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Looters take bags of rice to ship to far-off communities in the Philippines. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
Looters take bags of rice to ship to far-off communities in the Philippines. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Philippines

'Like Noah's Ark:' Typhoon survivors rely on family ties Add to ...

In the desperate quest for food and water that followed the destruction of his home in Tacloban City, Nestor Recto managed to secure a bit of foreign relief aid this week. It was a small bag of rice, a few cans of food and two half-litre bottles of water. “Good for one meal only,” he said.

The logistical maelstrom that followed Typhoon Haiyan left pallets of food and water stranded beside runways, while fresh medical supplies sat stuck far from the hospitals that need them. Unable to bring in all of their supplies, some aid workers sat for days at the Tacloban airport, waiting. On Friday, a half-dozen Boeing-747 freighters stood parked at the airport near Cebu City, the nearest major centre to the disaster zone. But loads of relief supplies were stuck on board because, a pilot said, the airport had just one unloader capable of accessing the jumbo jets.

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Yet even in the deeply impoverished neighbourhoods raked by Haiyan into giant rubbish heaps, help has been quietly pouring in – not from the air, but the ground, hand-delivered by family members. Rugged family ties have long defined the Philippines, which today stands at the heart of globe-spanning networks pouring outside cash back home.

In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, those ties became the most effective – and for many, the only – means of sustenance in a disaster that so thoroughly erased normal social functioning that cash became useless, and even the country’s natural wealth was of little use. Thirsty people quickly drank dry the coconuts. Those few fishermen who hadn’t lost boats couldn’t bring themselves to cast nets. “I cannot eat the fish now, because some fish have eaten dead men,” Ricardo Regis, a 70-year-old fisherman said. “I now eat canned sardines.”

For many, family was all they had left.

Help for Mr. Recto came from a relative who hopped on a bus in Manila. She travelled 24 hours laden with biscuits, crackers, tuna, sardines, corned beef, coffee and clothing. She brought nails, too, a small but critical item that allowed Mr. Recto, along with other family members, to begin hammering together a temporary shelter out of the wreckage of their former lives.

Before Haiyan, Tacloban had been a city on the rise. In 2008, its residents voted to make it a “highly urbanized city,” a designation that freed it from the rule of the provincial government, providing a new level of local control and room to flourish. Shopping malls sprang up. Western brands arrived. A KFC opened its doors. Call centres employed people who represented companies such as AT&T and Sirius XM Radio. The city boasted that its poverty rate of 20.5 per cent was lowest in the region. “This indicates that only one in every five individuals in the city is considered poor,” a city document said. The Philippines itself has in recent months been neck-and-neck with China as the fastest-growing economy in the region, a place economists called “a bright spot in Asia.”

But what Haiyan laid bare is the unsteady soil on which that growth was built.

As a general rule, between 10 and 70 per cent of every peso spent on infrastructure is kicked back to high-ranking political officials, said Carlita Carlos, a University of the Philippines political science professor and past president of the National Defense College of the Philippines who is among the most nation’s most-respected critics of government corruption.

If family helped salve Haiyan’s pain, there is little doubt in her mind that longstanding failures in governance at the local and national level helped worsen it. Years of corruption siphoned away money that could have built better roads. Building inspectors can be paid off with a few pesos, leaving substandard construction as a rule rather than an exception. Restrictions on building close to coastal waters are thoroughly ignored. Many of the worst-hit sea-side homes in Tacloban should never have been built, according to the country’s own laws, Prof. Carlos said. “They shouldn’t be there.”

In a typhoon-prone country, the government has no permanent staff in charge of emergency management. Prof. Carlos said the emergency master-planning documents she has seen are “just beautiful PowerPoints, but they don’t tell you something.”

So by necessity and experience, people lean on each other. In the driveway where Mario Endrinal’s family was cooking breakfast in Tacloban, a pair of motorcycles stood. Next to water, fuel became the most scarce commodity as gas station owners terrified of mobs and looting refused to open pumps. But Mr. Endrinal had gasoline to run the motorcycles. He had rice, too – enough to offer a visitor – as well as water and a supply of medicine.

The goods came earlier this week, delivered by relatives who piled into a van and drove 24 hours from Manila to Tacloban. Afterward, they turned around and headed back, their vehicle filled with a dozen people in need of medical care. “They need treatment and all the hospitals here are closed,” Mr. Endrinal said. For them, the van was a more reliable means of evacuation than the U.S. and Filipino C-130 Hercules aircraft whose seats were supposed to go to those most in need, but sometimes went instead to the best-connected.

For Mr. Endrinal, family wasn’t just a source of succour after the storm. It was salvation. The typhoon battered his own single-storey wood-framed house into an unrecognizable heap of shattered boards and bent tin. But he wasn’t home. He was across the street at a house built by his uncle, a Louisiana tattoo artist married to a Filipino nurse who emigrated to the United States.

As the ferocity of the storm descended, Mr. Endrinal and some 50 others, many of them family, gathered in a small bedroom on the second floor of the concrete structure, which endured the lashing winds and rising waters largely unscathed. Nearly all of its windows were unbroken. Days later, the tiles on its ground floor were still gleaming; only a faint debris line nearly three metres up the walls marked the flood waters’ high point. It was built with money brought here from abroad, to a standard far higher than anyone local could afford. After the typhoon, it stood as an island in a wash of devastation, and a temporary new home to dozens of members of Mr. Endrinal’s family.

“We feel like it’s Noah’s ark. It saved our lives. If this house was not built by our uncle, definitely most of us would be dead by now,” Mr. Endrinal said. And in a sign of how many families expect to keep on living in it, the uncle is no longer here. He could be of more help elsewhere. “We advised him to leave the country, focus on the business and send some money,” Mr. Endrinal said.

In Tacloban, the delays caused by organizational dysfunction have prompted worry about follow-on disasters. Decomposing corpses languished for days in the rivers local residents continued to use for drinking water after the typhoon. The possibility of a cholera outbreak is “the biggest risk for the coming days,” says Cedric Vandermeulen, regional logistics co-ordinator for the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department.

The families that are the now-frayed fabric of this storm-damaged country had, by week’s end, begun the long work of stitching back their lives. Women sitting on roadside chairs were selling cartons of cigarettes, Coke and watermelons. The faint glimmers of a cash economy were reappearing. Crews used chainsaws to clear trees, bolt cutters to cut away downed power cables and shovels to dig roadside graves for rotting animal corpses. An armoured car drove in to the local central bank office, where the first preparations for an eventual reopening were beginning.

Mr. Recto, too, was working to move on, hammering the wooden skeleton of a temporary home that, he hopes, will keep out the frequent downpours of monsoon season. During the typhoon, Mr. Recto watched helplessly as floodwaters seized his wife and four-month-old daughter. He has since sent his two other children away to stay with relatives, in a town that still has food and electricity. But he is staying. He wants to be here in hopes his employer, a local burger chain, will resume operations. He wants to make enough money to uphold a promise to his wife that his children will receive a proper education.

And he wants to stay because, for all the grief and the devastation that surround him, he has not seen his wife’s body. Maybe, he thinks, she is in a hospital somewhere and hasn’t been able to reach him.

“I am still hoping that she is alive,” he said. Or at very least, “maybe there is a chance that I see her remains. Then I will give her a proper burial.”

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