WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Recovering Tacloban

TACLOBAN CITY (MindaNews/18 September) — Almost midnight, from six floors up in a corner suite of a downtown hotel, the sparse streetlights cast their lambent glow on a lonely figure treading the deserted road. It was three blocks down heading my way, weaving steadily in the middle of the street. There was something not quite right about the picture he made. As he got nearer, I gasped in astonishment.

“Honey, there’s a naked man walking down the street!” I turned to hubby who was still burning the nightlight working on a deadline.

He stood up and parted the curtains to look down from the window.

“Hmmm… There’s another one who does that. A woman,” he mused.

Gee. That’s a mental health load I can’t deal with. Psychologists try to catch them before they become psychiatric cases.

(Ah, but to be free and liberated of the world’s cares this way when you can walk the streets as God put you in this world. Naked and sacred. These denizens of Eden make me wonder if this world indeed needs psychologists.)

Hubby has been over a year here in Tacloban, deployed for USAID’s REBUILD program. I get to visit and spend nights with him when we have activities scheduled for the Leyte Community Resilience Enhancement Project (LCREP) we’re running for Terre des Hommes.

At first, he was only on temporary reassignment here from a project providing livelihood support to TS Pablo survivors in Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley. When his contract expired, his employers rehired him to be based in Tacloban.

I knew Tacloban could use him, so I held my tongue at guilt-tripping him on holding true to a promise we made when we got married: Neither one of us would be an OFW. We would stay together in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse.

So when I am in Tacloban, we both work all day and in the evening he and I walk the streets, try the newest restaurant or café, or hit the mall. He indulges my retail therapy addiction – I always come home with more clothes than I arrived in. Naked mannequins weep in my wake. These days, coming to Tacloban, I just grab my shoulder bag and ride the plane. Hubby will take care of me when I get there.

True enough (so far).

I remember Tacloban best that one night earlier this year when hubby and I shared a bottle of Asti under the shadow of the refurbished belfry of the Sto Nino Cathedral.

Almost two years after the killer storm Yolanda, Tacloban is recovering. From six floors up as I bid this city another goodbye, life down there looks almost normal. Light traffic plies the streets as people start their day. On a cloudless day, cargo ships are moored along Cancanato Bay to the east. Smaller ferry boats are steadily chugging towards San Juanico Bridge and probably beyond to Samar on the north. A huge white statue of Christ with both arms extended to embrace Tacloban stands high on the mountain to the west. It is dwarfed by a taller transmission tower on the foreground.

Yesterday I visited five of LCREP’s partner villages.

I found Kap Danny Murillo at Barangay 61 going about fixing his home. When we came to visit him last July 2014 to invite his barangay into a partnership with LCREP, this house was in ruins. Seven months after Yolanda, and Barangay 61 then had yet to clear the storm debris.

“Fifty-seven bodies had washed up here. It was difficult to get at some of them as they were trapped under the debris,” I remember him saying. Murillo then wore the look of someone who still lived the terrible things he had seen.

Yesterday, Yolanda’s memories still brought tears to his eyes. But he did not pause in his story. In a quiet voice, he talked to me about wanting every now and then to just pause and give himself the luxury of grieving for his own pain.

“But I can’t do that, ma’am. There’s always someone who needs me, so I just carry on,” he said.

Over at Barangay 56-A, it was a different story for Editha Monredondo. She greeted me with effusive thanks for LCREP’s assistance in getting her village to qualify for a fish cage grant.

“We earned P135,000 from our harvest!” she exclaimed. They are using the money to fix the nets and ramps. Soon they will be stocking fingerlings for a second run at growing bangus.

She showed me a small warehouse they put up to stock sacks of rice.

“Ma’m, we started with just P20 per cluster member. From that, we eventually were able to buy and sell rice in the neighborhood. It had gotten so that we now have enough money to buy 27 sacks at one time.”

From LCREP inputs, she said that the most important lesson they learned was the need for self-help.

Today, Barangay 56-A residents have signed memoranda of agreement with three lot owners in Happy Homes Village in Diit. They have set up small organic farms in these properties on the condition that when they leave in five years’ time, whatever physical improvements they had put in place would be left for the lot owner.

Ric de Veyra and Arthur Golong are among the community leaders who had worked with LCREP in assessing the needs of their respective villages and helping us adjust our inputs. Ric is from Barangay Cabarasan Guti in Palo. It is an interior village that gets cut off from help when the road to the town proper gets inundated by floodwaters. Arthur on the other hand is from Barangay 88, one of the San Jose villages near the airport that was hardest hit by the storm surge. We had followed Arthur’s transition from the tents to the duplex bunkhouses in New Kawayan to his permanent housing in Kawayanville, courtesy of Habitat for Humanity. At each of these post-disaster shelter facilities, he had demonstrated to be a natural leader, a force to be reckoned with in getting the needs of his fellow IDPs (internally displaced persons) addressed.

From a modest P10,000 start-up capital that they will eventually pass on to someone else on the line, Ric and Arthur have respectively gotten a small business off the ground. Ric runs a stall in the public market of Palo while Arthur had fixed up the living area of his modest home and turned it into a beauty salon.

“I do not any more have to go out to do home service in order for us to have something to eat today. People in Kawayanville know where to find me,” he beamed.

Over at Anibong where five cargo ships had slammed against homes, Chat Bactol of Barangay 70 thanked LCREP for the series of livelihood trainings that the women’s association had availed.

“The women can now help their husbands earn. And they can do it without having to leave the home,” she said.

Asked about what among LCREP inputs had really helped her village, Chat said that the training on psychological first aid helped her constituents put their Yolanda experience in perspective and get them to realize that they had to be prepared in the event that something like that happened again.

“As you can see, we’re still here. That could happen to us again. We have yet to be relocated,” she said.

While much of Barangay 70 is in the no-build zone, the Yolanda rehab has prioritized the allocation of permanent housing to those displaced from San Jose.

Bactol said that the basic life support skills they learned from the soldiers could come in handy. “That one taught us to make use of just about anything there is to stop blood loss or to transport the injured, especially when we just have to make do because the ambulance could not get to us,” she explained.

She remembers best the Lakbay Aral to the Davao Oriental area where on the occasion of the TS Pablo anniversary last year, Gov. Cora Malanyaon treated the Leyte visitors to lunch and a tour of the museum. Lieutenant Colonel Krishnamurti Mortela then generously shared with the visitors on his role in the post-Pablo recovery of Baganga. Bactol said she had learned so much from Davao Oriental.

“Building back better,” she said. “That indeed is how to do it.”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches at the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. She is head of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says)