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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  Per Liljas

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

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

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 t he 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.”


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

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.

Villagers carry religious statues during a procession before taking part in a Latin mass ceremony at a local Chapel in Santa Rita township on November 22, 2013 in Eastern Samar, Philippines.
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Villagers carry religious statues during a procession before taking part in a Latin mass ceremony at a local Chapel in Santa Rita township on November 22, 2013 in Eastern Samar, Philippines.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Villagers carry religious statues during a procession before taking part in a Latin mass ceremony at a local Chapel in Santa Rita township on November 22, 2013 in Eastern Samar, Philippines.
A photo album lies in the rubble in a neighborhood destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines on November 22, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors stand in the rain and watch as people from their destroyed neighborhood search for dead bodies in the rubble in Tacloban, Philippines on November 22, 2013.
A man and his child sleep inside a Catholic Cathedral where they and other Typhoon Haiyan survivors are taking shelter in Tacloban, Philippines on November 22, 2013.
A woman arranges religious statues during a Latin mass ceremony at a local Chapel in Santa Rita township on November 22, 2013 in Eastern Samar, Philippines.
Residents work to clear debris left in the aftermath by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippine city of Tacloban on November 21, 2013.
A damaged statue of Jesus Christ that was recovered from rubbles is placed in a church in an area wrecked by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban November 21, 2013.
A general view of the destruction in Tolosa on November 21, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Employees sift through rubbish looking for retrievable items at the Nena's Trading store on November 21, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Filipino villagers force open a washed up container containing grocery items in the super typhoon devastated city of Tacloban, Leyte island province, Philippines, November 20, 2013.
Bodies are seen on a road before being placed in a mass grave on the outskirts of Tacloban City on November 20, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Children who survived Typhoon Haiyan blow bubbles in the destroyed market of Tacloban, Philippines, November 20, 2013.
A typhoon victim constructs his new home in Tanauan on November 20, 2013.
A Typhoon Haiyan survivor and his sons eat dinner by candlelight inside a destroyed and abandoned vegetable market now used as a shelter in Tacloban, Philippines, November 20, 2013.
A family sleeps in the hull of a tanker in a particularly badly damaged part of Tacloban on November 19, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
A man fans flames on a fire in Tanauan, Leyte province, Philippines, on November 19, 2013.
Filipino firemen unload Typhoon Haiyan victims in body bags from a truck on the roadside until forensic experts can register and bury them in a mass grave outside of Tacloban, Philippines on November 19, 2013.
Two broken palm trees stand snapped in half on the beach near Tanauan, on November 19, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
A Typhoon Haiyan survivor sleeps in the back of an abandoned minibus in Tacloban, Philippines, November 19, 2013.
People march in the rain Tacloban, Philippines during a procession to call for courage and resilience among their Typhoon Haiyan survivors on November 19, 2013.
Market stall holders trade goods in Tacloban on November 19, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
A girl affected by Typhoon Haiyan collects food aid in Tanauan, Philippines on November 19, 2013.
Children, survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, play on swings at a devastated area of Basey, north of Tacloban, November 19, 2013.
A boy sells fish in a neighbourhood damaged by Typhoon Haiyan as life begins to return to normal in Tanauan, Philippines on November 19, 2013.
A woman eats dinner in a damaged building in Tanauan on November 18, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession in Tolosa on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on November 18, 2013.
Forensic experts work on a mass grave with more than 700 bodies of victims of Typhoon Haiyan just outside Tacloban on November 18, 2013.
A Typhoon Haiyan survivor carries a bag of his recovered belongings in the ruins of his rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Tacloban, Philippines on November 18, 2013.
Young residents push a cart as they collect water in an area destroyed in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan on November 18, 2013 in Tacloban, Philippines.
A family gather around a grave of a relative that was killed when Typhoon Haiyan struck their home on November 18, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan wave as a U.S. military helicopter delivering aid flies over their isolated village north of Tacloban, November 17, 2013.
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan rush to grab fresh water delivered by a U.S. military helicopter to their isolated village north of Tacloban, November 17, 2013.
People who trying to leave the devastated town look through the fence of Tacloban airport, which remains a point of exodus for survivors of typhoon Haiyan, November 17, 2013.
A man salvages wood in a neighbourhood destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines on November 17, 2013.
A woman prays during mass with an umbrella to protect herself from the rain coming in through the Santo Nino Church roof that was damaged by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines on November 17, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors walk through the ruins in the streets of Tacloban, Philippines, November 17, 2013.
People play by a fire in a neighborhood destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines on November 16, 2013.
The body of a man killed by Typhoon Haiyan is washed up along the shore in Tacloban, Philippines on November 16, 2013.
Soldiers and search and rescue teams collect bodies of people killed by Typhoon Haiyan in Tanuan, Philippines on November 15, 2013.
A Typhoon Haiyan survivor carries a child wrapped in a towel as he watches a helicopter landing to bring aid to the destroyed town of Guiuan, Samar Island, Philippines, November 15, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors play basketball at the destroyed port in the town of Guiuan, Philippines on November 15, 2013.
A woman stands in the kitchen of her home destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Tanuan, Philippines on November 15, 2013.
A man who's home was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan sits by a candle light in the rubble of his home in Tanuan, Philippines on November 15, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors walk through ruins in the village of Maraboth, in the Philippines on November 14, 2013.
People carry the coffin of a victim of Typhoon Haiyan into a cemetery near a mass grave site, on the outskirts of Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte on November 14, 2013.
People from a remote island that was cut off by Haiyan Typhoon walk on the street in the street in Homonhon Island, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
Children run towards a U.S. military aircraft as it arrives to distribute aid to Typhoon Haiyan survivors in the destroyed town of Guiuan, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors help carry USAID donated food after a U.S. military helicopter unloaded it in the destroyed town of Guiuan, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
Displaced people effected by Haiyan Typhoon queue in the rain for the first aid delivery at a displacement camp in Tacloban, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
Displaced people effected by Haiyan Typhoon queue in the rain for the first aid delivery at a displacement camp in Tacloban, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan survivors ride motorbikes through the ruins of the destroyed town of Guiuan, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
People effected by Typhoon Haiyan wait in the rain at the airport to board an evacuation flight in Tacloban, Philippines on November 14, 2013.
A view of Filipino typhoon survivors prior their boarding on a US C-130 plane in the super typhoon devastated city of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, November 13, 2013.
Men remove the body of a woman killed by Haiyan Typhoon in Tacloban, Philippines on November 13, 2013.
A neighborhood destroyed by Haiyan Typhoon in Tacloban, Philippines on November 13, 2013.
A man washes outside his temporary home on the site of his former home that was destroyed by Haiyan Typhoon in Tacloban, Philippines on November 13, 2013.
Members of a Philippines rescue team carry corpses in body bags as they search for the dead in the Typhoon Haiyan ravaged city of Tacloban on November 13, 2013.
A woman rests on a roadside with her family's belongings near the Typhoon Haiyan ravaged town of Tacloban, Philippines on November 13, 2013.
People effected by Typhoon Haiyan react after being unable to board a US military aid evacuation flight from Tacloban Airport in Tacloban, on Leyte Island, Philippines on November 12, 2013.
Dead bodies are unloaded at a makeshift morgue in Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte on November 12, 2013 after Super Typhoon Haiyan swept over the Philippines.
Police forensics line up bodies for processing at Tacloban City Hall after Typhoon Haiyan slammed the city in Leyte province, central Philippines, November 12, 2013.
A woman carrying a child cries as they and other survivors of Supertyphoon Haiyan wait to board an aircraft during an evacuation in the Philippine town of Tacloban on Nov. 12, 2013
An elderly lady and an injured man are carried to a waiting C130 aircraft during the evacuation of hundreds of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Tacloban, Philippines.
A woman holding a baby comforts a crying relative as a plane leaves the airport during evacuation operations in Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte on November 12, 2013 after Super Typhoon Haiyan swept over the Philippines.
A body wrapped in cloth labeled only with a name is left on a pew at St. Michael The Archangel Chapel in Tacloban, central Philippines, November 12, 2013.
An aerial view of a coastal town, devastated by super Typhoon Haiyan, in Samar province in central Philippines, November 11, 2013.
A surivor walks among the debris of houses destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban in the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on November 11, 2013.
Aerial photo showing uprooted coconut trees on a hill near the town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar province in the central Philippines on November 11, 2013 only days after Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the town on November 8.
Survivors look up at a military C-130 plane as it arrives at typhoon-ravaged Tacloban city, Leyte province in central Philippines on Nov. 11, 2013.
Emily Ortega, 21, gives birth to baby girl Bea Joy, after being in labor for five hours at an improvised clinic at Tacloban Airport in Tacloban city, central Philippines.
Soldiers and residents look at the devastation of the town from a military aid supplies distribution truck after the Super typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines November 11, 2013.
Two young boys look at the devastation in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 10, 2013 in Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines.
Survivors stand among debris and ruins of houses on Nov. 10, 2013, after Supertyphoon Haiyan battered the city of Tacloban, in central Philippines
A Filipino father and his children wait for food relief outside their makeshift tent in the supertyphoon-devastated city of Tacloban, in the Philippines' Leyte province, on Nov. 10, 2013
Filipino villagers carrying their belongings during a heavy downpour walk past rubble of houses in the supertyphoon-devastated city of Tacloban, in the Philippines' Leyte province, on Nov. 10, 2013
The body of a dead man is seen in Tacloban, in Leyte province, on Nov. 10, 2013, after Supertyphoon Haiyan swept over the Philippines
Filipinos rush in front of a store in the super typhoon devastated city of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, November 10, 2013.
A Filipino store owner aims a pistol and warn looters trying to enter his store in the super typhoon devastated city of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, November 10, 2013.
A resident drinks water beside large ships that were washed ashore by strong waves caused by Typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban city, Leyte province, central Philippines, Nov. 10, 2013.
The body of a typhoon victim lies on a door after Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines, November 10, 2013.
Residents wheel a family member to the cemetery on Nov. 10, 2013, in Santa Fe, in the Philippines' Leyte province
Survivors stay in their damaged house after super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city, central Philippines November 10, 2013.
Empty coffins lie on a street near ruined houses on Nov. 10, 2013, after Supertyphoon Haiyan battered the city of Tacloban, in central Philippines
A motorist crosses a collapsed highway caused by the storm surge in Palo, in Leyte province, on Nov. 10, 2013
A Filipino family with their month-old baby in what is left of their home after Supertyphoon Haiyan swept through in Madridejos, in the Philippines' Cebu province, Nov. 9, 2013
Residents return to their houses after leaving an evacuation site in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, eastern island of Leyte on November 9, 2013.
Filipinos walk past a victim left on the side of a street in the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban, in the Philippines' Leyte province, on Nov. 9, 2013
A truck is seen on a tree in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Haiyan in Tacloban, the Philippines, on Nov. 9, 2013
A mother weeps beside her dead son at a chapel in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Haiyan in Tacloban, in Leyte province, Nov. 9, 2013
Survivors walk past a damaged town on Nov. 9, 2013, after strong winds brought by Supertyphoon Haiyan battered Tacloban, in central Philippines
A resident walks by remains of houses on Nov. 9, 2013, after Supertyphoon Haiyan slammed into Tacloban, in the Philippines' Leyte province
Families of indigenous Filipino Badjao seek refuge inside a gymnasium turned into an evacuation center during a heavy downpour brought by Supertyphoon Haiyan in the Philippines' Cebu province on Nov. 8, 2013
Residents stand along a sea wall as high waves pounded them amidst strong winds as Typhoon Haiyan hit the city of Legaspi, Albay province, south of Manila on November 8, 2013.
Villagers carry religious statues during a procession before taking part in a Latin mass ceremony at a local Chapel in Santa Rita township on November 22, 2013 in Eastern Samar, Ph
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