Slow and painful recovery process

The most powerful typhoon in history made landfall early in the morning a year ago today.

First came the wind, whistling as it quickly picked up speed, and then howling as rain sliced through the darkness like needles.

By midnight, Haiyan - a Category 5 hurricane - was sweeping across a wide swathe of the eastern seaboard of the central Philippines with winds of up to 310kmh, swirling missiles of torn roofs, hoardings, billboards and tree branches.

Then just after dawn broke, when it seemed the worst had passed, storm surges as high as 6m swept inland - laden with thick mud and all manner of debris.

At around 6am, water began seeping into houses, at first just ankle-deep, and then within minutes, roaring into a raging river that kept rising, sweeping away everything and everyone in its path. When the sun broke through the clouds just after 10am, the scale of the devastation and the unfolding human misery were clear for the world to see.

First came the images. An entire city levelled to the ground.

Thousands - men, women, children, the old, the infirm - marching zombie-like with nothing but the clothes on their backs through a forest of tangled steel, wood, concrete, earth and vegetation.

The hulks of large container ships in the middle of a sea of pummelled houses.

A sign written in chalk across a road, for anyone on board a helicopter or plane to see: "Help!"

A man carrying the lifeless body of his six-year-old daughter to the morgue.

Hundreds of corpses piled on the side of a road.

The death toll stands at 6,300, but bodies are still turning up.

About two weeks ago, the remains of a middle-aged government employee, still wearing his identity badge, were discovered in a small remote village in Tacloban. A year on, more than 200,000 survivors are still living in bunkhouses and tents.

In Tacloban city, which bore the brunt of Haiyan's fury, only 50 families, out of over 14,500 families in evacuation centres, have received permanent housing.

Over the past year, some 180,000 babies were born, but only a third of the hospitals destroyed by Haiyan are up and running. Only 86 out of 729 classrooms that the government should have built by now have been completed.

A year on, Mr Pete Lacandazo, 58, a fish pen worker, is still securing death certificates for everyone he lost - all 22 who had called him father, grandfather, husband, brother and uncle.

With horrific images of the unfolding tragedy beamed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rescue and relief came swift and wide.

Navies and air forces from across the globe and traditional rivals on the high seas offered the Philippines resources they normally use to save lives in a war.

Some 500 tonnes of medical supplies and equipment were airlifted. More than 4.6 million food packets were distributed in the month after Nov 8.

People were saved, shelters were built, and food, water and medicine flowed. After six months, rescue and relief works were wound down.

But rebuilding efforts had been uneven, slow and tentative.

In Tacloban, for instance, all 71 hotels, 50 banks and two malls have reopened, and life in the city seems to have returned to normal.

But tucked in its interiors are settlements of bunkhouses with populations still trying to eke out a living one day at a time, from one odd job to another.

There have also been some costly missteps.

A report from the audit commission, for instance, showed that the social welfare department failed to distribute 128,000 cans of sardines, 69.2 million pesos (S$1.99 million) worth of bottled water and at least 736.2 million pesos in cash aid.

"Overall, we've seen some attempts by government agencies to try to fast-track the disbursement of funds. But those measures have often been more one-off or isolated," Oxfam humanitarian policy adviser Alison Kent told The Straits Times.

President Benigno Aquino created the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (Oparr) a month after Haiyan struck to coordinate the government's response. But nearly a year was spent trying to define the new office's powers.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief who has been put in charge of Oparr, has complained that he is "rehabilitation czar" in name only because he does not exercise authority over any of the departments involved, and his office cannot even fund its own operations.

Still, his office has been able to cobble together a 168 billion peso, 8,000-page masterplan that Mr Aquino, after months of vetting, finally approved for 171 cities and towns in 14 provinces and six regions still reeling from Haiyan's onslaught.

There are hopes that, with this plan in place, things can finally move along more quickly.

But what may probably stall recovery is apathy.

With most of the world's attention already drawn to other calamities and humanitarian crises, and with the Philippine general election just two years away, rebuilding promises to be a long-drawn process. Worse, it may altogether be forgotten - until the next Haiyan comes along.

"The spotlight may have moved on," said Oxfam's Ms Kent. "But for those who are struggling, Haiyan is very real."

rdancel@sph.com.sg

S'pore Red Cross rebuilding work 'on track'

One year after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines, the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) is handing over a series of rebuilding projects to recovering local communities.

In Albuera, a municipality in the province of Leyte, a new vocational school, built with advanced prefabrication technology from Singaporean engineering company Wynasean, will train almost 270 students. It will also also serve as an emergency evacuation centre.

The SRC is also handing over 15 rebuilding and rehabilitation projects on Busuanga island in Palawan province. The projects will benefit some 6,000 residents, as well as the island's indigenous Tagbanua tribe. The projects include the building of a model organic farm, installation of irrigation systems and the provision of two ambulances on land and sea.

Typhoon Haiyan made landfall this time last year, affecting about 16 million people in central Visayas in the Philippines.

Since the launch of the Typhoon Haiyan public appeal, SRC has raised $12.26 million from Singapore. Albuera and Busuanga are two of the eight areas SRC has committed to rebuilding. Its programmes are expected to reach about 1.5 million people.

About 50 SRC volunteers have gone to the affected areas to assist in relief and rebuilding efforts.

SRC Secretary General Benjamin William said that of the 20 post-disaster recovery and reconstruction programmes it has been working on, 11 have been completed and handed over, with nine more on track for on-time delivery.

"We are not commando humanitarians," he said, adding that SRC will continue to deploy volunteers and Red Cross Youth to the completed projects to maintain a link with the local communities. He expects the remaining projects to be completed by the end of next year.

oliviaho@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 8, 2014.
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