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Typhoon Haiyan: Digging in for the Long Haul

Posted: 29/11/2013 17:09

Driving out of Tacloban Airport is easier than in the early days of Typhoon Haiyan's aftermath, but the scenes on either side of the road still assault the senses. The occasional lorry loads up corpses still being discovered in shattered houses. Everywhere, there is debris - some of it in neat piles in front of its origins - homes for thousands of families which will have to be razed to the ground by bulldozers before they can be rebuilt. But there is normality returning. Some of the landmark buildings, especially the churches, have survived this deadly mixture of wind, rain and high water which characterised Typhoon Haiyan. And the vegetable markets are beginning to return to their street-side stalls.

But Tacloban's damage is different in nature compared to the total all-encompassing devastation which has hit small, rural settlements like Hernani in Eastern Samar. This is a ribbon development metres in from the coast - there was no protection when the 16ft wave arrived. Great chunks of the only road have been ripped away, necessitating hasty repairs. A graveyard has had its marble tombstones, its contents tossed over the road. After a five-hour drive from Tacloban, we arrive at the municipal HQ.

I meet the Mayor, Edgar Boco, who has been unloading food aid in what was until recently an outside hangar with a roof. Now it is open to the elements and as this is the rainy season, the Mayor is soaked. The local doctor, social worker and district registrar are working in what is left of the municipal hall, surrounded by gifts of clothes, food aid and bric a brac. The damage to this building should mean it is closed for safety, but there is no alternative.

Mr Boco (whose last name means coconut in the local language) is getting two hours sleep a night. He is very worried about the long term future of his community. He tells me families earn their living planting coconut trees and harvesting the fruits, or by fishing. Tens of thousands of coconut trees have been destroyed by the typhoon. It's as if a chainsaw-wielding madman has been let loose. It will take years to replant the trees. Even those still standing may not yield much fruit as the seawater has contaminated the land.

Everyone we meet gives us a thumbs-up. Plan International is widely known in these communities having worked in both East and West Samar over 12 years. The rebuilding job could be as long. Very few schools are habitable; indeed the whole physical infrastructure is shot to pieces, tangled up in electricity power lines, masonry and fallen trees.

At least we have been able to distribute food, water and tarpaulins for shelter. But the community needs huge plastic sheeting now to make temporary schools and safe areas for children. And funds are needed to rebuild its homes far more robustly as the number and intensity of weather-related disasters grows. Plan has responded to 20 such emergencies in the last 12 months across the Philippines. In terms of space, it is difficult to move inland; the poorest families in what is now a rubble of housing debris lived nearest the water. Many have gone to stay with relatives in other parts of Samar or as far as Manila.

There are fears that food will run out and there will be outbreaks of preventable childhood illnesses like measles or diarrhoea. Plan is on the case; 10,000 ready to eat meals are on their way this weekend. The local doctor is vaccinating young babies.

And in times like these, the unscrupulous can play on the hopes of families, offering their young boys and girls opportunities for work in the cities. The reality can be very different; to be trafficked into sex work or poorly paid labour. It is estimated that child trafficking grows by at least 10% after a disaster like Haiyan.

Building new schools and local facilities will cost far more than Plan's response budget of $25million. That's why we have raised it to $75million.

We meet Plan volunteers and staff; we come across Jesse, a 16-year-old who is a youth advocate with Plan. He recounts the terror of the night of Haiyan. "Where is the work?" he asks. "Cash for work schemes are better than nothing, paying people to begin the massive clean-up. But we need long-term jobs to rebuild our homes and communities," he says.

Jesse and his two cousins have rescued a Christmas tree and set it up on the side of the road. It is garish and bright against a sea of muddy trees and grey, damp debris.

They are looking forward to this annual holiday. As the TV cameras and the pop-up NGO operations leave, development agencies like ours will be digging in for the long haul. We owe these positive, hard-working people nothing less.

To find out more about Plan International's response, visit www.planresponds.org

 

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