TACLOBAN, Philippines, 11 December 2013 – Morning finds evacuees at the Rizal Central School sleeping on top of school desks, benches, and on the floor side by side. “We’re like sardines,” says Dennie Monteroso, a mother of six children. In this one classroom, 22 families share cooking duties, eat together on desks, and share meals of relief goods – canned sardines and packs of dried noodles, mostly.
A month after Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, life is slowly returning to normal in hard-hit Tacloban, but as the experiences of these families show, there are tough choices to make, and things will never be quite the same.
Rizal, an elementary school, has been transformed into an evacuation centre for people made homeless by Typhoon Haiyan. Karen, Dennie’s daughter, normally attends the fifth grade here, but classes have not been held since the storm, and the school’s 45 classrooms are taken up by roughly 1,000 evacuees.
Of the 15 million people in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan, around 4 million have been displaced from their homes, including more than 94,000 living in 385 evacuation centres.
In the hard-hit city of Tacloban, in Leyte province, several makeshift evacuation centres hold the displaced – people who either sought shelter before the typhoon, or others who were lucky enough to survive and make it to one of the evacuation sites.
“It’s gone, washed out,” says Dennie. In fact, their entire neighborhood, Pampango, was ‘washed out’, the term used by many Filipinos to describe how their houses and all their belongings were demolished and swept away by the tsunami-like wave of the storm surge and the destructive winds brought by Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda. Their barangay (neighbourhood) is now a field of wood and aluminum roof debris, strewn around like matchsticks.
But the centres are temporary. School officials want to have children return to learning. Dennie and her family will need to move someplace else so that children like her own daughter, Karen, can get back to school.
A UNICEF officer asks her a few questions: “What are the things that you are lacking? Do you have the things you need, the basic things?” She states clearly: “I need to build a house where I can live with all my six children.”
Typhoon Haiyan lasted hours, but the recovery will take months, if not years. For the many people who lost their homes, the hardest thing to cope with is all the unknowns.
Lucila Tumalon has too many of these unknowns. The mother of four took shelter from the storm in a storefront outside the Tacloban Convention Center, also known as the ‘Astrodome’. Now she is living there. The Convention Center has the unfortunate distinction of being located where detritus washes ashore, including many dead bodies. Her 7-year-old son seems familiar with the scene, unsentimentally, pointing out three bodies lying uncovered on the shore.
“We don’t know how long we will live here,” Lucila says. “As of now we don’t know what’s the plan for everybody. We don’t know where we will live. We don’t know where we’ll get food. We don’t know for how long we’ll get relief.”
She longs to go back to Bohol, where she’s from, and has been desperately trying to get ahold of her mother there.
A week later, she leaves with her family to Bohol, and another family takes their place in the storefront.
It was always a spiritual sanctuary, but after the storm, Redemptorist Church became a physical sanctuary, too. The church was transformed into one large living space, with pews becoming beds, walls decorated with drying laundry, and children running around in a manner that under normal circumstances would be considered too unruly for a place of worship.
Michelle Tanawan lived a decent life in Tacloban before the storm. Her husband, Chucky, had a job at the sports arena, and she had a little shop there. But the arena was demolished, as was their house.
“We didn’t even have any clothes with us. We didn’t recover a single thing,” she said. Their 1-year-old boy, Jake Lawrence, was treated for diarrhea, and her husband worried he might be getting skinny.
One day, the church announced that everyone would have to move out. People could move to another evacuation centre, they could take travel fare to another place, or they could take some building materials to make a temporary shelter.
They tried to figure out what options were open to them. “Our choice right now is to go to another place, to Manila or wherever we can start over,” Michelle said.
“Back to normal,” her husband added.
“We have our baby, and there’s nothing here for us to buy for him,” she said. “We can’t just count on what people are going to give to us. That’s basically our only choice.”
Michelle and her family left the church, and it’s not certain what choice they made.
Redemptorist is empty now, except for regular church services.
With each passing day in Tacloban, businesses reopen, more streets are cleared, and bodies are recovered, registered and buried. Local government, NGOs, and humanitarian aid groups are working together to get basic services, water and medical supplies to people who need them.
The next steps for this new post-Haiyan life are being planned out, on a large scale and a small scale. Dennie, Lucila and Michelle are all planning out the lives of their children and what will be best for them. For some, it means starting over in a different place, while others want to rebuild here.
Maybe they’re inspired by a new slogan going around the town and printed on T-shirts, ‘Bangon Tacloban’ – or, as it’s translated in English, ‘Rise Up, Tacloban’.
Story by Marissa Aroy