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Slog begins to rebuild Philippines' typhoon wastelands
by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) Nov 24, 2013

Grieving father rebuilds in typhoon-smashed Philippines
Dulag, Philippines (AFP) Nov 24, 2013 - Every nail Florentino Homeris hammers down takes him one step closer to rebuilding his typhoon-wrecked house, and one step further from life with the daughter he lost.

The 32-year-old labourer has no choice but to try to create a new dwelling for his wife and baby after his wooden shack was destroyed when Super Typhoon Haiyan smashed through the Philippines, killing more than 5,200 people.

He scrabbles around in the mud to find whatever building materials he can -- pieces of sodden lumber, tin sheets warped and twisted by the powerful winds and crooked nails pulled from splintered planks.

All were probably part of someone else's home before the storm.

On a tiny patch of sand in the ruined coastal town of Dulag where his one-room shack once stood, Homeris had just finished the frame of what he hoped would be a replica of the one he built for his new family five years ago.

"But I cannot remember the exact way the house looked," he said. "There is a small kitchen, and a door here," he said pointing to a vacant space. He is also short on useable materials.

"I will have to look for tin roofing from somewhere later today."

The loss of his five-year-old girl in the storm is yet to completely sink in. The absence of any proper Catholic burial for this devoutly religious man does not help.

"I see her in my dreams," he said, choking back tears. "But she is there, in a body bag. I have given my permission for her to be in the mass grave."

"I have another child and a wife that need to live too, but it is very difficult," he added as he tried unsuccessfully to straighten a rusty nail.

On the night before Haiyan tore into the Philippines on November 8, Homeris took his wife, five-year-old daughter and baby boy to a school.

He thought they would be safe there from the vicious winds, but he did not count on giant waves washing ashore and into the concrete building, taking his daughter.

Such storm surges were the main killer across the worst-hit central islands of Leyte and Samar.

The government says about 4.3 million people lost their homes in the typhoon, double the number of those made homeless by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Experts say it will cost billions of dollars and many years to rebuild the destroyed communities.

A giant reconstruction effort involving the government, the United Nations, the World Bank and a plethora of non-government organisations is starting to kick in.

But Homeris -- like many other fishermen, farmers and other people who barely earned enough money to survive before the storm -- must act now.

Every day without a home is another day his wife and baby must sleep on the hard ground under a tarpaulin advertisement for a local mobile phone company.

A frantic campaign to reach millions of hungry, injured and homeless people in the Philippines following one of the world's strongest storms is almost over. Now the grinding slog of rebuilding begins.

Experts say it will cost billions of dollars and take years to revive communities that were destroyed when Super Typhoon Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean more than a fortnight ago, killing at least 5,200 people.

At 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour, Haiyan's winds were the most powerful ever recorded to make landfall. Tsunami-like storm surges that crashed hundreds of metres (yards) inland were even more devastating, wiping out entire towns.

Ensuring those who survived the storm did not perish in its immediate aftermath has been the top priority, with the main focus on the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar that were already among the poorest in the developing country.

The armed forces of more than a dozen countries joined a giant international relief effort, which continues to rush food, water and medicines and other emergency supplies to millions of people in isolated wastelands.

With aid flowing in more easily, the Philippine government, its international partners and the survivors themselves are starting to address the overwhelming task of rebuilding so many shattered communities.

"When you have these kind of problems that are so large, everybody is actually apprehensive," said Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, the former governor of Leyte, who has been appointed head of the government's reconstruction taskforce.

There is no official estimate for the recovery and rehabilitation cost, but Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan has suggested it could be as high as $5.8 billion.

Rebuilding homes an immediate priority

One of the most immediate priorities in the rehabilitation effort is rebuilding or repairing homes for the 4.3 million displaced people.

More than 536,000 homes were completely destroyed, with another 500,000 damaged, according to the government.

Re-establishing a means of employment is an equally urgent task, with five million workers having lost their livelihoods, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Before the storm, most of the four million people living on Samar and Leyte endured near-subsistence lifestyles focused on rice and coconut farming, or fishing.

ILO country director Lawrence Jeff Johnson said the immediate focus on the employment front was to provide emergency jobs such as working on the clean-up operation.

In the long-run, Johnson said the reconstruction effort should not be about restoring fragile livelihoods, "but about taking the opportunity to help reduce poverty".

"We're going to help them build back better by teaching them new skills as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and welders," he told AFP.

"We will also work with them on how to set up businesses, so they learn how to run a business."

However, farming and fishing will inevitably remain a mainstay of the economies in Samar and Leyte, and others involved in the relief effort are rushing to provide short as well as long-term support to the agriculture sector.

Rodrigue Vinet, the UN food agency's representative for the Philippines, said seeds for vegetables were being sent to farmers so they and their families would be able to have their own food grown within a few months.

Vinet said work must also start immediately to fix irrigation channels and other farming infrastructure so rice crops could be grown in time for harvest in October next year.

"If they do not have that harvest, they will rely on very expensive food aid for a long time," he said.

Improving disaster resiliency

An over-arching theme of the reconstruction effort is trying to ensure communities are less vulnerable to future storms.

"We should look at disaster resiliency... recovery has to happen within the context of better development," United Nations Development Programme regional disaster adviser Sanny Jegillos said at a news conference in Manila.

While Haiyan was one of the strongest typhoons on record, the Philippines is hit by about 20 major storms each year -- with Samar, Leyte and other mostly poor eastern islands on the frontline.

With climate change threatening to increase the ferocity and frequency of such storms, many involved in the reconstruction effort understand that building more homes in vulnerable areas will inevitably lead to another disaster.

"Maybe it's not just a question of 'build back better' but also build back differently and elsewhere," David Carden, head of the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Philippines, told AFP.

Speaking on ABS-CBN television, Energy Secretary Petilla said the government was focused on improving disaster resiliency, but had not yet come up with answers to key issues.

For instance, he said most of the people who died in the storm were in coastal buildings -- flimsy and sturdy -- that were washed away by the storm surges.

"Relocation cannot be in the same place," he said, adding the government intended to enforce a widely flouted law banning houses being built 50 metres from high tide.

"But is 50 metres enough? Should it be one hundred? In this particular storm surge, the water reached up to a kilometre (inland). Where should we draw the line?"

As the planning and debates among policymakers go on, survivors cannot afford to wait, with potentially deadly mistakes already being made.

In the seaside village of Imelda on Leyte island, fisherman Guillermo Advincula, 58, and his neighbours were last week rebuilding their wooden homes directly along the coast.

"Why am I building my house on the same spot?" he replied to a reporter, puzzled by the question. "Because this is where our life is. We depend on the sea for a living."


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