Tacloban, One Year Later

Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.
November 24, 2014

It was a painful and difficult story for Josephine, 15 years old, and her father Jose to tell. I sat on in their small, one-room house that they built from the wreckage of Haiyan (Yolanda), the greatest typhoon ever to hit land. When I arrived in their little home of plywood sheets with Francis Bermido Jr., the Preda executive director, Jose was repairing an electric motor. It was his only source of livelihood for his surviving children. We were in Tacloban to meet some of the 88 orphans we are supporting with the help of generous donors from the U.K., the US, Ireland and elsewhere and who had lost one or both parents. Josephine is one of them.

Jose’s two other children emerged sad-faced from a cubicle and joined their father and Josephine as he was telling us how his wife and their three daughters died. “We heard the warning on the radio,” he said. “We left our house and went to the second floor of the barangay center nearby with dozens of other neighbors. We thought we would be safe on the second floor. But the winds grew so strong the roof could not withstand it and it was ripped off and flew away into the darkness. The rain and wind rushed in and the crowd of people panicked and we rushed down the stairs to the ground floor but Josephine stayed on the upper floor. Suddenly at that very moment as we got to the ground floor with many people, the great tidal wave came roaring in on top of us. We were very frightened and the children were crying and calling for their mama. The wave was as high as the barangay hall, they told me later. Everyone on the ground floor was trapped, the water formed a whirlpool, and I could not hold the children and my wife. One daughter tried to go back up to where Josephine was but all three daughters and my wife drowned and these three survived.” He lapsed into solemn silence, his face was wrinkled and a great sadness weighed on him.

Josephine took up the story. “I was on the second floor. I saw my sister trying to come up to me. I grabbed her arm but I could not hold her against the strong pull of the gushing water of the tidal wave. She was swallowed up by the water. I feel sad and think if only I could have saved her,” she said.

The Tacloban and Palo city businesses of the rich and wealthy are up and running. The big houses are repaired, but the hovels are rebuilt also and are still hovels. The city is cleaned up, but the devastation in the lives of the poor remains and is even worse. They are poorer than ever. There is no improvement and the same shanties and hovels made with scrap materials and plastic sheets still line the shoreline. The big ships are still there and one is being cut up for scrap. Its great diesel engine sits in a filthy garbage-strewn strip of sea shore. The bacteria infested pools of green water pollute the place and two huge pigs are lying in the filth. The people tell us, “Nothing has changed, we are just poorer than ever,” said one man.

The World Health Organization has reported that as many as 800,000 people still suffer from post-typhoon trauma, depression and hopelessness. Considering that as many 11.5 million people were adversely affected by that greatest of storms, it’s no wonder many have not received aid or government funding of any kind. Yet the government says it has spent 52 billion pesos, just over one billion Euro on recovery efforts. One wonders where all that donated money went and who really benefited from it. Thousands of people were killed, and the counting apparently stopped at 6000. Congress is being challenged to investigate and find the truth, and some representatives have suggested that as many as 18,000 could have died. Mass graves were dug and hundreds of bodies lie in unmarked graves.

Nearby lay the graves of as many as hundred victims. I prayed for the all the living and those who had been killed. I stood by the tiny graves of little children and nearby workmen were constructing a monument to all who had their lives taken away. The printed posters by the graves had the pictures of the lost ones and invariably carried the message, “We will miss you, we will miss you” over and over.