Despair and hope after Typhoon Haiyan

28th Nov 2013

Residents walk near vehicles and debris floating on a river after Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban city in central Philippines November 10, 2013. Credit: Erik de Castro / Reuters

Until Friday, 8 November, Elegario Ocdol led a fairly ordinary life. The 38-year-old elementary school teacher worked hard to provide for his wife Maricar and five children. He was worried about his debts and went crab fishing regularly, which helped feed his family. 
 
That Friday, his life - and the lives of millions of others - changed forever.  
 
"We heard on the news that we should leave our homes because of a typhoon and a storm surge. So we and other families went to the elementary school." 
 
Hours later, Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines. On the island of Samar, the seaside town of Basey - where Ocdol's family lived - lay in its path. Through the night, Ocdol listened fearfully as winds and rising seawater battered his community.  
 
"In the morning, when we saw everything destroyed, we wept." 
 
As we stand in the rubble of Ocdol's home, the reason for those tears is shockingly obvious. Most of the house and its contents have vanished. Only jagged pieces of fabric, metal and crockery lie strewn across the stone floor: traces of a life reduced to a memory. 
 
Haiyan delivered a deadly double blow. First came one of the strongest storms to make landfall in history. Then followed a storm surge: a phenomenon that's hard to comprehend until you see the effects. The sea rose 5-6 metres high before ramming into coastal towns and farmlands like a train ploughing through a street of dolls houses. 
 
I drive with a team of Oxfam colleagues to the expanding front line of a crucial but challenged relief effort. We drive through city streets lined with debris and rough rural roads flanked by wood and metal shacks ripped to shreds. 


We pass farmlands sodden with seawater and studded with coconut trees snapped in half like match sticks, their missing trunks often blocking rural roads, snapping power lines, or crushing flimsy shacks.  Ocdol's story is painfully retold across a devastated region.  
 
In some cases, it's even worse. About 35km by road from Basey, on the neighbouring island of Leyte, lies the coastal town of Palo. They're still pulling out bodies from the mounds of rubble where lively neighbourhoods once stood. Hundreds are still missing: most are assumed dead, their bodies lying trapped beneath the rubble. 
 
"It's good it's raining today," whispers an Oxfam colleague, "or the smell would be everywhere."
 
My colleague has come to Palo coordinate relief plans with local officials. I watch aid workers erect a tent city for some of the people who survived Haiyan. About 200 metres away, low mounds of sandy grey soil cover the mass graves of more than 300 people who did not. 
 
The office of Palo's mayor, Remedios "Matin" Petilla, is a bustling market of aid workers, municipal staff, engineers, medical personnel, nuns, and others seeking or offering information or support.  


Coordinating all this is a huge task. The government's system for disaster responses was overwhelmed by Haiyan's scale. There have been gaps, especially in terms of logistics and communications, hampering relief work. 
 
"After the typhoon, our administration was badly affected, our communications were lost - it took three days to pull our team together," says Petilla.
 
Once they'd regrouped, Petilla's staff worked with doctors, local nuns and others to set up emergency medical services. Support from local and international aid organisations as well as national and foreign military personnel arrived. I ask Petilla what more the international community can do. 


"Help us rebuild," she replies.  


"I get depressed when I think of all the deaths or see the damage. But if we can rebuild well, there is hope." 


Back in Basey, Ocdol's family are sheltering with 8 other families in the damaged local library. There's no toilet, or washroom: a standing water pump outside is used for washing.  
 
Like many others made homeless by Haiyan, Ocdol has no idea where his family will end up. Standing in the remains of his home, Ocdol's eyes brim with tears. 


"My oldest child talked about becoming a doctor. That was my dream too. Now, my children's future is in darkness." 


There is, potentially, a flame of hope flickering in the gloom. The first priority in any disaster is to save lives and prevent illness and disease spreading. But as Palo's mayor notes, there also comes an opportunity to rebuild broken communities and leave them more resilient in the face of future shocks. 


"We can't just put people back into shacks," says Petilla.  


The Philippines frequently experiences typhoons - a hazard made more severe by climate change. The region most affected by Haiyan is also one of the poorest. Such poverty traps families in flimsy homes, deepening debt, and no means of self recovery when typhoons strike.  


With international backing, the Philippines government can drive a major redevelopment of the disaster zone that invests in safer, more prosperous communities. It should also strengthen those authorities, emergency services and local organisations at the frontline of any emergency.  


If that happens, we can lift the darkness now descending on millions of Filipino children and turn this disaster into an opportunity to mend their shattered dreams.