I went back to Tacloban one year after the biggest typhoon believed to ever make land struck the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left death and destruction, destroying people’s jobs, their homes, their schools and health clinics. There was so much debris on the road from the airport to the town it prevented the much needed rescue operation getting under way for several days.
I visited with the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, flying over the city and it was like as if somebody had tossed their toys out of a pram. Masts were mangled, cars and motorcycle taxis strewn around, ships gone aground and everywhere the corrugated tin roofs and houses blown to shreds.
A tidal wave caused by the storm killed many hundred of people living along the shoreline in shanty towns. One aid worker travelling to a meeting a few days after the typhoon saw the leg of a dead child sticking out from under the debris.
Stopping at the spot to rescue the body on his return, they lifted some of the debris to find 50 bodies beneath. These were the poorest of the poor; the people who live in shanty towns built on the shores of the ocean and whose only means of earning a living is by fishing. Many are undocumented, probably never registered at birth adding to the uncertainty of just how many died during that time – we may never know the true numbers.
One year on and Tacloban is a different city. Traffic is back, people are trading on the streets again, the city is alive. There are large numbers of very vulnerable people who remain living in less than ideal conditions and there are concerns that when the next puff of wind comes along, they will be the most affected. The very poor have no safety nets. To truly protect them, you would first need to tackle the problem of endemic poverty.
However, standing in the streets of Tacloban and looking around the improvement is remarkable and visible. All is not perfect, but in true Filipino fashion, they have dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives. Their resilience is awe inspiring and often times humbling.
Jeff Manibay is one such example of Filipino resilience. Both his elderly parents died during the typhoon. “We are well used to typhoons,” he told me, “but nobody expected the tsunami-like surge of water that came.” With the death of his parents Manibay lost almost everything he held dear, including his business.
The owner of a small cable network Cat8, all Jeff’s equipment was lost when the ocean surge crashed through the streets of Tacloban. His team were out filming the typhoon at the time.
Rather than wallowing in pity, Manibay set out to rebuild his life, energising the community and bringing them together to remember those who were lost during the typhoon. He organised the candlelight vigil and worked tirelessly to ensure people across the Philippines and the world do not forget what happened to them.
Mass was celebrated at the graveyard in the morning where the victims were buried. Thousands came to mourn their dead. I watched one woman stand alone at a grave, head bent, sobbing silently. She was like so many others who came. The heads of the UN agencies came to pay their respect, as did the non-government organisations who were so crucial to the recovery efforts in the clean up operation.
Tacloban is Marcos-country and Imelda herself arrived via helicopter. She was then brought in a wheelchair to the awning, where she sat at the top row. I know the woman is 85 years-old but she has had some amount of plastic surgery, not a line on her face, or her make up was so thick you just couldn’t see what was behind the mask. She was wearing a wig and had a beautiful diamond swan broche pinned on her dress. She was wearing a pair of Ecco sandals, which resembled something a nun would wear… I wasn’t impressed with the choice of shoes from a woman whose footwear take up the contents of a museum in Manila.
The Marcos and Aquino families are political opponents, so there was minimal representation from the government, which is currently Aquino-led. The Mayor (a relation of Imelda) is critical of the government’s response to the recovery efforts. At the end of the day everything is political, even rebuilding communities after a typhoon.
That evening people lined the streets in a candlelight vigil that stretched for over 24 kilometres. The atmosphere changed from the somber graveside prayers earlier in the morning to an almost carnival-like celebration with candles lined along the main streets, winding around the side roads and out as far as the settlements housing those who lost their home duirng the storm.
I was privileged to be able to return one year after Typhoon Haiyan; privileged to stand with the people of Tacloban; and privileged to call some my friends.
Imelda Marcos uses her body guards as crutches to help her to her seat at the commemoration mass for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Remembering the dead at the one year anniversary mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Check out some of their stories on unocha.org/philippines
I was just one day in the office in Manila before the first typhoon of 2014 came trundling down the Pacific and crashed into Northern Luzon, striking Manila, Albay and Bataan. It was a bit of a baptism of fire and hopefully not an omen of things to come over the next few months.
Almost 100 people lost their lives in the typhoon and luckily it avoided the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on 8 November 2013. There are still millions of people left homeless in the wake of Haiyan, believed to be the biggest weather system to ever make landfall. Another typhoon hitting them at this time would be catastrophic and indeed I don’t suppose they will be as lucky when the next weather system strikes.
In a typical Filipino fashion, everything and everybody is called something different to their original name. The most recent typhoon was known internationally as Rammasun, but known locally as Glenda. Super-typhoon Haiyan also had a different local name – Yolanda. Confused? Good, because that’s only the start of it. Every single Filipino I know uses a different name to their birth name. The lady who cleans my home is Virgi, short for Virginia, but not her real name, which is something like Rachel. Then I thought, maybe Agnes, one of the senior members of our staff in OCHA, that it was her original name, until I realised she is Maria Agnes…Maria being her first name. Eio from UNDP is Eliot etc.
When I arrived back to Manila the level of in-your-face consumerism once again struck me. The route from the airport to the city is just one massive billboard after another. The latest craze according to one of the billboards is for men’s beauty. “How to have thicker eye brows,” with a picture of a young Filipino male with bushy brows, followed by ads for deodorant that promise to whiten the underarm skin as it reduces odours. I feel bad enough that deodorant is sprayed/rolled under the glands, but mixing it with whitening chemicals… holy moley – just asking for trouble. There’s an obsession with white skin – it always amuses me because Caucasian skin wrinkles and ages more quickly.
Outside my national work colleagues who are well used to working with international colleagues, often times with a healthy and justified disrespect; there are many Filipinos who see having a Caucasian friend as a desirable thing, almost like owning a Mercedes or a pair of Gucci gloves.
My Irish friend here at the moment (Lu) likes to play golf and spends her weekends on some of the golf courses around Manila. She had befriended a woman, in her sixties, who is the epitome of the Filipino wantabe upper middle-classes. I’m not sure whether Raquel just never went out in the sun and used an umbrella like a sun shield (as I do now) or whether she could write a guidebook to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Philippines. In fairness has an amazing figure for a woman of her years. I met her when Lu was invited to a Rotary party for the president’s birthday (husband of the Rotary president, I may add).
Raquel picked us up with her car and driver, dressed in little black sleeveless, over the knee number (dress) and we headed off to Quezeon city. She had her ‘grand daughter’ with her (her friend’s daughter). The child had just celebrated her seventh birthday and was sporting a pair of high heels, in a little yellow dress with matching handbag, containing her iPad. All a bit too much for me I have to say.
We arrived at the party house. The owner runs a wedding business, so there were old white Mercedes all parked alongside the house, decked with plastic flowers. The almost empty room was like a big barn, with between 25 and 30 large circular tables and the music was blasting out of the enormous speakers. The glass look-alike see-through plastic chairs were around each table, draped in blue polyester material, matching the tablecloths. Upside down umbrellas hung from the ceiling and there were several enormous chandeliers, lighting up the fake cherry blossom trees sprouting out of the walls. We were told the party started at six but when we got there at 7 pm we were among the first guests.
I glanced over at my friend and indicated that 30 minutes was probably enough time to stay. Several Rotary people joined the table and made some small talk about humanitarian assistance and the good work they are involved in. When it was time to eat, there was a decent size buffet but I’m reluctant to tuck in on these occasions because of the abundance of monosodium glutamate used in the Philippines and it would be a bit of an understatement to say I don’t react well to MSG. One lady at the table was talking about diets and how she had lost 7 kgs recently. She proceeded to take out a food weighing scales and weight the meat from her plate. She actually cut a piece of meat into small pieces because she was able to have another 20 grammes. It’s just amazing the sad, sad people you bump into some days.
The party goers came in dribs and drabs and we were wheeled out and introduced to people as they arrived, like some sort of show poodles. Everybody was told we worked in the UN and I grinned through my teeth and muttered a few words, jumping from foot to foot to just get out of the place. We made our escape about 8.30 muttering excuses about having to work the next day. As we left there were still only about three full tables out of at least 30 tables.
The following week Lu and myself met or lunch in Fort Bonafacio, a popular shopping spot for the more wealthy Filipinos. We sat outside a trendy gastro pub (not so popular with me after a dose of MSG), when a group of wannabes strolled past walking their dogs. One of the dogs, a poor poodle, with more make-up and hair dye than Lady GaGa on a good week, passed by leaving me bewildered at the level of extremes I see most days in the Philippines.
Another friend, Anu, is here in the Philippines, having arrived six months ago. It’s great to have her around – this woman is as solid as a rock, with a great sense of humour. We went off to Tagaytay, over an hour’s drive from Manila and a popular tourist spot because of its beauty and big volcano. We headed off to ‘gaze at our navels’ at some spiritual retreat house one Sunday morning. No point in trying to negotiate the Manila traffic, even on a Sunday, so we rented car and driver to bring us to volcano town. I have to report it was surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable.
On the way Anu mentioned that she had stopped at Maria’s Café to taste civet cat coffee – a coffee drinkers nirvana. The coffee grows in the Mt Apo ranges, which is in Davao in the south, but obviously also grows in Luzon, north of Manila (at least I think we went north – I was never interested in the direction I was going). We were reliably informed these are the best coffee beans in the Philippines. However, what makes the coffee special it that it comes from civet cat poo – yes, there are farmers who shift through the shit of the civet cat and pluck out the coffee beans from the shit to prepare for roasting.
According to the web, civets are nocturnal cats that feed on the fleshy pulp of fruits like coffee berries. Only the fleshy pulp is digested and the beans stay intact. Proteolytic enzymes inside the cat’s tummy seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and creating shorten peptide as well as an abundance of amino acids, resulting in less bitterness and more aromatic chocolate taste. Apparently the cats select only the best coffee beans; well that’s what I’m reading anyway.
According to Maria, the coffee shop owner, the farmers come in once a week with the beans and each farmer brings just one or two kgs with him – it’s what makes it so expensive. We were assured that the bean comes out whole as the cat can’t digest the outer shell and when the farmer eventually finds the beans in the cat poo, they are thoroughly washed by the farmers before being roasted.
It is said that the coffee is the most expensive in the world. People are reported to have paid up to $80 per cup for cat-crap coffee. They give free espresso cups of coffee in Maria’s with the promise that it will ward of sleepiness and banishes bodily aches and pains! I’m not sure of the weight of the bag I bought, but I reckon it’s a mere 100 kilogrammes and cost +€20. Maria was happy to accompany me to show me the coffee shop’s civet cat in a cage apartment, with the cat on the ‘bottom’ floor and a poor monkey on the top floor, hardly able to move.
It was a week of travel; earlier that week I visited Zamboanga in Mindanao, the Muslim region of the Philippines. Last November 9th, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front decided to go on a bit of a kidnapping spate (something like 130+ people) around the town. The Government responded in an effort to free those who were kidnapped and in doing so, many innocent people lost their homes as they were burnt down.
At the height of the conflict, 112,000 people were displaced from their homes. About 25,000 of them are still living in the sports stadium and transition camps in terrible living conditions. It all seemed so surreal when the stadium’s loud- speaker was playing Charlene’s I’ve never been to Me on full blast to people living in appalling degradation, with the stench of sewage permeating the air, choking me and everybody else throughout the stadium.
Up to 10,000 people remain in the sports stadium and I had the opportunity to visit to speak to people about their experiences. Many live on the steps of the stadium and whole family’s on one step, about two feet wide. Their possessions amount to some cooking equipment and clothes – nothing else. Some have set up ‘shops’ around the compound selling small bags of washing powder and the basics such as rice and tinned milk. The biggest fear is that there will be an outbreak of disease, not helped by the recent rains, which saw a lot of dengue fever in the camps. This is worrying; as it will likely affect children and old people the most. It is a terrible, terrible life and as usual, the most vulnerable are the ones who continue to suffer.
This week I head to Tacloban, where I had visited in November 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan to see what’s happening with the community down there.
Disclaimer: These are my own opinions and I do not represent any organisation when expressing my views.
Images from the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan came in with a bang on 8th November 2013 and for many people in the Philippines, it killed their loved ones, blew away their homes and possessions and destroyed their livelihoods.
In the office we watched the weather systems as it approached, knowing it was going to be a big one and waiting for the disaster assessment teams to arrive from the relatively nearby regional office in Bangkok. It’s a strange thing to prepare for something that’s inevitable and also knowing it’s going to wreak havoc along its path. You imagine that if you started to believe there was a god and if you prayed hard enough, that maybe the storm would take a turn and travel in a different direction. Alas. That didn’t happen.
Lying in bed on the Friday night in the comfort of my Manila apartment and listening to the wind as it howled outside, rattling windows and whistling, as it forced its way through the small gaps in the windows was frightening enough. A couple of hundred kilometres away it was ripping up homes, blowing off roofs and causing mayhem and havoc on the millions of lives it touched.
The assessment team was booked on a flight to arrive before the storm hit. Haiyan was expected at 7 a.m. but arrived a few hours earlier at 4 a.m. so the team flight was cancelled. They were to travel with Government representatives trying to make it down to Tacloban before the storm struck. They didn’t make it and in some ways, I’m glad. Nobody was safe in Tacloban and the team were much more useful being able bodied.
I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of a typhoon of this magnitude that could throw cars into the air and lift roofs off houses, as if they were Lego toys. The wealthier people moved into hotels, while the people who lived in the wooden houses remained or moved to evacuation shelters and prayed.
Back in Manila, phone calls from TV and radio stations around the world started to filter through. Our head of office began taking the calls and when there were so many calls, I had to start doing the interviews as well. David was in one office on to BBC while I was in the other office on the Al Jazeera – it was just a sign of things to come.
One of the first interviews I did, was on Al Jazeera. I’m in the middle of a live news bulletin and could hear the beep-beep of another call trying to come in, distracting me from the task at hand. Thinking it was the BBC calling for another interview, I was trying to cut them off when I cut myself off a live Al Jazeera news bulletin instead. It was very embarrassing I have to say. Two minutes later and this crazy pops up again trying to call. “Can I ask who is calling,” says I. “Ah I just saw you on telly and thought you were nice, I’m working on a oil rig,” comes the reply.
God preserve us from the crazies in this life. My first TV appearance came complete with my first potential stalker. As I wished him a good night (not in such polite words), I hit the blocked button and continued on.
I think I spoke from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning – it was non-stop. We were trying to get information from the field to let the public know what was going on while trying to see what UN agencies had people already in place and how they could assist in the initial stages. Communications were gone and only satellite phones were working and not very well at that.
The tsunami-like surge wave that landed in Tacloban destroyed the town. Tacloban is nestled in a bay with mountains around it so when the wind came in at 300 kph, the town acted like a funnel and forcing the wind into a much smaller, tighter space, multiplying the amount of damage it could cause. Much of the pre-positioned stock to respond to the typhoon such as food and medicines were taken with the storm. The wave, much bigger than anything that came with either the Banda Aceh in Indonesia or Japanese tsunami, caused untoward damage and brought many lives with it.
The OCHA team arrived within 12 hours of the typhoon and found scenes of absolute destruction, the town looked like a rubbish tip with bodies lying tangled and strewn on the streets.
Team leader, Sebastian Rhodes Stampa (SRS for short, or as I call him SMS), told us over a satellite phone how it was like the Indian Ocean Tsunami; boats were tossed around and came inland; roofs were gone from houses; houses were gone; poles and trees were uprooted; they were met with scenes of biblical proportions. The World Health Organization had sent their driver and car before the typhoon struck and the driver watched as another car came careering across the road into the WHO car. The driver was injured with flying glass and went missing in action, left without food and water, as the head of office Julie had search teams out looking for him. The poor man was traumatised and had to return to Manila, when he was eventually found.
When the team arrived, the roads were so blocked they had to take a government heli from the airport to the town centre, a distance of 11 kilometres. Water was contaminated by the surge of water; people had no food and began looting in the first day after the storm.
Within 12 hours the road was partially unblocked but the round trip from the town hall to the airport took six hours by truck, making the delivery of food impossible. The airport closed down to commercial flights and the government delivered food by helicopter. But we were only addressing the needs of one city. This typhoon travelled across thousands of kilometres and we needed to reach the people who were affected to ensure they were okay.
There were no communications, no access via road, no electricity, crops destroyed, housing demolished and airports in the four major cities hit, all closed down. At midday on the Friday, while the storm was still raging, OCHA sent another team out by car to Tacloban and they arrived two days later to set up an office where we could work. The first team that was dispatched ran out of water and were drinking rainwater on the second day after their arrival.
It’s difficult sitting in Manila and reporting on something that you haven’t seen. The Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Valerie Amos came to Manila on the Tuesday and went to Tacloban. A small entourage went with her, the Humanitarian Coordinator, the head of the OCHA office, our head of security, Valerie’s assistant Nick and myself travelled in a small plane to see the extent of the damage.
Fuel had run out so the rented car couldn’t travel and Nick and myself were left at the airport while the others went to meet government ministers trying to organise the response efforts. Food was not getting through and there was a shortage of water.
I took myself off around the airport speaking to people who were desperate to get out. One woman I met, Sasha carried her baby, one-month old Isabella and was desperate to get assistance. Isabella had diarrhoea and needed medical attention. Elie, 69 was sitting on boxes with his crutches by his side, under an umbrella to protect him from the sun. He lived alone and his son was in Manila, all he wanted to do was to go to his son. Another woman was a university lecturer who had a cut on her hand and was very angry with me and angry with everybody. She was entitled to that, she had just lost her home and all her belongings. I asked her why she didn’t evacuate, as advised, she told me that they get so many storms every year, but nothing could prepare them for a super typhoon, the biggest storm ever to hit landfall.
People were upset that the response was not quick enough. The response teams were equally frustrated tying to get flights in and finding difficulties getting goods into the airport, and out on the other end, with no fuel to transport the life-saving goods and equipment.
The Government had invited the Americans to take over the management of the airport and they closed it down the previous day while they moved in their own equipment and supplies. Thousands gathered at the airport and ports trying to get out to safer havens where their relatives waited. Limited commercial flights were up and running and the Americans were also transporting people out of Tacloban on C130 aircraft.
When we arrived in Tacloban I needed the bathroom, but there was nowhere to go so I held on for the others to return. We had travelled on a small single-engine eight-seater plane, with no facilities. When they arrived back Luiza, the Humanitarian Coordinator also needed the bathroom, so off she marches over the Cebu Airlines who were about to move the steps away from the plane in preparation for take-off. Marches up the steps with herself and requests the use of their powder room. It was hilarious. The air steward radioed up to the captain as we boarded the flight for our ‘urgent request’. It’s amazing what a UN tshirt will do for you! I’m very grateful to the UN tshirt and the crew of Cebu Airways though.
It’s all a bit of a daze for me – days just fused into each other and I left the office at 1 a.m. some mornings, with a 6 a.m. pick up the same day to travel. Valerie Amos went to Government, went to the global TV and radio stations, reported to the Secretary General, went without sleep to help unblock the obstacles that were preventing the delivery of aid. She is a force of epic proportions in her energy and commitment to relieve human-suffering and for that alone I admire her.
We could do a whole blog of Fagan’s bloopers on TV over the first week. On CNN outside the Marriot Hotel I was asked “So why are you doing assessments?” “Well, we get people the life-saving food and water, we need to see their needs. Why, after all, would you provide somebody with an egg cup, when in fact they need an egg,” I replied. Sometimes I wonder what is going on in my tiny little mind to come up with lines like that!
Valerie [Amos] came back for a second time this week and took off travelling across the country, hitching lifts on aircraft to get her back out to see what progress was being made. The Canadians provided an aircraft for us to go to Roxas where we met the Governor of Capiz province. From a population of 75,000 people, 57 died. They had a very different storm from the one experienced in Tacloban, but 98 per cent of the buildings are partially or totally destroyed and most of the 75,000 people are without homes. The future is pretty grim for some.
The Governor Victor Tanco, who met us at the airport and accompanied us along the route, is an incredible man. He went on radio three times a day in the week prior to the storm warning people to go to evacuation centres and get out of their homes. He has the hospitals and schools doing regular drills for evacuations for every occasion all through the year. There was concern when we heard he ordered people to be jailed if they refused to evacuate from their homes, but ultimately Victor Tanco has to be hailed as a hero – he saved many lives.
It was also good to see the Canadian military had set up in Roxas. So many [rescuers] went to Tacloban and with a population of 13 million affected or in terms of population, a country with more citizens than Portugal; focusing the world’s attention on the needs of just one relatively small area seems unfair when others also need assistance.
The typhoon struck on 8th November, so from 6th November we were working flat out. This was the 25th typhoon to make landfall over the Philippines this year. I have lost count of the number that required humanitarian intervention from the international community; there was conflict in Zamboanga and that is now largely forgotten, despite the great needs that remain: a bit of an earthquake that is now consumed by Haiyan ……and on it goes. I thought that after Iraq and Somalia the Philippines would be a quiet life… how wrong could you get?
Yesterday, Saturday 23rd November I had a day off and went for a 2 hour massage, picked up a couple of bottles of wine, dropped them off home, went back out for another massage, returned, cooked dinner, had a glass of wine and went to bed at 9 p.m.
Today the sun is shining and I head to the gym before I go to the office. I have three more weeks left in the Philippines before the end of the contract. I just hope that Haiyan marks the end of the typhoon season and the Filipinos have time to catch their breath, mourn their dead and begin to rebuild their lives, before the next typhoon season takes off next year.