December 24, 2013

In the Philippines, Christmas infused with tragedy

The Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 6,100 people in the eastern Philippines, displaced at least 4 million others and left a country in ruins.

By Jim Gomez
The Associated Press

TACLOBAN, Philippines – Christmas lights blink in a handful of restaurants in Tacloban, but at nightfall, much of this city flattened by Typhoon Haiyan slips into darkness.

click image to enlarge

A preacher pray’s during final dawn mass on Christmas eve at Palo Cathedral church in Palo, Leyte province in central Philippine, Wednesday.

The Associated Press

A few downtown shops have reopened. Roadside vendors peddle fruits of the season: oranges and red apples. There is rebuilding, though much of it consists of residents hammering shelters out of scavenged debris.

The Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 6,100 people in the eastern Philippines, displaced at least 4 million others and left its most gruesome mark on Tacloban, a city of 240,000 that will need years to recover.

Soon after the storm, Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla promised to restore power by Christmas Eve or resign, and indeed, electricity has returned to nearly all of the more than 300 towns that lost it. But relatively few people are able to use it. Officials say many storm-ravaged houses and shops will spend the holidays in the dark because their wiring systems are damaged.

City Hall, a seaside hilltop complex surrounded by ruins, buzzes with typhoon relief work, with dozens of staffers and foreign aid workers busy on the phone or huddled in talks.

“I am hoping by a year you’ll see some significant improvements,” Mayor Alfred Romualdez says. But he’s not sure when his city will fully bounce back.

Christmas Day Mass here will be celebrated by the papal envoy. There will be a Christmas Eve dinner for foreign aid workers and local officials.

But mostly, Christmas will be a celebration amid deprivation, in tents, makeshift homes and damaged churches. The smell of death remains in parts of the city. Thousands of people have simply left.

“Many of them, I know, prefer not to spend it here,” Romualdez says. “Maybe a change of scenery first and then come back after the holidays.”

Fire officer Rolando Unay gently lifts a black cadaver bag left on a roadside by villagers in Tacloban city. “It’s a child,” he tells his team of corpse collectors.

As their orange dump truck cruises along a main road adorned with Christmas trees, motorists and passers-by cover their noses.

More than six weeks after Typhoon Haiyan struck, leaving well over 2,000 people dead in Tacloban alone, this sad work continues. Soldiers, police, firefighters and volunteers have cleared what had been a heartbreaking landscape of bodies strewn across the ruined city, but the stench in scattered mounds of debris means there are more left to find.

Unay, a doting grandfather with five children, says that although the work is difficult he sees the good in it.

“Every time I lift a child’s body, I could feel that the agony of a parent, a family somewhere, is about to end,” he said Friday.

At a corner, a distraught fisherman, Hubert Labanan, waves at Unay’s truck to stop. He points to the remains of his mother by the roadside. Villagers found her remains under a pile of wood and other debris that they cleared while preparing to repair a house.

Holding back tears, Labanan tells Unay’s crew that he had lost his own home in the storm and was too poor to bury his mother in a cemetery. He begged that she be taken to a mass grave.

As Unay’s team left with his mother’s remains, Labanan waved goodbye, then stood motionless until the orange truck vanished from his sight.

In early November, Eledio Moro thought he had Christmas figured out. He was going to surprise his 2-year-old daughter, Aubrey, with a pink toy motorbike. For his wife, a gold bracelet, or maybe an expensive Western-brand shirt.

(Continued on page 2)

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