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Christmas in Tacloban: Locals count their mixed blessings

The shattered waterfront in Tacloban. The destruction wreaked by the wind and the storm surge made it a miserable Christmas for families in the area.   © Photo by Simon Roughneen

TACLOBAN, Philippines -- There wasn't much left of Trinidad Nario's waterfront home in storm-battered Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda struck on Nov 8. Nevertheless, the 81-year-old woman happily welcomed more than 20 family members -- including sons and daughters and their spouses and children -- to spend Christmas Day crammed into the patched-up remnants of her two-room house.

     "Welcome here, we are all gathered to celebrate Christmas," Nario said, laughing off the sheeting rain blowing in through broken windows.

     To mark the highlight of the Philippine calendar, families travel from around the country and indeed the world -- one of Nario's daughters flew home from Hong Kong where she is a domestic helper -- to spend the holiday together.

      But for the 220,000 residents of Tacloban, the capital of the southeast province of Leyte, the 2013 Christmas season was one marred by vivid memories of the massive typhoon and waves that roared through the central Philippines, or Visayas. The storm killed more than 6,166 people, around 5,000 in Tacloban alone, and almost 1,785 are still missing.

     "We want to be strong despite all those pains and sorrows we faced. We have to move on," said another of Nario's daughters, civil servant Aleli Hernandez, in a tearful voice.

Hoping for help

The Philippine government is building shelters to accommodate some of the many thousands of people who lost their homes to the storm. Some of those displaced are staying with family or friends or have cobbled together improvised shacks out of storm debris while they rebuild their houses as best they can. Many more are waiting to see if they will be given temporary shelters.

     One of those in limbo is Julita Cordero, a schoolteacher from Tacloban. She was evacuated from her home the day before the storm after her wood home was deemed unable to stand up to the expected winds, never mind the storm surge, whose 3- to 4-meter waves caught so many people in downtown Tacloban unawares.

     Along with eight other families, she has been staying in a classroom at a local school but will have to leave by mid-January before classes resume. "We don't have any assurance from the government that we will be given shelter assistance," Cordero said. "Ten people died over there," she added, pointing across the yard of Panalaron Central School to a single-storey classroom building. "The windows are barred, and the water came so rapidly, the people could only escape through the roof."

     Principal Lourdes Tupaz said the 818-pupil school will have to reopen without a large portion of its facilities or equipment. "We only have 10 rooms available. So much of the books, TVs, computers were destroyed," Tupaz said.

Heartache and hope

Outside the town, the task of getting farmers back on their feet will be an even tougher challenge than reviving urban schools. The damage to rice crops means hundreds of thousands of locals will need food aid until at least mid-2014, and world coconut oil prices are likely to soar after an estimated 3 million trees in the region were damaged.

     Before Typhoon Yolanda, the Philippines was the world's largest coconut oil exporter, with the storm-hit Visayas accounting for 17.4% of the country's GDP and more than a quarter of its agricultural output, according to official data. The Philippine government estimates the storm, also known as Haiyan, caused nearly $13 billion of damage to the country's $250 billion economy, the fourth biggest in Southeast Asia.

     Even so, Yolanda's impact is not expected to significantly slow what has lately become one of the region's fastest-growing economies. The World Bank said in early December that growth will drop by only 0.1% in 2013 and 0.4% in 2014 if reconstruction goes well. "With the implementation of a rapid and effective recovery and reconstruction program by the government after Typhoon Yolanda, it's likely that the country's GDP growth rate will be 6.9% in 2013 and 6.5% and 7.1%, respectively, in the succeeding years," said Rogier van den Brink, the bank's lead economist in the Philippines.

     The storm-affected region also relies on remittances sent by Filipino emigrants working all over the world. According to a government reconstruction blueprint published in mid-December: "Over 50% of household income in the affected provinces is largely dependent on agricultural incomes and remittances," with over $18 billion remitted by overseas Filipinos in the first 10 months of 2013 -- numbers that will likely show a jump once the Philippine central bank issues post-Yolanda figures.

     So far, however, communities in the rice- and coconut-growing districts a half-hour drive outside Tacloban have not seen much sign of reconstruction or new growth. Instead, battered shells of buildings and ruined coconut trees dominate the landscape.

     Josel Silvestre Jr., a local farmer, said most growers in his barangay, or village, will miss the next harvest. "In this place, we have 50 hectares of coconut and more than 100 hectares of rice. But how can we prepare? We have no money for land preparation. Everybody is ruined after the storm. To pay for workers for planting costs 150 pesos ($3.35) a day," he said, shouting over the din of chainsaws slicing felled coconut trees. "They will use the timber to make shelters for the people," he explained.

Long road to recovery

The scale of the reconstruction challenge is becoming more apparent by the week. Medical facilities damaged in the storm, for example, have to replace lost equipment.

     "The water reached up to chest-high, and all our diagnostic equipment -- CT, ultrasound, MRI machines -- were drowned," said Dr. Corazon A. Rubio of the Divine Word Hospital in downtown Tacloban. "Fortunately, KDRT, the Korea Disaster Relief Team, and the Mindanao disaster relief team came over to help and brought some machines so we could restart this work, but we still don't have an MRI or CT scanner."

     Some locals are optimistic. Speaking inside Santo Nino, Tacloban's main Catholic church, as rain spattered through the partially repaired roof, local government official Gerald V. Paragas expressed confidence that the town would recover quickly: "I feel normalization is back on track as a lot of business operators are back in service -- all of the banks and over 20% of the small and medium entrepreneurs."

     One such entrepreneur is Nick Gaurino, a 40-year old costume maker who started producing "Tindog Tacloban" T-shirts just five days after Typhoon Yolanda hit. "Tindog means 'rise'," he explains. The shirts sell for 200 pesos and have enabled Gaurino to give temporary jobs to 20 Tacloban residents who earn 250 pesos each per a day.

     "We sell 100 of these T-shirts a day. They are in demand," he said. "They're a sign of hope."

Simon Roughneen, a Yangon-based reporter, was in Tacloban and the surrounding areas of Leyte Province over Christmas 2013.

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