Restoring pride to Tacloban

By Chris Weeks, Media Relations Manager, World Vision

Two years ago this month, as the plane emerged through the low clouds and banked steeply into Tacloban City airport, there were audible gasps as passengers got their first glimpse of the devastated coastline.

Tacloban bore the brunt of the terrifying Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, when 200 mph winds whipped up a triple tsunami and claimed the lives of 7,000 people. The ensuing images of devastation were broadcast across the world. Survivors described a 'washing machine' effect as the huge Pacific waves swept up everything in their path - people, furniture, bits of buildings, cars, boats - all swirling around with deadly effect before the waters finally receded.

The plane I was on was packed with aid workers representing agencies from around the world, with many specialities, speaking many languages. I was there to help World Vision tell the story of Typhoon Haiyan and its terrible aftermath to the world’s media.

Body bags lay in the road as we exited the twisted remains of the airport building. There was an indescribable stench in the streets that no media report could truly convey. Walking through the outskirts of the city, my colleague and I saw mass graves. Bodies were still being recovered from the endless piles of debris that lined every street.

Among the more dramatic images to emerge from the disaster were several massive cargo ships that had slammed into the city and now lay marooned and surrounded by the crushed homes that had lain in their path.

Last month I visited the Philippines again, ahead of the two year anniversary of the disaster. The UK and international response to Haiyan was incredible and, as you’d hope and expect, incredible progress has been made.

Two years on, with supporters’ help, World Vision has reached 1,638,833 people. More than 100,000 people have taken part in cash-for-work programmes, and shelter kits provided for the nearly 62,000 people whose homes were flattened.

Our focus, of course, is on children. The work straight after the typhoon focused on their immediate needs - food, shelter and child protection.

Last month, I saw how our work has moved on from immediate response to development. I visited a cash-for-work project to help clean up some of Tacloban’s slums. One of the legacies of the typhoon is that parts of the city’s drainage remained blocked. The lack of clean water was having a severe effect on children’s health.

Much of our work is about ensuring children are safe, and to help them prepare for other disasters - an approach that has paid off, as we saw recently with Typhoon Koppu.

Everyone knows Filipinos are a proud and resilient people. Our staff, too, demonstrated immense and impressive resolve – particularly as many were personally affected. Two years later, those same staff are still ploughing ahead with the task of rebuilding – both emotionally, and physically. I bumped into a colleague I hadn’t seen for two years at a community meeting, where local leaders were urging World Vision to work with them to provide play areas for children in another slum area of the city.

The death toll of the typhoon was devastating. There are streets along the coast where every household has lost a member of their family. There are countless painful memories, but also a fresh sense of hope.

Many of the memorials that have sprung up around Tacloban City are poignant and fitting. I revisited the area where I had seen the mass grave two years ago, to discover that the wooden posts, previously placed in the ground with hand-written names as no grave stones were available, have been collected and placed on a wall as a permanent memorial. It captures forever the desperate scenes that so many people in this city faced with such dignity and strength.

The typhoon destroyed many things. But the wry Filipino humour has always remained intact – evident from the old man I met during last month’s visit who was looking out over the now-calm crystal blue waters that meet the Tacloban coastline, evidently reflecting on life. He was living in a makeshift hut in old clothes but, incongruously, was sitting on the most beautiful, ornately carved rocking chair I had ever seen. He explained it had been washed up by the wave: “A gift from Haiyan!” he quipped, sensing our inquisitiveness.

As devastation lay around them after Typhoon Haiyan, and the world rallied around to help, everyone vowed that ‘Tacloban City would rise again’ in every sense. And it has.

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