By Denis Murphy
We stood, with a dozen or so women, wives of Tacloban fishermen, looking out to sea for signs of a new typhoon. They had heard rumors of such a typhoon (Dec. 15) and had sent their children to the rescue centers. The women told us they were terribly afraid that the monstrous power that had crushed their homes and killed hundreds of their immediate neighbors would return, and they would hear again the shrieking winds. Given a reasonable recourse, they wouldn’t want to live near the sea—if only for the sake of their children.
Immediately before us were the pulverized concrete remains of Barangay (village) 90. No one lives there now. The survivors still tell of the many adults’ and children’s bodies pulled from under the debris after the typhoon, so the area now carries about it the air of horror of an open grave.
We walked with Holy Spirit Sisters Nory Gabito and Pearl Probadora through Barangay 89 and met Barangay Chair Melba Villalina. She was meeting with workers of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. She looked exhausted. She said the government doesn’t have a detailed plan of what it wants to do with the 1,010 families of her barangay.
Given the government’s 40-meter-wide zone measured from the water, where housing is forbidden, a solution acceptable to both the people and government is difficult to find. Many families, she said, would accept relocation if their fishermen-husbands could remain near the sea to continue their work. Some 400 residents of the barangay died during “Yolanda.”
We walked a little further and talked to Belinda Guinoohan, 43, who lives in one of the tents donated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her living situation could be worse—as it is in many other parts of the country at all times—and, to be sure, it is far from comfortable. As we talked, a wet wind blew through the tent. The women joked that they slept on a waterbed, only the bed was all, real water.
They said the UN people who gave the tents told the people the government would tell them what to do. So far the government hasn’t done so. In retrospect, it is good the UN gave the tents, since that enabled them to stay together—at the site—while a solution has yet to be reached.
Belinda told me that no one from the UN, government or international NGOs has asked her or her neighbors what solution they would prefer. Consultation between the local government and the people affected by the disaster is the number one priority recommendation of the UN and of many others who have suggested some guidelines for the postdisaster reconstruction work. Belinda repeated the gist of what the barangay chair told us about a “double form of relocation”: the families inland, the fishermen to a “fishermen’s area.” This solution separates families, so it is far from perfect. However, on this matter, there are only bad solutions to be had at this time.
“Do you have a people’s group of some sort?” we asked Belinda.
“No, we don’t,” she answered.
She said a few of them individually and separately have gone to authorities to complain, but no one listened to them. It seemed to us, sisters and people’s organizers who were listening, that some sort of people’s organization was needed—the only realistic way those in authority can consult with thousands of poor people. When the idea of such a people’s group was mentioned, the women we talked with agreed: It was a good and useful thing to have.
The floor of the tent was wet sand. When it rained the water collected in puddles inside the tent. Women told us their children would cry and refuse to go to school whenever it rained.
We had to admire the gritty decorum of the women who, even in very difficult circumstances, wash the clothes and try to get them dry, even as they struggle to find food for their respective families, nurse the very young and comfort all the children—day after day with patience and grace. Has any government ever had better people to work with? I don’t think so. Maybe good, but no one better.
Our last stop on our last day was at the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Palo, a 10-15 minute drive from Tacloban. We went there straight from the fishermen’s area and found what could be called an instance of divine democracy: There was great damage done there too. This relatively new and beautiful church was damaged much like the fishermen’s huts. Huge sections of the roof had been torn away by Yolanda. You could sit in the dry part of the church and listen to raindrops falling on the altar area. What is the message? Is it that the church must share the life of the poor? Behind the cathedral nearly 1,100 bodies of people are buried under a simple green field—people from all socioeconomic classes, we were told.
There are, according to media reports, tens of thousands of poor families along the shorelines of Samar, Leyte and other islands. They are in much the same bad situation as the fishermen’s wives in Tacloban we talked with. How the government “re-houses” them and helps to put the wage earners among them back to work may be the heart and soul of the whole reconstruction effort. My feeling is we need much more open, transparent discussions—and more ideas and alternatives—to find the right answer(s).
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).