Aid Worker Diary: Coping in Tacloban

18 November, 2013
10 November, Philippines: Two children walk past downed trees and other destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City one of the areas worst affected by the disaster. Credit: UNICEF
10 November, Philippines: Two children walk past downed trees and other destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City one of the areas worst affected by the disaster. Credit: UNICEF

“Hey you, where are you from?” a young boy yells down to me from the balcony of his family’s apartment. He has a cheeky smile, and he raises his eyebrows in a mock challenge.

“Australia!” I yell back.

“Australia…,” he chews this over for a moment. “Huh… Australia. Philippines is more fun!”

Activity is returning to the streets of Tacloban City, one of the areas worst affected by Typhoon Haiyan. In the few days since I arrived here, the streets are noticeably busier. There are more cars and pedestrians moving about. Some businesses are even re-opening: small confectionary shops mainly, but a restaurant around the corner from our camp opened over the weekend.

The boy’s cheekiness and the new life on the streets speak to the resilience of the people here. Even after all they have been through, they still have the traits that are so familiar to this country’s visitors– the friendliness, pride and sense of humour. I wonder how I would cope if I had been through something similar.

A city ruined

None of this changes the desperate situation that people such as this boy and his family now face. This city is ruined. Every building, it seems, was affected. Anything made from wood was smashed apart by the massive storm surge. The wind ripped roofs off the few buildings that were left standing. Windows were destroyed, power lines brought down and roads filled with debris.

Across the affected area–which stretches right across Central Philippines–an estimated 1 million houses have been damaged or destroyed. In all, between 10 and 13 million people were affected in some way. Of these people, 4 million were forced from their homes. This is a massive crisis.

Sense of momentum

The first days of the humanitarian response were slow. The Government and aid organizations struggled to bring supplies into battered airports. There were fuel shortages across the affected area. The storm damaged and destroyed vehicles throughout the city, and many of those vehicles that survived were driven away as people fled the city.

But this is all changing. I arrived in Tacloban a week after Haiyan, just as things were starting to pick up. The road from the airport was cleared. Planes laden with relief supplies are landing regularly and being swiftly emptied and dispatched. We now have access to a dedicated fuel supply for humanitarian vehicles and there are more vehicles available (many having been driven down from Manila and elsewhere).

Aid is getting out, more people are being reached and the full picture is becoming clearer. There is a real sense of momentum here. But it’s not yet enough. We need to do more.

Strength and resilience

My morning encounter with the cheeky young patriot made me think of a conversation I had over the weekend. I was speaking with a journalist who told me about his trip to Tanauan – to the south of Tacloban. There, he met a woman who had lost her husband and who could not find her sister. She was living on a pile of debris. Bodies littered the area.

Even in the midst of all this, my journalist friend said that this woman was so interested in him, in his life. Once they finished speaking, as he began to walk away, she called out to him: “Merry Christmas for next month!”

His voice broke as he told me: “I couldn’t believe it. She’d just lost everything, but she wished me happy Christmas. These people are so strong. They are so kind.”

Reporting by Matt Cochrane, OCHA Public Information Officer in Tacloban, Philippines

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