Massive refugee flows strain Philippines' recovery from supertyphoon

Evangeline Odac and her nephew breathed a sigh of relief upon landing at Villamor Air Base earlier this week as thousands more escaping the central Philippines’ typhoon-ravaged region are expected to arrive at this Philippine Air Force installation and relief centers in Cebu City.

An estimated 5,000 people are leaving the Eastern Visayas region each day, according to the latest report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Disaster relief workers warn of increasing social and economic strain on already overstretched resources that are aiding the more than 13 million people affected by Supertyphoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines.

“It’s an economic migration, but the undercurrent is a climate change trigger,” Cosmin Corendea, a policy adviser and senior academic officer at the U.N. Institute for Environment and Human Security, told ClimateWire.

Days after Haiyan struck on Nov. 8, thousands of residents living in the typhoon’s path sought shelter with extended family and friends in Cebu City and Manila. Many of those without family connections in the cities also boarded the C-130 cargo planes to escape the wreckage and gain access to basic needs.

Odac left her typhoon-ravaged hometown in Leyte province to find a job that could help rebuild her family’s nipa hut, a traditional Filipino home built on stilts, which was destroyed by Haiyan’s 195 mph winds.

She left behind her elderly parents and younger brothers, who also survived the record-breaking typhoon. The death toll from Haiyan stands at 5,235, with more than 1,600 people still listed as missing, according to the latest estimates from the country’s National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC).

Efforts to fend off famine

“My parents are still there in Leyte because they are too old to travel in the C-130 plane. Instead, they planned to ready our land for the planting season,” Odac said, explaining how her family relies on rice-growing for their livelihood.

The typhoon hit one-third of the country’s rice-growing areas, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which called for “urgent assistance” to farmers who need to sow new seeds in time for the next season.

“If we want to avoid entire regions of the country having to rely on food aid, we need to act now to help vulnerable families to plant or replant by late December,” Dominique Burgeon, head of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division, said in a statement.

FAO’s recommendation to international aid donors and the Philippine government is the next, emerging phase of the devastation: managed rehabilitation.

With another hardship in sight, those affected still recall how they survived another: walls of rushing seawater propelled inland by the storm and days with little to no drinking water and food.

To survive the typhoon, Odac and her nephew grabbed parts of their rooftop that fell near where their hut stood and used it to protect her elderly parents. Both evacuees still had wounds on their hands from holding the metal roof sheets as they recalled their experience at Villamor Air Base.

Leaving her family behind was a difficult choice, said Odac, but difficult times call for such decisions because staying in Leyte would have meant walking nearly 3 miles each day to receive rice distributed by relief trucks temporarily in the area.

Officials in the capital city, Manila, expressed concern that the stream of evacuees coming in from C-130s could add to the number of informal settlers already in the city, but most of the locals from Leyte said they plan to return to their home province once there are sources for livelihood. Many residents at the air base plan to return in early January or February of next year.

Volunteers in Manila provide aid, shelter

A group of Filipinos based in Manila has banded together to help the survivors arriving at Villamor Air Base. Aside from repacking relief aid, some came here to help counsel the arriving passengers, others to help shuttle survivors reach their family or friends in Manila, and still others to give mothers practical tips on how to care for their babies.

Initially, families from Tacloban had to find their own way and try their luck to reach their destination upon landing in the capital. Most, carrying only their own clothes or a few items that survived the typhoon, are penniless, and bus or taxi drivers would shoo them away upon discovering that they had no money to pay for their fare.

At the end of the first week after Haiyan hit the country, journalist James Deakin drove to Villamor Air Base to see the situation in the area and noted the lack of a transportation system to enable the evacuees reach their target families. He offered to take some of the families arriving that day to different parts of the city and inspired a few others to do the same in the coming days, giving rise to the development of an ad hoc system of help.

It worked like this: Private car owners went to the air base to put in their time and bring home two or more families, helping them to reach their destination in any part of greater Manila, sometimes some driving as far as Baguio City, a 10-hour drive. Others scrambled to buy the tickets for a family of three to Cagayan De Oro, after the head of the family announced that he had initially just intended to get out of Tacloban and then find a way to fly to his relatives in Mindanao in the south of the Philippines.

Deakin noted that providing the transportation is somehow an act of providing the final link in the chain for survivors to reach their refuge and support system outside battered Leyte so they can start to rebuild their lives.

Meanwhile, a group of advocates for women and children, composed mainly of mothers, has set up a tent to receive mothers and their infants. Dr. Mianne Silvestre, the group’s leader, explained that the role of women in disasters is very important, particularly in the care of their children.

The group emphasizes the need to reaffirm the role of mothers as survivors of the typhoon and as heroes to their children after saving them during the onslaught of Haiyan. Most mothers after the typhoon have very little self-esteem left and see themselves as victims, Silvestre said.

“This has to change because these women, apart from surviving themselves, also did their best to make sure their kids are safe. Having another mother or woman tell this to them is both empowering and at the same time reaffirming their important role in disasters, and that will go a long way,” noted Silvestre.

2- to 5-year rehabilitation

The government is completing long-term rehabilitation plans expected for release in about two months, NDRRMC Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario told reporters in Manila yesterday.

“We’re talking about long-range rehabilitation plans that can take two years to five years to implement,” he said.

More than two weeks after Haiyan struck the region, there are still long lines of people wrapped around the airport of hard-hit Tacloban, waiting for a plane ride out of the wreckage of their former lives.

Glen Parina and her mother, Liling, walked several miles from their hometown of Tanauan to reach Tacloban’s airport for a seat on a C-130 aircraft ferrying relief supplies and evacuees to and from Manila and Tacloban.

“I hope we can borrow some money to be able to go back home in less than a month,” said Liling whose skin showed signs of sunburn after lining up for days under the tropical heat. Both requested for transportation to a nearby city to seek a relative for help.

“Rebuilding the damage from the typhoon will take time, and each individual can offer a lot,” said entrepreneur and volunteer Harvey Chua.

“If there is a silver lining to all this, it is how Filipinos can find a way to be there for others,” she added.

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