Monday, November 17, 2014

Typhoon Yolanda commemoration: survivors rising through tears and lingering fears

Note: This photo-essay was featured in the 14-20 November 2014 edition of FilAm Star, the weekly 'newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America' published in San Francisco, CA. The author/blogger is the Philippine-based Special News/Photo Correspondent of the said paper.

Candle-lit sharing of messages to the public during the 'Rise Up for Abundant Life'
liturgical commemoration of Yolanda at the St. Andrew's Theological Seminary.

It's been a year since Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda with its 155 mph winds and seven-meter high storm surge flattened towns and cities and snuffed out lives in Eastern Visayas, The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) is still validating the number of casualties although it had set its body count at 6,300. Observers claim that this may go up to more than 10,000 if the casualty or missing lists from all affected barangays are tallied.

While there were lives lost, there are the survivors coping with the terrible loss of loved ones, and trying to move on despite the anguish and lingering fears.

Ferdinand ‘Nick’ and Doris ‘Chai’ Quieta of Tanauan, Leyte lost all their four children: the eldest, a young lady of 11, and the youngest, a little baby, just a year-old.  Both are agriculturists, alumni of the Visayas State University.  Before the storm struck, Chai brought her kids to the safety of her mother’s concrete house. Seventeen perished in that house - the Quieta children, their cousins, and their grandmother.

Wena Sanchez and Cha Escala, young women filmmakers from Leyte, tell their heartbreaking struggle to live on through their documentary ‘Nick and Chai’. Sanchez came to know about their despair through her sister-in-law, who happen to be the couple’s classmate and close friend, and godmother of one of the children.

Chai tells that she felt that with the loss of their children, they had no more need for planting. She found a packet of seeds though in her bag, and she thought that if these sprout in a few days, she will take that as a sign for them to move on, and they did. Pretty soon, they were encouraging their neighbors for everyone to set up a communal garden and show the world that they can stand on their own.

The documentary ‘Nick & Chai’ by Cha Escala & Wena Sanchez is
about a couple who lost all their children.
For six months, from March to September 2013, the filmmakers captured the despair and hope, tears amid little joys, prayerful and playful moments, daily trips to the mass grave, planting and sharing the harvests from the garden, and being parents to the neighborhood children.

Nick says, "Everything reminds us of our children. When we see plants, we see them. When we see chickens, we see them. When we look at the moon, the stars ... We've accepted everything. It's just the longing that's hard to deal with." When he spoke before a gathering of his fellow alumni, he asked them to put their right hand over the heart, and loudly proclaim with him and Chai that "life goes on."

'Nick and Chai' won the Best Picture award in the Quezon City International Film Festival on 05-11 November, just in time for the Yolanda commemoration. It could very well be the message of hope to the world when it goes to various film festivals abroad.

The story of Nick and Chai was amplified by testimonies of two other survivors during the “Rise Up for Abundant Life” Typhoon Haiyan Commemoration organized by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) at the Saint Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City.

Meriam Rosario of Estancia, Ilo-ilo and Toto Cajes of Baje,Samar showed other slices of life after Yolanda in various communities.

Rosario lamented that up to now they have not yet received the attention of government. They were moved from the coastal areas to the bunkhouses provided by the NCCP and built on hilly grounds.  She grieved about harassment of women, and how DSWD denied relief benefits to people like her who joined groups advocating faster response to their plight. “Hindi pa kami okay,” she said, “isa ako sa di pa nakabangon.”

Survivor Toto Cajes speaking about the death his loved ones
On the other hand, Cajes could not help but cry as he recalled how his family desperately clung to the ceiling during the surge but they felt like they were in a washing machine with the waters churning around them. He lost his wife and two children. One survived because he clung to branch of a mango tree.  He said they have not received any assistance yet from government.

The “Rise Up” commemoration gave a view of the response of religious organizations to the relief, recovery and rehabilitation needs of the people after Yolanda.

Just like in any disaster scenario, many individuals, non-government organizations and government agencies particularly the DSWD immediately organized relief operations to distribute basic food items and other primary needs of the survivors.

Generally, the NCCP member churches embarked on rehabilitation programs after their relief missions.  Some of them like the Board of Women’s Work of the United Methodist Church provided psycho-social support to the survivors. Skills training was also a component of their rehabilitation projects.

Display on post-Yolanda rehabilitation work of the NCCP.
The ‘Anglican Relief for Typhoon Yolanda Survivors’ had men and women working together in the housing project.   In Palo, Leyte, people were taught the natural farming system and organic feeds formulation for hog and poultry raising using resources found in the community. Their approach asks the community to use their resources and capacities instead of highlighting their needs and problems. They also want the community to pay back so that other communities can use the fund for similar ventures, say, housing.

The DAMBANA ( Damayang Simbahans sa Panahon ng Disaster) response is embodied in the PrayFastBuild concept. The ‘Fast’ asks the donor to give up a meal or snacks so that he can help in raising funds. Thus, relief materials went to various provinces, shelter and livelihood for families in Capiz, and agricultural seedlings, implements and fishing boats to Western Samar.

The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) captured their rehabilitation-in-action through these programs: (a) aerobic rice planting; (b) solar lights beyond borders; (c) pig raising, pay it forward style; and (d) returning life, uplifting hopes.

‘Rise Up for Abundant Life’ symbols: coconut seedling, water, lighted candle, Bible and cross.

With regard to government, the word is out that President Benigno Aquino III has approved the Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan (CRRP) for areas hit by Yolanda.

According to the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) headed by Secretary Panfilo Lacson, “the lives of Typhoon Yolanda victims shall be restored and built-back-better [using] Php170.92 billion, allocated for the four primary rehabilitation areas:  Infrastructure (Php35.15 B), Social services (Php26.40 B), Resettlement (P75.68 B), and Livelihood (P33.68 BT).

The infrastructure allocation is for the repair, rehab or reconstruction of national roads and bridges, airports, ports, classrooms, school buildings, LGU halls, public markets, among many others.

Social services cover college scholarship grants, textbooks, health services and medicines, forest land rehab, agroforestry development, shelter assistance, assistance to LGUs in the formulation of Comprehensive Land-Use Plan (CLUP), among others.

The resettlement fund for the victims is for housing units, safe and suitable resettlement sites, sustainable livelihood opportunities in new settlement sites, and other related projects.

The livelihood allocation is for, among others, expansion of food and income base, and capacity development in local employment promotion and local economic development.

The government committed to complete the 25,000 projects under the CRRP in 2016. President Aquino grumbled about doing things right in reply to criticisms on the slow response of government to disaster. The question nags: will government deliver within that tight timeline?

Photo-grab of an IBON Foundation slide showing government assistance to affected families

Then there are the foreign donors, whose pledges or actual contributions can be viewed online at the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub (FAITH) through

The latest posting tells that foreign aid pledged is USD 1,643,038,277.66, comprising cash (USD 1,011,033,311.26) and non-cash (USD 632,004,966.40) pledges.

The foreign aid received is USD 386,590,532.07. The total cash received by government is USD 26,788,176.68, and the non-cash is USD 28,459,720.94. The total received by NGOs, multilaterals and others is USD 330,836,632.01.

According to reports, OPARR refers LGUs or national government agencies to foreign donors, or the foreign diplomats and international agencies go to OPARR to look for projects they can finance. In most cases, foreign donors and governments are the ones that implement their projects.

The European Union, for example, has provided humanitarian assistance and early recovery interventions. Lately, it spoke of the high vulnerability of the Philippines to climate change, and it is offering its assistance under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Roses for the liturgical commemoration of Typhoon Yolanda.

NCCP also stressed “Climate Justice” as the underlying theme of the “Rise Up” commemoration because Yolanda/Haiyan showed the country’s vulnerability to climate change.  Their continuing prayer is for “people [to be] prioritized over profits – clean energy instead of monopolized fossil fuels, rehabilitated and protected forests instead of large-scale mining, lives and livelihood of the people over big businesses.”

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