Christmas in Tacloban: Progress and challenges after Typhoon Haiyan

December 2013

In hardest-hit Tacloban, a Christmas tree stands about 15 metres tall in front of the city hall. This year the holiday tree is made of used plastic bottles and iron pipes.

The impact of Typhoon Haiyan is still widely felt in the city, as residents try to get on with their lives and gear-up for Christmas, the most celebrated holiday of the year in the Philippines.

A Christmas tree, made of used plastic bottles and iron pipes, stands about 15 meters tall in front of Tacloban city hall, the Philippines.
A. Musani

The tree may look simple, but typhoon disaster survivors like Nelly Abiertas, a 37-year-old receptionist at the Alejandro Hotel, says it gives hope to the community. “All we want is to forget about what happened and to get on with our lives” she says.

Signs of progress

As the recovery phase continues, there are signs of progress.

Those hospitals that are functioning are providing services at well beyond the capacity for which they were designed.

Dr Aileen Riel-Espina, chief medical professional staff at Easter Visayas Regional Medical Centre, says the hospital is doing the best it can to accommodate as many patients as possible.

“Our hospital is a 275-bed hospital but we currently have 376 in-patients on foldable beds, benches and children sharing beds in the paediatric ward,” she says.

Outside, traces of daily life are returning. Markets have opened, selling fresh fruit and meat. Restaurants and hotels have resumed business as repairs continue.

In one part of the city, 33-year-old Mr Chap Yu uses pieces of wood and nails he picked up from the debris of what used to be his home to rebuild a room. “I come here during the day to try to build back our house” he says, while his wife and children wait in their camp site. They have been offered room in a temporary shelter that is being constructed for those affected, but he prefers for the family to return to their house.

Formidable challenges

But the scope of the challenges ahead are formidable – to rebuild public works and health infrastructure, restart the local economy and schools, ensure that basic health and personal needs are met, and help people recover from their personal losses.

For now, the main roads in the city have been cleared of the largest items, like fallen electricity poles and trees. Daily truckloads of debris are taken from the city to temporary dump sites. Pieces of what used to be cement walls of buildings and huge sheets of tin roofs are stacked by the roadside to make way for trucks carrying relief goods around the city.

Piles of garbage still linger on the sides of the roads, particularly in areas where residents camp in tents while waiting for the temporary shelters to be constructed. Children run and play around these shelters sometimes dangerously close to the dangling electricity wires.

Electricity is available in a few parts of the city like hospitals, government offices and certain business areas but the power fluctuates and only those with generators can have a regular supply of electricity.

Among other health concerns, recent rains have caused puddles of water, which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry and transmit infectious diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.

Having sufficient supplies of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are key to protecting health – particularly to prevent diarrhoeal and other water-borne diseases.

“We come into Astrodome (Tacloban Convention Centre) whenever it rains,” said 25-year-old Jannes Berona, who is 8 months pregnant with her third child. She resides in one of the tents near the Astrodome, one of the main evacuation sites in Tacloban city. When asked about the facilities in her temporary home, she says “we have more than 10 toilets here, but they are often full and run out of water.”

Looking forward to 2014

A return to normalcy in 2014 will demand a comprehensive, cross-sector response that involves all parts of society.

In the health sector, the Department of Health, WHO and partners – UN and nongovernmental organizations - continue to work together to reestablish medical services in affected areas, strengthen disease surveillance and response, roll out vaccination campaigns to prevent measles and polio, and improve the water supply and sanitation to reduce and prevent water-borne infectious diseases. Stepping up mental health services for people of all ages, particularly children, is another top priority.

Even with the obstacles ahead, the level of resilience among the people most affected by the typhoon is immense. Everywhere in the city there are banners saying “Tindog Tacloban,” which means “Standup Tacloban.”

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