TIME The Philippines

Tacloban Survived the World’s Strongest Recorded Storm, but Only Just

Per Liljas Eric and Roby Mameta by their house in Tacloban, in the Philippines, on Oct. 8, 2014, next to one of the ships that were washed ashore by supertyphoon Haiyan

The Philippine city hardest hit by Supertyphoon Haiyan a year ago is still struggling to come to terms with what happened

Darkness settles over the Philippine city of Tacloban and over Ameberto Atchecoso’s mind. His life, as he knew it, ended on Nov. 8 last year, when Supertyphoon Haiyan ripped through the provincial capital of Eastern Visayas. As always, during a major typhoon, his wife left their wooden house to take shelter one of the ward’s sturdy concrete buildings, while Atchecoso stayed back to protect their belongings.

“But we weren’t prepared for the water,” he says.

In a matter of minutes, their house was flooded and sucked out toward the ocean. Atchecoso was swept into the onrushing swell, but managed to regain his footing and make it to another building down the street, dodging debris flying in the air. An hour later, when the worst had passed, he found that the house where his wife had been taking shelter was completely submerged, leaving no survivors.

“Since then I can’t sleep, so I drink every night,” he says.

Supertyphoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, made landfall as the most ferocious storm in recorded history, when it lashed Eastern Visayas with wind speeds exceeding 300 km/h. A tsunami-like storm-surge deluged communities along the eastern seaboards of Leyte and Samar islands, claiming at least 6,300 lives and displacing 4 million people.

International responders have since managed to feed and find emergency shelter for the affected population. Cash-for-work programs saw a clearing of debris in a matter of weeks. There’s been no major outbreak of disease. But that doesn’t mean that everything is O.K.

“The government money that’s beginning to flow into the area needs to be invested in proper rebuilding,” says Julie Lyn Hall, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in the Philippines. “The worry is that we’re starting to lose momentum. Without a further push, we’ll leave services dangerously vulnerable. And as the initial period of survival is starting to pass, despair is becoming more apparent.”

Tacloban was the hardest hit of all affected communities. Located at the end of a narrow bay, it took the brunt of the storm surge that was up to 7 m high. Concrete houses were reduced to their skeletons, and others flattened to the ground. For weeks, the city was smothered in debris, its air saturated by the nauseating stench of putrefying corpses. Mobs of desperate inhabitants scoured the streets for nourishment, picking clean every mall, warehouse or mom-and-pop store in their way. Some held up and pillaged from trucks that were bringing in aid.

Ronald Barsana saws felled coconut trees in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 6, 2014
Per LiljasRonald Barsana saws felled coconut trees in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 6, 2014.

Today, many parts of Tacloban are teeming with the hustle and bustle of commerce, and construction sites are dominating the cityscape. But Bernardita Valenzuela, information chief at the City Hall, emphasizes that this is but a superficial impression.

“It looks good, but underneath we’re still lacking food, safe housing and livelihood,” she says.

Since there are no local revenues to speak of, Tacloban is almost wholly dependent on external assistance. Frustration is growing over a lagging dispersal of recovery funds.

“The international community saved us from falling flat on our faces,” Valenzuela says. “But our own national government has not helped, and that for me is unpardonable.” A power drill almost drowns out her words. “We received a check to repair the City Hall, civic center and public markets, but that’s not what we need. We can work even if this building doesn’t have a nice facade, but 800 families still live in tents. For me, that’s heart wrenching.”

Valenzuela shares the view of many locals that the absence of funding has to do with the long-standing feud between the families of Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Romualdez’ uncle, former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is widely believed to have had a hand in the execution of Aquino’s father. Marc Singer, a senior analyst at Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA), says that the central government clearly had “no great love” for Tacloban before Haiyan, but highlights still another reason for the delayed release of monies.

“The administration came to power on a clear anticorruption platform,” he says. “Two months after Haiyan, the construction of resettlement homes came to a halt amid allegations of price rigging and corruption. Since then the government has been very cautious about allocating funds, and delays in the recovery also persist due to bureaucracy and a lack of resources.”

On Oct. 30, President Aquino finally approved a $3.8 billion plan, supported mainly by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to rebuild infrastructure, resettle a million people and provide livelihood assistance. Some 25,000 people across the province still live in transitional housing. Another 200,000 or so live in partially repaired but ramshackle dwellings in zones deemed unsafe for habitation. They are all extremely vulnerable to new storms. Only a tenth of all evacuation centers are still usable in a region extremely prone not only to typhoons, but also volcanoes, landslides, floods and earthquakes. Finding safe land is an enormous challenge.

“If you overlap maps of all hazards you will find that there is no available land that is not prone to disaster,” says Luiza Carvalho, the U.N.’s resident and humanitarian coordinator.

While the international community came together for an unprecedented mobilization of relief, donor fatigue has now set in. The U.N.’s Strategic Response Plan has only received about half of the funds it requires.

“Unfortunately, the resources are lagging behind for the recovery phase,” says Carvalho. “Twenty-six percent of our funds have come from individuals, and that’s fantastic, but most of that’s been earmarked for the humanitarian response.”

Among the international development community, Haiyan is now being talked about as “the new normal.” The Philippines is hit by more typhoons than any other country, and their frequency and severity are seemingly increasing. In the two years leading up to Haiyan, two other supertyphoons pummeled the country. A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes that the intensity of typhoons over the past 40 years has increased by 25%, and the duration of the storms has extended. Earlier this fall, Supertyphoon Vongfang bypassed the Philippines at the last minute, averting a humanitarian crisis potentially worse than the one wrought by Haiyan.

Mayor Romualdez, whose home was also gutted in the storm, has become something of a spokesperson for disaster-prone cities in international climate panels during the past year. He is advocating a global climate discussion at the local government level, and spending on advance planning rather than relief.

“You have to start asking why millions of lives continue to perish while billions of dollars are being spent,” he tells TIME. “If you plan smarter cities you end up spending only 10% when disaster strikes. You have to see this as an investment, not a cost. Like vaccination and prevention instead of waiting for the emergency.”

Carvalho agrees. “Mitigation programs are often not as popular as resilience and disaster-risk reduction programs, but they can be efficient,” she says.

While an impressive total of $3.04 billion has been allocated for climate-change adaption and mitigation programs, there is little immediate comfort for the region’s working poor. Around 1 million people made their livings from the now devastated coconut plantations. For generations, people have been relying on the trees’ steady yield of nuts, leaves and edible sap. Withstanding extreme weather for up to a hundred years, the slender, flexible trunks were a metaphor of the inhabitants’ own resilience. However, the record-breaking winds of Haiyan proved too fierce, and rendered 15 million trees unproductive.

“We used to lead a simple, happy life before the storm,” says Lerio Sabulao, barangay captain, or neighborhood leader, in the little village of Maslog on the island of Samar. “The coco trees provided 80% of our income. Now we’re totally reliant on fishing — except there’s not that much fish as before either.”

Per LiljasRonald Barsana sows a coconut seedling in Maslog, the Philippines, on Oct. 5, 2014.

In the outskirts of the village, Ronald Barsana heaps a thin layer of soil on top of a sprouting coconut. Fully grown trees are scattered like jackstraws around him. His economic security, a plantation inherited from his grandparents, was demolished during one exceptionally stormy night.

“When I saw the destruction, I thought, All is lost, we’re going to starve,” he says.

The first months after the typhoon, a well-wisher lent Barsana a chainsaw, with which he cut up his felled trees and built new houses both for himself and others. But money for further houses quickly evaporated, which meant that his logs started to rot.

“The life as a farmer was tough already before the storm,” he says. “I dream that my children will finish school, unlike me.”

However, these days, eking a living off taro and other vegetables he’s planted on the little slope behind his house, that dream seems far away. He can only afford two meals a day, let alone school supplies for his children. And his coconut seedlings will not carry fruit for another five to 10 years.

Aid organizations and the Philippine government are ramping up programs to provide affected populations in the countryside with employment. Richard S. Bolt, country director at the Asian Development Bank, acknowledges the enormous challenge to get the region’s coconut farmers back on their feet. But he also sees opportunities to “diversify away from relatively low-productivity coconut and introduce new higher-yielding varieties, as well as better institutional arrangements for organizing farmers to disseminate better production practices.”

Steven Rood of the Asia Foundation also sees hopes for the medium and long term. “The macro-economic outlook is good, insofar as direct government work, direct cash transfers, increased school spending and health spending will be helping the poorest the most. A better investment in human capital, even for rice and coconut farmers, can quickly make a discernible change.”

PSA’s Singer points out that the region was the second poorest in the Philippines before the typhoon.

“When we’re talking about rebuilding, and building back better, we need an appreciation of what was there before. The Eastern Visayas has always been an economic backwater, producing less than 3% of the nation’s GDP.”

And in the meantime, Haiyan’s survivors must learn to process their grief.

“Everyone who came here has been surprised by the Filipinos’ remarkable resilience and willingness to pick themselves up and start afresh,” says Hall of WHO. “But people are beginning to be very low, and there’s a great need of mental-health services. The one-year anniversary of the typhoon, Christmas and the Pope’s visit in January will be very important to help them get through these tough times.”

So will music. R&B streams out from a function room in an upscale restaurant in Tacloban. The City Hall choir and a five-man band are rehearsing for the commemorative ceremony on Nov. 8. Whitney Houston is mixed in with old Filipino hits.

“I get goose bumps and almost start crying when I sing some of these songs,” says 17-year-old Maria Teresa Roben. “Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking of the typhoon and all the children that died, [including] my classmate. The sound when the water entered our house, the hopelessness and feeling that I was going to die. Before, I didn’t believe in God, but now I pray every day.”

Mayor Romualdez is present, as he is during most rehearsals.

“We have to protect our next generation so they can strive for the Filipino Dream,” he says. “Their peace of mind is extremely important. They have to be able to sleep without fearing a new flood.”

The one-year anniversary of a relative’s death is called babang luksa in the Philippines, and is an important date typically observed with rituals. For this babang luksa, the mayor’s office in Tacloban is organizing a commemorative walk, a memorial service by the main mass grave and a large candle-lighting ceremony. It is expected to draw a great crowd, but some prefer to spend the day alone. Ameberto Atchecoso is going to light candles by the building where his wife died. Then he is going to slaughter the pig he bought as part of their retirement fund.

There’s so much talk about the future in Tacloban, but all ordinary people like Atchecoso can think about is the here and now.

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