Tales in tikog leaves:
Weaving past 'Yolanda'
SAMAR, Philippines – For more than half a century now, Paz Pacuri, 65, has been weaving handicrafts from tikog leaves with the precision of a surgeon and with boundless imagination.
Tikog weaving, to the impatient city soul, is a daunting and tedious task. But in the small fishing town of Basey, in a province over 800 kilometers from the country’s capital, weavers have all the time in the world.
Under the shade of the Saob Cave, where the humid seaside breeze turns cool and gentle, Aling Paz gives life and color to dried tikog leaves, the same way she does to her life—weaving through day by day.
Aling Paz is not alone in this daily activity. She and her fellow weavers are all rooted in the same soil, their lives interwoven into the same fate.
Although most of the time, this interwoven fate is simple and happy, sometimes, it meets an unavoidable setback.
In the case of Aling Paz and her company of weavers, their fate bumped into one of the strongest typhoons ever to hit land in recorded history.
It was on 8 November 2013, a Friday, and Aling Paz, along with her neighbors, were thinking of life and death inside a nearby church where they had evacuated as super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan), packing maximum sustained winds of 315 kilometers per hour (kph), unleashed the sea onto the coastal town of Basey.
"It was strong, really strong. It sounded powerful," Aling Paz recalled what they were hearing from their evacuation spot, adding that in her 65 years, never had she felt such a powerful storm.
It was apocalypse experienced in just a few hours, with everything--people, homes, every semblance of life and structure--devastated.
And what was left after that scale of destruction? "Waray," the men and women of Basey would say—the word that pertains to the people of Samar and Leyte, which also means "nothing."
Truly, nothing was left standing that day but the Warays.
"After Yolanda, it took us a while to come back here. This place was really dirty and we had to clean it first," said Aling Paz, recalling the mess that was Saob Cave after Yolanda.
For her and the rest of Basey’s weavers, whose lives and fates align with that of the tikog grass, it was a painful kind of cleaning. It was as if they were sweeping off life’s dust away.
"We thought weaving, our livelihood, was dead because for a while, there were no tikog available, even in Tacloban. Even here, all the tikog plants were washed out. So we thought tikog weaving was really gone," she said.
Those were two long months, recalled Aling Paz. Although help came piece by piece, it was a struggle to find food, temporary shelter, and materials to rebuild their houses.
weaver from Basey
Two years later, like the fresh sprouts of tikog, the weavers are back in Saob Cave, slowly getting back on their feet.
Aling Paz admitted that the onslaught of Yolanda still haunts them, especially when it rains.
But when they are together in Saob Cave, weaving tikog tales, singing, drinking tuba (coconut wine), living once again, they know everything is going to be all right.
"Weaving is fun! We share stories and joke while working. Every morning, I'm always excited to go back to Saob. Then, when I get there, we share a lot of stories to each other," she said.
Hollow rocks: A shelter from the storm
Like the Saob Cave, the Tinabanan Cave in the neighboring town of Marabut tells a different tale of survival.
This cave, sitting about three-storeys high above the ground in the middle of the coastal village, with space enough to shelter a thousand people, was able to save the whole of Barangay Tinabanan when Yolanda came.
Suzette Bagonas, 42, sharply remembers the sound of the end of the world outside the Tinabanan Cave on that fateful day Yolanda pummeled the coast of Marabut.
It was safe inside the Tinabanan Cave, but nobody could sleep or even relax.
The babies were crying, the elders' eyes were staring at the darkness of the cave and were deep in thought, the men were drinking tuba to calm themselves.
After all, it wasn't easy to feel safe when everyone else may have been dying.
"It's very safe in here. The younger men brought drinks (tuba) to the cave. The others were listening to what's happening outside—it sounded like thunder, the wind sounded like a helicopter passing by the cave. We listened but we didn't know what was happening outside because we couldn't see anything, it was all white outside," she recalled.
According to Aling Suzette, everyone in Barangay Tinabanan was already in the cave two days before Yolanda made landfall.
The Tinabanan Cave—just one of 15 caves that saved lives in the barangay—wasn't actually an evacuation center.
It was just a name mentioned in the stories of the elders who lived and survived World War II.
The elders said that whenever Japanese warplanes approached, the people of Barangay Tinabanan would run into the caves to seek protection.
This is the reason why, when the people of Marabut heard about Yolanda approaching, it was almost a natural instinct for them to run into the caves.
community leader in Barangay Tinabanan
A few men and women went out of the cave that afternoon of November 8 when they thought it was safe to have a look around.
Nobody could distinguish the houses from dirt, the highways from marshlands, the dead from the living—everyone couldn't believe such catastrophic event could happen in a matter of hours.
Yolanda was gone, but so were the houses they painstakingly built, the animals they looked after--nothing, not even “real” food.
They ate leftover coconuts, unripe bananas, fish that were rumored to have eaten flesh from dead bodies floating in the sea. They cooked flooded rice.
It was hard, but they had to live and move on—no matter how slow and hard; it was the Waray resiliency in full display.
Resiliency, more than endurance, is about bouncing back—standing up from a great fall, brushing off the dust, licking one's wounds—walking on stronger, better than ever.
And on the island of Samar, it was the women who led the way.
Waray-waray: The women of Samar
Long before Yolanda came, the women of Marabut were already organized in little clusters of groups advocating their rights.
One of these groups is called the Unhan Kababaihan ng Tinabanan, which is headed by Aling Suzette, a group affiliated with the Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (PKKK).
The main advocacy of the group is to mainstream issues related to Violence Against Women and Children, and to eventually give rural women a voice.
"Rural women are usually silent," said Elsie Viliran, locally known as Tita Gard, head of the PKKK group in the town.
But in the aftermath of Yolanda, the ruins that were left of their homes and livelihood woke the women of this small town up from their silence.
First things first: Order amid chaos
Aling Suzette, along with the other leaders of women’s groups in Marabut, decided to work together along with PKKK and speak collectively about their needs.
The women knew that moving on should mean more than that just having their humble houses rebuilt and restoring their livelihood; they knew they had to build back better.
With the donations they got, they were able to fund livelihood projects and organize a disaster risk reduction committee that would prepare the community for future calamities.
The cave that helped them survive Yolanda has been improved with a stairway, and just recently, the group got the help of Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC) to train them on solar power.
The community acquired four solar kits that serve as emergency power supply, enough for light, radio, cellphone charging, and even a nebulizer for children with asthma.
Solar kits from Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities
These improvements were tested when Typhoon Ruby struck a year after Yolanda, and they proved to be very effective.
The result of all these disaster preparedness efforts is community empowerment. The women got their much-needed voice not only in the community, but also in their respective households.
"Now, the women here have a voice in their family's decision-making. In production, they also have a say," said Tita Gard.
"And, their children, they understand. That's the kind of impact we wanted. There are less fights between partners. Instead of fighting, they talk. We told them, if you involve your children in discussing the family's problems, it will be better," she added.
But these aren’t the only things that the people of Barangay Tinabanan gained in the process of rebuilding.
More than everything else, what they have now is far better than what they had expected—a solid, organized community capable of setting aside differences to work for a common goal.
"I told them, during the time of Yolanda, when did help come, 3 days, 1 week? What did you do? You didn't notice? You helped each other, right? Those who were enemies became friends. Why not do it all over again? Do we really need a Yolanda before we help each other out?"
"Do we really need a Yolanda before we help each other out?"
- Elsie Viliran,
community organizer in Tinabanan
Nightmares in surges, waiting for 'Promised Land'
Meanwhile, in Tacloban City, the center of commerce in Eastern Visayas equally hit hard by Typhoon Yolanda, the frenzy to build back from the ruins has been dampened by realities on the ground.
In coastal areas leading to Tacloban, hundreds of small fishing boats are unused and slowly being laid to waste by nature. These boats, fishermen said, were donated to them but are too small to sail far out to sea.
Small makeshift houses have been built among the ruins along some of the city's coastal villages. These are no-build zones, but residents said they had no choice to settle here again as they continue to wait for houses promised by the government 2 years after Yolanda struck.
Gina Manglayong, 53, used to live in one of these villages, Barangay Anibong. This coastal area was destroyed by 4 big ships tossed by Yolanda's 15-foot waves.
Seeking a safe place in the immediate aftermath of Yolanda, Manglayong recalled leaving her devastated village for Cebu. But she couldn’t help but come back.
"For me, two weeks in Cebu is a long time. I always come back here. This is where I grew up. I want to know what's happening in my hometown. I want to know if there's any improvement, especially in our area," she said.
Manglayong had many sleepless nights due to Yolanda nightmares.
"When I was in Cebu—my cousin there took me in (after Yolanda). There, it (nightmares) started—I had a hard time sleeping, I couldn't breathe. I ended up having very short naps on a bench made of bamboo outside the house. Then I'd suddenly remember what happened, and I'd tremble," she recalled.
She was far from the shores of Tacloban, but her memories of Yolanda's huge tidal waves recurring on the coasts were hard to forget.
resident from Barangay Anibong
One scene never left Manglayong's mind: a container van rolling with the waves, destroying their house.
"We saw the container van destroy houses. It was like a domino effect—house after house—until it reached our home which was by the road," she said.
"You could hear both adults and children screaming—a woman, even a man, they were [all] crying," she added.
Ironically, the container vans that destroyed the houses in Anibong were the ones that also saved their lives in Yolanda's immediate aftermath, as no help—not from a non-government organization (NGO) nor from the government—arrived in the first week.
The same nightmares haunt survivor Arthur Golong, who used to live in Barangay San Jose, the village worst-hit by Yolanda.
He now lives in a permanent housing around 20 kilometers away from the “danger zones” in Tacloban City. But even though he's now in a safe place, he still can't escape the ghosts of Yolanda.
resident of Kawayan permanent resettlement
During the height of the super typhoon, Golong clung to a barbed wire while Yolanda was passing by, wiping Barangay San Jose out.
"The scenes flash back: we were holding tightly to a barbed wire, we were helpless, especially when the roofs flying around were hitting the walls. It sounded like an explosion. I felt like [I was] fainting," he recalled.
Golong's family is one of 435 families transferred to permanent houses built by NGOs in Barangay New Kawayan.
He had to endure one long year in a transitional shelter in a muddy area, far from their main source of livelihood and without a stable supply of water.
Some of the problems in the transitional shelters, particularly water and power, were carried over into New Kawayan, said Golong.
Deep-well water in the village, he said, is not potable and can't even be used to wash the dishes. He said the area is just a few minutes walk from what used to be Tacloban's main garbage dumpsite.
The costly solution for residents of New Kawayan is to buy bottled water.
For electricity, residents are temporarily tapping into the power supply of the contractor developing the area. The government has yet to lay out plans for power in the area.
It’s the same situation for families who moved to the permanent houses built by the government in Ridge View Park, just a 5-minute ride from New Kawayan.
In a span of two years, the National Housing Authority (NHA) has been able to build around 63 houses in Ridge View Park, a far cry from the target of 1,000 houses. Less than half of what's been built so far are occupied.
The streets in this resettlement site are narrow compared to where Golong transferred. The empty houses make it appear like a ghost town.
It's dark and scary at night, said resident Roselyn Pacamparra, 28. She said the government did not set up a power line at the site before the houses were built.
There's also no water yet because water pipes have not been laid in the area. For now, water is being supplied free by a nearby commercial water provider.
For Pacamparra, the situation, though far from what was promised, is better compared to what they experienced in the bunkhouses.
resident of Ridge View Park
The permanent houses in Ridge View were already raffled to the residents in transitional shelters in November 2014.
The promise was that Pacamparra and the other families would be transferred to the permanent houses by 2015.
The families waited patiently for the go-signal even as diseases spread from one person to another in the bunkhouses.
Typhoon "Ruby" came, too, destroying 1,272 houses in Leyte and killing 15 people in Eastern Visayas.
Almost half a year has passed and the promise to move into the permanent houses by 2015 is still not fulfilled.
Some families thus took the matters into their own hands.
Pushed by a mother's instinct, Pacamparra moved into Ridge View last May, even without permission from the government, and not knowing what may happen to them.
She could no longer wait to see her children get sick again in a place they could not call home.
The promised houses were already there, while the bunkhouses were full of sick people.
She just wanted a better and safer place for her children—a place like home.
"How bad could it be?" she thought.
Pacamparra was not alone. Around 35 families who could no longer stand living in the bunkhouses forced their way into empty houses at Ridge View.
There was no power, no water, no promise of better days, but they had a place where they could begin again.
Pacamparra and Golong are among the few fortunate people who have been able to transfer to permanent resettlement areas.
As of September 2015, the government and the NGOs have completed a total of 839 permanent houses for Yolanda survivors, less than one-tenth of the target 15,000 permanent homes.
Data from the City Housing and Community Development Office show that the NHA has built 283 permanent houses, and NGOs have put up 556 houses.
The chosen location for these permanent houses was northern Tacloban, one of six areas not included in the government's official hazard map.
According to Maria Lourdes Lagman, the original plan was not just a resettlement area, but a township on a 150-hectare land which can sustain a whole community in terms of basic needs and livelihood.
"There will be a mini city hall there. Actually in two months, we expect the construction of the market to be finished. There will be a terminal…We have established a livelihood site, institutional sites. We'll transfer UP (University of the Philippines Tacloban) there. So, it will not be a relocation site as we usually look at it. It will be a new town. We call it a city extension," she said.
It was a plan drafted even before Yolanda came. It was to be built at a much slower pace, but the tragedy made it an urgent necessity.
Despite the urgency, Lagman admitted that reconstruction is taking longer than expected.
Maria Lourdes Lagman,
City Housing and Community Development Office Head
"What happened was it took time for the developers to get clearance from the DA [Department of Agriculture], DAR [Department of Agrarian Reform]... It took so long," she said.
"They [developers] had to process the [land] titles before the NHA [National Housing Authority] could pay them. That's why the patience of the developers wore extremely thin. It also took time for them to get replenished," she added.
One of the major problems that surprised the government and NGOs in uptown Tacloban is water.
"Before, we had water sources. But when the dry spell began [this year], we had to buy it [water]," she said referring to the prevailing El Niño phenomenon.
Water supply problems forced the government to temporarily stop building additional temporary and permanent houses.
"We stopped the movements [of people] last April because of the dry spell. Water supply was very hard. Of course, we didn't want to move the people there without water. So, we sort of stopped moving them to the transitional sites," she explained.
There are currently 1,500 in-city transitional houses and 1,000 more in uptown Tacloban.
But because the transfers to these shelters stopped, residents in coastal villages like Anibong were forced to rebuild makeshift houses in areas deemed as no-build zones.
Lagman said that for now, the local government is just rationing water in the transitional sites. She said the local government does not have enough funds for a sustainable water supply project, and local officials have asked the national government for help.
"Until there's no sustainable water plan, we will not move people. And definitely, we're asking that from the national government—a maximum of about P1 billion for the expenses [for a water supply project]," she said.
Lagman said they have already submitted their plan to the now defunct Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) headed by former Senator Panfilo Lacson.
The proposal of the local government, she explained, is to borrow money from the World Bank so they can move more people to the permanent shelters immediately.
"It will be a water source from a town in Leyte. Then, a piping system here for bulk water supply. And actually, what we are proposing so we can move faster, and this is their [local government] position since 2008, is to make the project a PPP (Public-Private Partnership). Let's give it to the private companies like Maynilad or Manila Water who can do it more professionally," she said.
With the OPARR now closed, the task of overseeing the progress of recovery and rehabilitation projects in Yolanda-hit areas now lies with the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).
But according to Alan Olavides, assistant regional director of NEDA in Region 8, they haven't heard of the PPP plan of the Tacloban City government.
Alan Olavides, NEDA Assistant Regional Director for Region 8
"P1 billion? We haven't heard about it, but there was a request for endorsement…of P180 million. It was submitted for a program of work for the development of water supply," he said.
The job of putting up a sustainable water supply in the resettlement sites in Tacloban, Olavides said, rests with the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA).
"There was that P1.9 billion allocated for a water system, [it's] with LWUA. But according to LWUA—the other day we had a meeting here—P693 million (P600 million for Tacloban, P93 million for the rest of Leyte) that's the amount mainstreamed, it's up for release here," he said.
The NEDA has passed a resolution fast-tracking the release of money for the implementation of LWUA projects in Tacloban.
Still a blame game
For two years now, the blame game for the slow pace of rebuilding hasn’t stopped.
The city government of Tacloban said it’s the national government’s responsibility to deliver sustainable water supply in resettlement sites.
The NHA, meanwhile, said the budget department is to blame for the delay in funds for housing.
In a meeting last October at the House Committee on Climate Change, the NHA said that out of the P61.262 billion earmarked for housing units, only P26.996 billion had been released as of September.
President Benigno Aquino III himself again blamed the local government of Tacloban, when he spoke recently before the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
"The whole plan is to move at-risk communities especially in that particular area beyond this road dike. There are certain nuances, the Tacloban portion and the Palo portion. In a sense, we really have to partner, and we have been partner[ed] with local government units," he said in response to a question.
Aquino, a political rival of the current mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez, recalled the time when the local government failed to assist them.
"Haiyan, I think, struck Friday, I was there by Sunday. And on Sunday, our Department of Public Works and Highway (DPWH) said, we're ready to construct the bunk houses. And the city administration then of Tacloban told us that they had 30 hectares that they could lend to us for this purpose. I go back a week later, not a single inch of the 30 hectares was afforded to us," he said.
Asked further about the issue of housing, Aquino agreed that the national government has the resources to construct houses. But when it comes to the land where these houses should be built, it should be on the local government.
"The degree of coordination seriously impacts our ability to deliver. We may have resources to build houses, but we need cooperation.," Aquino said.
"The degree of coordination seriously impacts our ability to deliver. We may have resources to build houses, but we need cooperation."
President Benigno Aquino III
Amid all the finger-pointing, victims of the typhoon are the ones still suffering.
Around 600 families continue to wait for permanent houses in different transitional shelters, and over 900 more families are still coping with difficult living conditions in bunkhouses.
Not included in the tally are Yolanda victims who have gone back to their coastal villages, declared no-build zones, because temporary shelters are still not available.
In a place that earned the sympathy of the whole world, which resulted in millions pitching in to the promise of building back better from the ruins, few would be convinced that the promise has been kept two years hence.