PH typhoon victims struggle to rebuild lives

By Ronron Calunsod, Kyodo

Posted at Jan 09 2013 01:07 AM | Updated as of Jan 09 2013 09:08 AM

NEW BATAAN, Philippines - It was a picturesque view of an upland, rural area -- on the left was a vast land with coconut and cacao trees in the midst of wild grasses, a vaster rocky area stretching from the center to the right, a heavy stream in the middle of the rocks, and a green mountain range on the backdrop capped with thick fog.

For nature adventurers, it was an ideal hiking destination.

But the sight of three wrecked shanties and a Catholic chapel on the right of the foreground tells that a tragedy struck this place called Andap village in the province of Compostela Valley in southeastern Mindanao.

The village is in the town of New Bataan, which was hit the worst by Typhoon Pablo or Bopha on Dec. 4, as far as casualties are concerned. The local government here reported 430 fatalities and 418 still missing, while damage to property, infrastructure and agriculture is estimated at around 47.2 million pesos (around $1.15 million).

Overall, Bopha killed more than 1,000 people, left more than 800 missing, and damaged almost 37 billion pesos worth of property, infrastructure and agricultural products across the Philippines.

In one of the destroyed shanties, Rene Diano was pounding his hammer on the roof of his home.

But he was not trying to repair his home.

"I'm trying to collect the nails from my damaged house so I could use them when I construct our new temporary house in the future," the 37-year-old father of four told Kyodo News in an interview one month after Typhoon Bopha tore through Mindanao, the central part of the country, and the southern provinces of Luzon island.

"I personally haven't heard any concrete plans yet from the government regarding housing. Our future will depend on the plan of the government," he said.

Aside from housing, Diano also expressed concern about his livelihood since the boulders and strong current in the stream prevent him from crossing over to the mountain to check on his banana, corn, coconut and cacao plantation, even as he also doubts they are still standing knowing how strong the wind and rain that Bopha brought were.

Should his family be relocated, he said he is clueless as to what job he will take since he knows nothing else but farming.

Lorenzo Balbin, mayor of New Bataan town where Andap is located, disclosed that government experts have classified almost the entire town as risky for its residents of nearly 50,000, especially to heavy flooding, an assessment that he thinks is an exaggeration.

Conceding though to proposals not to let residents go back to Andap after its center was totally wiped out by the boulders and fallen trees, Balbin said the construction of transition houses for those left homeless is underway in areas identified to be safer.

"We are now in a rehabilitation period. We are preparing transition houses with the help of different agencies as we identify their permanent housing site," Balbin said, acknowledging help from private foundations, government agencies and other donors.

For his constituents' livelihood, Balbin said a short-term program will be adopted to also spur the local economy.

"We will plant high-value crops and vegetables, corn, rice, and others that can be easily harvested so they will not always be asking from donors," Balbin said.

For the banana industry, he expressed confidence it will be quickly revived because it is mainly run anyway by the large Japanese-affiliated firm Sumifru.

"I want to stand again. I know we can stand again," Balbin said.

In the town of Baganga in neighboring Davao Oriental province, where Bopha made landfall, Juliver Daga-as, 36, was quicker than Diano in building his own temporary home.

Unlike Diano who still stays at a temporary evacuation center in Andap village together with his family and many other victims, Daga-as was able to erect a shanty just a few meters in front of his original home that was already tilted, roofless, and opened bare on one side.

"I gathered some debris and constructed our temporary house two days after the typhoon. I live there with my family and my in-laws," Daga-as told Kyodo News as he took a bath by the highway from a recently installed water system across from his house.

Just like other victims, Daga-as also hopes the government will help him rebuild his old house and give him a job so he can support his family of five. He used to work as a tree cutter prior to the typhoon.

Baganga municipal administrator Evangeline Nazareno said there are still no definite plans to provide housing for the victims because the local government still has yet to identify land for them.

But there are efforts to provide cash-for-work for some of the victims such as those hired to support assistance relief operations in town.

"We have high hopes that soon, Baganga will rise because many NGOs promised to help us," Nazareno said.

She said there will definitely be a difference in the way the people will react in times of disasters or calamities in the future after they have rebuilt their houses and returned to their respective livelihoods.

Like in New Bataan, residents of Baganga were surprised by the wrath of Bopha, which packed winds as strong as 175 kilometers per hour.

Individual families may not be able to construct typhoon-proof concrete houses for economic reasons, but the local people are already expected to prepare harder if warnings are issued about an incoming calamity such as a typhoon, Nazareno said.

"The sentimental part is over. We now have to face the situation," local Catholic priest Roberto Ombon said as he pointed to the temporary evacuation tents that he initiated to build for the affected families in the coastal village of Kinablangan in Baganga.

In his homily given in Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve masses, Ombon told Kinablangan residents that what is important after the calamity was that their faith remained intact, and that their lives, which are more important than the material things they lost, were saved.

"I did not mind really when I saw my house already destroyed. I was too worried looking for my family, and was elated when I saw them at the evacuation center, alive and well, although wet and trembling from the cold," recounted Daga-as, who was at work and away from his family when Bopha struck.

"We had a very meek Christmas and New Year celebration at the evacuation center. But I was very grateful for this second life, this second chance, and I also prayed that we can have our new home," Diano said.