Friday, February 21, 2014

Philippine Notes: As a Country Rebuilds, Rosie Waits

Like millions displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, Rosie Tolibas has survived -- only to have nowhere to go

By Don Clemmer

The orange facade of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Tanauan, Philippines, stands largely unblemished beneath the now-clear sky. The 300-year-old shrine soaks in the 90-degree morning heat as children run and play. In every direction, buildings bear the marks of Typhoon Haiyan with sheared-off roofs, shattered windows and crumbled walls.

Across the church's driveway, in the shade afforded by a ramshackle structure of wood and tarp, sits Generosa "Rosie" Tolibas. She sits and waits because there is nothing else to do.

Tolibas, 77, is one of the 4 million people displaced by the Nov. 8 storm, called Yolanda in the Philippines. Believed to be the most powerful storm ever to make landfall, it devastated cities including Tanauan, Palo and Tacloban, as well as rural areas all across the island of Leyte.

Tolibas was one of the only people among her neighbors in the coastal community of San Roque to evacuate. The mayor had gone around warning everyone, she says, but her neighbors did not leave because "they did not think it's a strong typhoon."

This reaction was common. "When the warning came that there would be a storm surge, people didn't know what this meant," says Elizabeth Tromans, regional technical advisor for emergencies at Catholic Relief Services. Had the warning been that there would be a large tidal wave or a "tsunami-like wave," she says, people might have evacuated in larger numbers.

An army truck brought Tolibas to a nearby gymnasium, where she stayed overnight. The typhoon hit early in the morning. As the wind rocked the gym and the water of the storm surge reached her waist, she clamored for something to climb onto, but found nothing.

"I prayed to God. I said 'Please help us,'" she recalls. "Everybody was crying."

Someone in the gym died.

The typhoon produced a storm surge of 8-15 feet and crossed the entire country as a category 5 storm, rather than weakening after making landfall. It left more than 6,000 people dead, 1,500 missing and 20 miles of coastal devastation. Tolibas would soon learn her house had been completely destroyed, one of the half million homes damaged or destroyed by the storm.

A few days later, Tolibas had left the gym, which was "already polluted in there, very dirty," and relocated to Our Lady of the Assumption, where many displaced people were also sheltered. When a television news reporter turned up at the church, she insisted on talking to him as a way of asking her five adult kids in Manila to come get her.

A week later, her son Mark arrived to pick her up. Rather than leave with him, however, Tolibas said they should stay, as residents were being relocated to transitional housing. Many of them couldn't return to their destroyed homes because the government had designated a "No Build Zone" 40 meters from the coast. Three months later, Tolibas and her son still wait.

Tolibas brings one human face to the many people in the Philippines in need of more permanent housing after the typhoon. It means long days in close quarters with strangers; 50 other families occupy the tent city across the church driveway. In the absence of a stove, she and her son gather firewood from debris in the area.

"It's very hard because it's very hot in here," she says. "And when the rain comes, we are flooded inside."

"The sad things is everyone is traumatized," says Howard Bacayana, a CRS hygiene promotion officer and native of the island of Mindanao, Philippines. The children in the community show signs of trauma, he says.

"Every time it rains it comes back."
Howard Bacayana of CRS stands next to a fresh water bladder for the residents of the tent city at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Tanauan, Philippines. The community goes through one 10,000-liter bladder in two days.

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