, even smaller than the first, built by her brother next to the ruins.

Estelita stops talking. I realise she opened up to me before she even got my name, before I even got to say a few words in reply. I tell her I’m from the relief caravan and she thanks us for our help. At this I feel more shame than pride. Had I really helped? Had I done any more than report on their grief?  What did we from Manila really know about their plight?

And did I interview the others, she asks? The boy who lost his whole family in the storm; the pregnant young mother, her husband a jeepney barker in Manila?

There were stories. Hundreds of them. But there was simply no time to hear them all.  We would leave for Palo the next morning.

Day 5 – Palo and Back to Manila

It was like a scene from Titanic. Walls of water rush in as floors give way to a seething ocean. People clamber onto their roofs, and grab anything they can find as the tide surges forth, enveloping everything in its path.   Class D passengers, women and children included, drown in the cabins below, while the aristocrats of the upper decks escape unscathed. The homes of the poor are wiped out. Schools are forced shut. The mansions are left standing, empty for now, their distant occupants safe in Manila.
This is how survivors remember Yolanda at its height, those harrowing moments during the storm. What unfolded in its aftermath is described in terms no less disturbing:

Relief goods bought and paid for, or stolen outright by local officials who have divided the spoils between themselves and their voters.  A ravaged local economy, leaving one of the poorest and most unequal parts of the country with a population even more vulnerable, post-Yolanda.   Rehabilitation efforts being given over to Big Business, courtesy of Panfilo Lacson, the region’s “rehab czar”, who has officially declared his support for a private-sector led initiative.

Already, real estate, construction and commercial investors that run the gamut from Consunji to Ayala to Pangilinan have sunk their teeth into juicy contracts included in the government’s rebuilding and rehousing programmes.  Homes for the survivors of Yolanda will be built by the builders of Manila condominiums, at nearly the same price. Thousands will never be able to afford them. Tens of thousands more will remain homeless, landless, and jobless in a region that will surely take more than a decade to recover even half of what it has lost, in money and in human life.

But some scenes of recovery are visible.

Communities are picking themselves up from the ruins, mostly thanks to people’s own efforts  in the absence of government support. Palo regional hospital is being rebuilt, courtesy of the South Korean military. Crime rates are fairly low, despite sensationalised reports of “mass looting” in the days after Yolanda.  Donations are trickling in, thanks to scattered charity drives that can only do so much without a more comprehensive, pro-active role in the rehab efforts by the state.

And the corpses are gone.

Many, of course, are still missing; others were buried after more than a month in an advanced state of decay.  As of late January, new bodies are being discovered, at a rate of one per day, calling into question the government’s modest estimates of more than 6,700 dead. 


In Palo, roofless buildings are perhaps the second most common sight one sees across the town. The first most common?  Smiling children.

From day one, children would huddle around me and my camera –  something I would get used to after a week in Leyte.  One of them, in fact, was on the bus on my way back to Manila, and even asked me to take a picture of us together.

Indeed, raising the camera to my face to take a shot seemed a cue for someone to smile. And smile people did, with broad grins that stretched up to the wrinkles of their eyes.

What made them smile wasn’t innocence. They had all seen too much for that.

It would be another 24-hour journey before I could finally reach home. In Eastern Visayas, some 15 million people have a much longer journey ahead of them.

It’s difficult for the casual observer to connect any of the horrors its people have faced with the beaming faces you meet in this society of contradictions.  It’s easy to be misled.  Sometimes suffering can be too deeply etched on a person’s face that the sheer weight of their troubles erases all external signs of sorrow or despair, because succumbing to despair is useless when your life is at stake, and you have a family of five to care for.  

Whether or not this is a sign of genuine happiness or isolated glimpses of joy – temporary breaks in an otherwise painful existence – is another matter.  What comes out as resilience can be hidden sorrow or   anger, long repressed.  To the greatest tragedies, there are only ever two ways humanity can respond.

Resignation – or rage.   

En route to Leyte


 Sitio Bigaa

Relief Operations

Palo, Leyte

Tacloban City I

 Tacloban City II

People's Surge

A tale of forgotten places

One hundred days since Typhoon Yolanda claimed thousands of lives and left millions physically and economically displaced, survivors and the rest of the affected populations still plead for food and rehabilitation assistance.

(Magdawat, Western Samar) -- In Hinabangan and Pinabacdao towns of Western Samar, SOS documented survivors’ testimonies regarding the absence of government aid amid billions worth of local and international donations.  The Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAITH) website of the Philippine government lists cash and non-cash pledges from the international community alone has reached P24,842,729,246.68 (USD 551,913,473.00).

Ironically, not a single relief pack or any form of aid from the government has reached far flung Yolanda-affected communities.

‘Don’t forget the interior villages’

Tatay Angel, 44 years old and a resident of Brgy. Kanano, Hinabangan, used to collect tuba or coconut wine every morning and sell these to feed his family of five.  His rough and cracked palm bore the story of years cultivating the land to plant root crops and banana to augment their income.

Tatay Angel points to the spot under their house where he and his family took cover as Typhoon Yolanda lashed her wind and rain.
“Life was tough even before Typhoon Yolanda came”, he said.  Things got worse after the November 8 typhoon, coconut trees, the main source of livelihood, were nipped and uprooted.  More than three months have passed and government plans for rehabilitation remains to be had in this upland village.

Hinabangan is a fourth class municipality of Western Samar and has a population of 12,651 based on the 2010 census.

Grasping for the most appropriate adjectives, Tatay Angel exclaimed “bulok ang gubyerno” (the government is rotten) as a reaction to the absence of government aid to the upland villages of Canano, Yabon, Dalosdoson, Lim-ao, and Cabalagnan in Hinabangan town, Western Samar.

All they received he said, was a P300 financial aid from the barangay calamity fund.  “We were a bit luckier than the other barangays because they did not receive anything from the government,” he added.

Like Tatay Angel, the men of Hinabangan can barely fill their bamboo containers with "tuba" since Yolanda damaged majority of the coconut trees.  It will take two years for the trees to recover.
“I find it outrageous that President Aquino called for a stop to the relief efforts being given when in truth, we haven’t seen a single relief pack from the government since Yolanda. Nothing!  No government agency or official even bothered to assess the damage in our villages.  Aid is just given in villages near the highway,” he lamented.

Meanwhile, Nanay Susana, 46 years old, a resident of Barangay Dalosdoson could not hold back her tears as she recalled the hardships her family is going through after Yolanda. “We can barely eat three times a day.  Nights pass by without anything in our stomachs. My children often experience stomachache because they do not have enough to eat,” she said in between sobs.  She also pointed to anxiety due to their poverty and uncertain future as the source of her insomnia and lack of appetite.

Like Tatay Angel, Nanay Susana plants vegetables and root crops to eke a living.  As with everyone else in their village and nearby barangays, Yolanda felled all valuable crops such as banana, sayote, okra, “panakot”, and ginger as she lashed her wind and poured rain.  The farmers hoped to harvest around the time the typhoon struck but now face several months of starvation because they had nothing to harvest and no more seeds to plant.

Tougher times for the elderly

In Brgy. Yabon also in Hinabangan, Nanay Casiana, 78, used to make P50 to P100 a week selling crops she harvests from her uma (slash and burn method or swidden farming).  Despite her old age and frail body, Abadiano says she had to sustain herself and help her children and grandchildren.  Now, she had nothing.  She too, said no relief efforts or any help from the government ever reached their place.

Like Hinabangan, the upland villages of Pinabacdao municipality are also living proof of government neglect.

The effects of Typhoon Yolanda was twice over for this elderly woman from Brgy. Magdawat, Pinabacdao.
(Photo: KODAO Productions)
In Barangay Magdawat, Pinabacdao, 69 year old Tatay Pablo felt the effects of typhoon Yolanda were worst for the elderly population like him.  His modest “plantation” of 50 bananas, together with his balanghoy and kamote were destroyed by Yolanda’s strong winds and rain.

Magdawat farmers like him sell their produce once a week in Parasanon, Pinabacdao -- an hour and a half walk away on muddy trek.  Because of the distance and road condition, the most Tatay Pablo could carry on his alat or the traditional carry-on basket was 5 bulig or 5 clusters.

There, their crops are bought at dirt low prices. Each bulig was bought by middlemen at P50 to P100 depending on the size.  Gabi (taro) and karlang (a starchy root crop) are bought at P10 and P8 per kilo respectively.  The produce is sold in Catbalogan and Tacloban City at twice or thrice the farm gate price.

With their crops gone, the farmers face starvation in the coming months if no immediate relief and rehabilitation aid will come their way.

“Elderly people like us do not have the strength to plant as much crops anymore.  I can’t clear a slope that’s wide enough to grow plenty of crops because I’m weak and sick.  I appeal to the government to help us.  We don’t have doctors and medicines and have nothing to eat. Please help us President [Aquino],” Tatay Pablo said.

Finally, Tatay Angel called on President Aquino, “don’t limit your selves to highways and road-accessible barangays.  The government should help us, too.”##

Friday, February 7, 2014

Fifth SOS mission to Western Samar

Hinabangan, Western Samar -- The fifth Samahan Operasyong Sagip (SOS) medical, psycho-social and relief missions began in two towns of Western Samar – Calbiga and Hinabangan. The four-day mission ended in the town of Pinabacdao, also in Western Samar. SOS is joined by Filipino-American Health Workers’ Association (FAHWA), National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) members from California, USA, counselors from the University of the Philippines Behavioral Science Society, physicians from the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) and nurses from the Health Students’ Action (HSA).

“Rocky road”

Shortly after 6:00 in the morning, the team from Manila arrived at the Daniel Z. Romualdez airport in Tacloban City and proceeded to Palo, Leyte to pick up additional medicines for the four-day mission. Services include medical consultation, provision of prescribed medicines and psycho-social counseling to children through play and art therapy.

Notwithstanding the heat and difficult terrain that led to Hinabangan, volunteers rode several habal-habal or single motorcycles that brought them to the upland barangays of said town.

Habal-Habal drivers fix a loose chain of the motorcycle in Hinabangan, Western Samar

Hinabangan is back dropped by sloping mountain trails that blanketed the province’s entire panorama. Local habal-habal drivers expertly maneuvered the unforgiving rocks that served as permanent obstacles in the only main road that served several upland villages. Passengers needed to grope for the right balance as the motorcycles traversed the “rocky road” to Kanano Elementary School in Brgy. Kanano, Hinabangan, the main venue of the mission. One of the rented motorcycles broke down twice but the volunteers’ spirits were not dampened. Instead, they further understood the hardships what Kanano residents had to endure in travelling to and from the village. They also observed that instead of cementing the entire road to make transportation safer, faster and easier, only several patches in steep areas were paved. The rest were left in dire need of rehabilitation.

Livelihood lost

A local farmer from Brgy. Kanano, Hinabangan shared that Typhoon Yolanda damaged all of their vegetable crops. Vegetable farming in this side of town is the people’s main source of food and income.

“Before Typhoon Yolanda, we expected a bountiful harvest of vegetable and corn. But Yolanda took everything away. Vegetables and ginger rotted on the ground because the soil was saturated with rain,” he said. “Even cassava plants were destroyed,” he added.

The farmer estimated his family’s lost income at P20,000 and added that almost all farmers in their village lost a substantial amount of income leaving them unsure of where to get the next meal for the table in the coming days.

Health status unmonitored

Arriving in Hinabangan, the team quickly prepared for the mission that will start after lunch. The team was set with different sections strategically positioned in the classroom-turned-clinic/pharmacy. Men and women residents volunteered for the registration, vital signs, pharmacy and other technical work.

Folks young and old alike suffer from hypertension

Shortly, patients from the host barangay and the adjacent village, Brgy. Yabon, started pouring in. Nurse volunteers Erlinda and Ana Cadiz of FAHWA observed many cases of hypertension among the elderly, upper respiratory tract infection and musculo-skeletal pain among the general patients.

“Hypertension is not monitored among the population since Barangay Health Workers (BHW) do not have a single BP apparatus,” observed Dr. Sheila Corrales of Health Empowerment for Leyte and Samar (HEALS).

Four pregnant women also sought pre-natal check-ups. Asked where they planned to give birth, all of them said they plan to deliver at home despite the town’s prohibition of home deliveries because they “cannot afford the fees” being imposed by the Rural Health Unit in Hinabangan. According to them, P1,000 is charged for a first born while succeeding births are charged P500 each. “Where will we get that much money when we can barely make both ends meet?” a young mother of two explained.

Songs and crayons

As their parents queued for medical check-ups, some twenty children filled another classroom with songs and shrieks of laughter.

Third year students of University of the Philippines (UP) Behavioral Science class led the songs and dances that made the children at ease with their peers and new “teachers.” Colored crayons, papers and pencils were distributed to each child to serve as medium to express their feelings.

UP Behavioral Science students encourage kids to draw themselves inside their homes when Typhoon Yolanda struck
Little by little, the kids, age 4 to 12, drew what they were doing and how they felt during Typhoon Yolanda’s wrath. Some drew a stick figure with arms stretched out inside a house and with the words nahahadlok or fear in the Waray language.

Over coffee and tanglad (lemongrass) tea, the group later explained to the SOS team that stretched arms could mean “seeking love or attention.” They recommended that mothers and fathers can be enjoined through “parent-child education” on how to promote positive affirmation to improve parent-child connection inside the home. The session was done the next day, February 8.

(As the first day of work ended for the team in Hinabangan, everybody was treated to a gastronomic dinner of fried fish, wingbean and taro in coconut milk prepared by the community.)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Three Months After Typhoon Yolanda, Rehabilitation Plans Still Unclear

When Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, it made sure to make an impact. Those affected the most were the ones that were the most vulnerable to start with.

Iris Santos*, 21 years old, is living alone with her 6 month old son in Barangay Canlampay, Carigara, Leyte when Typhoon Yolanda came. Her husband, a jeepney conductor in Manila, was not there to witness the gushing rain and turbulent winds. Up until today, he has not been able to go home due to financial constraints. For his return would mean the loss of the only income the family receives. Their house, made of light materials, was not able to withstand the typhoon and collapsed. They have since lived in a makeshift hut, made of whatever materials they could find to put together. Relief drive operations help them through, being their only source of food.

The situation is not much different for Anna Cruz*, aged 42. Her house was totally damaged as well after Typhoon Yolanda came. She and her husband were not able to put up a makeshift hut immediately and thus had to transfer from one relative’s house to another. The number of houses they found themselves in totaled to 4. She has two 2 year old grandchildren totally dependent on her after her daughter left them just two months after giving birth. Both are malnourished having only taken “am” or rice stock instead of their mother’s milk.

Barangay Canlampay, Carigara, Leyte is a farming community with 903 inhabitants. They plant rice in the fields and rely on copra, dried coconut meat used in the extraction of coconut oil, for their source of income. Like most families, Iris and Anna are also dependent on relief goods to survive. The vegetable garden and coconut trees that once helped feed them were all destroyed by the typhoon.

When asked what kind of help they have received from the government, they say that they have received nothing yet. The relief goods are all from private organizations. They have heard no plans, whatsoever, on the rehabilitation efforts for Barangay Canlampay. They do not know what will become of them. They wonder if the government even stops to think of them as more than just one number in the statistics.

Both are faces that represent what millions of other Filipinos are experiencing after Typhoon Yolanda. The air of uncertainty lingers as to what the steps will be taken to enable the survivors to stand on their own again.

*Not her real name.

Photo by Zdian of Learn CENE

Carigara farmers getting back on their feet

When Typhoon Yolanda left the country, it left a trail of devastation. It swept away loved ones, homes and the source of income of many Filipinos, especially in hard hit areas of Leyte and Samar. Despite the vast amounts and different kinds of international and local aid given, the national government’s reaction has been slow. Now, three months after the disaster, not much has changed.

Barangay Canlampay, for example, is a farming community in Carigara, Leyte. According to Guillermo Panal, Canlampay’s Barangay Captain, when Typhoon Yolanda struck, 95% of the homes were totally damaged, brought down by a combination of strong winds and weak construction materials. Their sources of income were affected as well, with the winds damaging and uprooting the coconut trees and the floods engulfing their fields.

Today, the community is still dependent on relief goods for food. There is no clear rehabilitation plan or action from the higher government. All they have received are 10 blankets and tarpaulins for the whole barangay of 903 individuals. They still await when promises of gaining electricity and the rehabilitation of the coconut trees would be fulfilled.Delia Darantinaw, president of the Municipal Farmers’ Association of Carigara (MUFAC), is critical of the situation.

“It would have been more difficult for us to recover from the tragedy if we depended on the national government alone. Our association has taken the lead in rebuilding what we had lost. Through empowering the community, pushing them in taking an active role in planning and implementation of programs, and reaching out to non-government organizations for support”, she stated.

The MUFAC is busy trying to implement their irrigation and vegetable garden programs to help the community produce their own food again. Preparation of the plains is in progress. Fast growing vegetables, such as gabi or taro and sweet potato, are encouraged to be grown in home gardens to help the community get by without having to eat only relief goods. Helping out each other is what the organization stresses, especially in times of disaster.

However, Darantinaw said they need farming tools, animals and seeds. They have repeatedly asked the local government of Carigara for assistance but the municipality has yet to heed their requests for these. They appealed to organizations and individuals to help them get back on their feet through supporting their sustainable agriculture rehabilitation plans.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Fourth SOS Medical Mission Pushes Through Despite Stormy Weather

True to its pledge, the Samahang Operasyong Sagip (SOS) continues to serve victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Paving past the cold and rain, the 4th SOS team goes through bridges engulfed by overflowing rivers. The 4th SOS medical mission, scheduled from January 17-21, 2014, will be conducted in Carigara, Leyte and neighboring municipalities.

The stormy weather in Leyte and Samar have made matters worse for victims of Typhoon Yolanda, as basic necessities such as food, water, presence of electricity, livelihood and a decent house still pose as daily problems. This has also made things more difficult for medical missions and relief operations since the weather has rendered the temporary ceasing of operations of the Matnog Port, where trucks traveling to Leyte and Samar pass through. The SOS truck, for example, has not been able to leave on time for the scheduled mission. Aside from the family packs for 2000 households, construction materials and seedlings needed for the relief drive operations, it also carries medicines and medical equipment for the medical missions.

Despite these circumstances, the SOS team decided to push through with the originally planned schedule for the medical mission, while the relief drive operations will ensue once the Matnog Port operates again. Medicines and medical equipment needed were instead boarded in the airplane so as to reach Leyte. The 33-man team is composed of 4 doctors, 5 nurses, 6 senior behavioral science students, 2 social workers, 1 video documenter and staff members from partner organizations. These organizations include the Bridge Builder Foundation, Council for Health and Development, Community Medicine Foundation, Health Empowerment and Action in Leyte and Samar, Health Municipal Partners Association of Carigara, Learn- CENE, Municipal Farmers’ Association of Carigara, and University of the Philippines-Manila Department of Behavioral Science. Local officials in Barangay Calampay in Carigara, Leyte have welcomed the team, acting as hosts for the whole duration of the medical missions.

An estimated 500 patients are expected to be served on the first day of the mission. Psychosocial activities will also be conducted for children in the morning and, women and the elderly in the afternoon. More updates will be given as the mission ensues. ##

Thursday, January 9, 2014

DOH’s Poor Handling of Measles Outbreak: Telling Signs of Looming Health Disaster to Come in Typhoon Ravaged Areas of Leyte and Samar

“The recent measles outbreak and the government’s poor response in containing it appeared to be a very fearful precedent of other possible health disasters in typhoon ravaged areas of Leyte and Samar”, said Samahang Operasyong Sagip (SOS) President Rosalinda C. Tablang.

 The year 2013 ended with a sharp increase in the number of measles cases, especially in Metro Manila. Of the 1,724 confirmed cases, 744 were recorded in the metropolitan region. Outbreaks have already been announced by the Department of Health (DOH) in 9 cities of Metro Manila, namely Manila, Caloocan, Las Piñas, Malabon, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Parañaque, Taguig and Valenzuela.

 The DOH has blamed the poor access of health services in poverty-stricken areas, unwillingness of parents in vaccinating their children and the influx of people from typhoon hit areas of Leyte and Samar to the recent outbreak.

Tablang shared that the DOH has the mandate to abate, control and monitor public health.  The DOH implemented the foreign-assisted ten-year “Alis Tigdas” Program from 1990 to 2008. But in 2007, the DOH already admitted that it failed to reach one hundred percent target to immunize children against measles.  In July 2011, it re-launched another anti-measles program “Iligtas ang Pinas Sa Tigdas” aiming again towards measles eradication.

“One would ask, what have the government decisively done with the measles problem if they have known the problem as early as 2007? The past anti-measles programs were just all hype and relied heavily on an approach that is immunization-focused.   Health education and information are lacking,” furthered Tablang

“Instead of owning up to its failure, the DOH has been quick to blame the patients and their parents, and even the very victims of Typhoon Yolanda for the recent outbreak. This is telling of how the DOH will react to other threats of health disasters, such as what we are seeing now in Leyte and Samar”, added Tablang.

The SOS has been conducting medical missions and relief distribution operations since November 2013. Ailments observed in patients from the first medical mission up to the most recent have been similar. The most common medical cases in adults include upper respiratory tract infections, acute gastro-enteritis and hypertension and tension headache. For children, these were cough and colds, fever and diarrhea.

Tablang expressed that outbreaks after natural disasters occur when there is a substantial displacement of people. Along with this, poor access to basic needs, such as safe potable water, proper sanitation, adequate shelter and health care services, play a role in increasing disease transmission.

“More than 2 months after the typhoon struck, scarcity of necessities, such as food, potable water and shelter, still pose as an everyday problem. With the DOH poorly handling the measles outbreak, especially in Metro Manila where there are relatively more health centers and hospitals, we can only imagine how it will be for those in Leyte and Samar.” ##