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By Jess Henley[1]

When I left the UK, I had no idea what to expect on arrival in Tacloban.  I’d never been to the Philippines and all I knew was that I was about to enter the most severely affected area of the biggest Typhoon ever to hit land – the famous Typhoon Haiyan, known to the locals as Yolanda.  It was ten months since the storm and the scene was still shocking.  On leaving the airport, an eerie silence filled the car as we made our way through Tent City.   UNICEF and Red Cross tents peppered amongst makeshift houses built from debris, made up a giant shanty town that consumed the landscape for miles; there wasn’t a solid building in sight.    As the airport is on a split of land surrounded by sea, every home had been obliterated.   And this was just the start.  I was here as a guest of EcoWEB and over the next ten days, Nanette Antequisa, the Executive Director and Founder of EcoWEB,  and Cho Locop from Just Projects International  went on to show me just how desperate the situation was – and still is. 

I was taken on the ‘disaster tour’, said with a wry smile.  In Anibong, one of the central barangays (boroughs) of Tacloban, ships had been washed inland by the tidal wave storm surge, destroying everything in their path and burying anyone who got in their way.  Along the water front, thousands of temporary homes had been hastily constructed on decimated land, none strong enough to withstand the power of another storm.  Survivors were using a well to wash with and scavenging for food.  Relief assistance hadn’t been seen since April and although the Government were supposedly relocating them, they’d not heard word of it for months.  The situation seemed hopeless and I left feeling the weight of their struggle heavily on my shoulders.   It took all my willpower not to weep.  Slightly further along our tour, Cho pointed out a huge dilapidated building with red ironwork that had once been its roof, twisted into gnarly shapes.  It used to be the local gym and attempted to shelter over 3000 people during the typhoon, only to collapse, killing them all.  Moving on we stopped at an elementary school.  In front of us was one of the many mass graves in the area.  On closer inspection, I noticed nearly all the plaques were for children.  Goose-bumps covered my body and tears sprung to my eyes.  Cho talked of children clinging onto roof beams in order to keep their heads above the rushing water but sadly many of them weren’t strong enough and got swept away.  In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the utter horror of what these people had gone through.  According to official figures 6,300 people died but Cho commented that amongst the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) over 50,000 body bags were used...

Next we travelled into Dulag, a sprawling provincial town in the middle of the jungle.  Here EcoWEB are funding their BALA’I project, re-housing  forty families into resilient core shelters.  Driving down the dusty road, the skyline was scarily empty where coconut trees used to fight for space.  Those still standing were sharply decapitated; aggressive spikes replacing tree tops which had been snatched away by the storm.  Stories from the locals left me feeling cold.  Cowering in the corners of the school they’d evacuated to, they clutched their ears in a bid to soften the deafening roar of Yolanda which raged at 300km per hour, for five hours.  “It felt like the ground was going to rise up and eat us” says Erlinda Adonis, mother of eight and one of a hundred families who found shelter in the school.  They were there for four days, knee deep in water and unable to escape the torrential rain once the roof was ripped off in the wind.  On returning to their homes, every one of them found bare land and fallen trees where their homes once stood.  Erlinda told me how she’d sacrificed two and a half years of her children’s youth so she could work as a house help in Manila to raise enough money to build a new home for her family.  Her house was completed just five days before Yolanda promptly tore it down again.  Josephine Tapalla was three months pregnant at the time.  Alongside sixteen other families she found shelter with her husband and three other children (aged one to six) in the only sturdy concrete house in the area.  She still shudders from the memory of everyone screaming and praying through their tears that they would survive.  Now, ten months later, her children still have nightmares and are terrified every time there’s heavy rain and thunder - they believe it’s starting all over again. 

Thankfully Dulag has the aid of EcoWEB and other organisations to help with the rehabilitation effort.  Other areas aren’t so fortunate.  With the tireless campaigning of Nanette – one of the most inspirational women I have ever met - EcoWEB are not only helping rebuild homes, they are also establishing sustainable livelihoods so everyone will have ongoing work and incomes.  They are educating and empowering the survivors by teaching them the importance of working together so they can establish themselves as a secure, growing community.  I could already see the positive influence of her work and her enthusiasm is infectious.  She is constantly thinking of and developing new ways to establish work and businesses, from manufacturing concrete bricks (hollow blocks) out of local materials; to organic pig farming – a much needed industry in Leyte which currently imports a lot of its pork from Mindanao the neighbouring island, as demand for the most popular meat way surpasses supply.  Having accompanied her to Government meetings and seen her passion in action, I have no doubt she will succeed in making a difference and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to see her at work.

During my stay, Cho was adamant that she also wanted to take me to some of beautiful sights in the area so I wouldn’t leave with the impression that this desperation was the only side to the Philippines.  We spent a gorgeous day visiting historical caves and natural swimming pools but for me the beauty of the Philippines lies with its people.  Travelling on my own, I never once felt alone.  Even in such a fraught, desperate time, every Filipino I met was exceptionally kind and welcoming, offering hospitality even when they had nothing to give.  I was blown away by their resilience in the face of such destruction, and although so much still needs to be done, Tacloban is a buzzy, lively city fighting to regain its status as an industrial hub. 

With typhoon season looming imminently, November and December are going to be trying months as the majority of people don’t have homes strong enough to withstand another storm.   A disaster on this scale will take years to overcome and it is imperative that it is not forgotten and more is done to help.  The relief effort can seem overwhelming, but little by little, with donations, volunteers and aid work, a huge amount can be achieved.  As Cho said to me, the Filipinos don’t see themselves as victims; they see themselves as survivors.  It is this mentality that will keep this province growing from strength to strength despite the challenges ahead - it’s just a question of perseverance and maintaining hope.

[1] Jess Henley is the Acting Beauty Director at IPC Lifestyle - Woman, Essentials, Woman's Own, Woman's Weekly