Philippines City Struggles To Recover After Typhoon

Feb 17, 2014

It was one of the strongest storms ever recorded at landfall. Typhoon Haiyan clocked at 190 miles an hour when it struck the Philippines late last year. More than 6,000 were killed, nearly 2,000 more are missing and millions were displaced when their homes were destroyed or washed away.

Authorities are still struggling with the simplest tasks like clearing away debris, rebuilding houses and counting the dead. NPR’s Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Tacloban, the Philippines city that bore the brunt of the typhoon.


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This is HERE AND NOW. It was one of the strongest storms ever recorded at landfall. Typhoon Haiyan clocked in with winds of 190 miles an hour when it struck the Philippines late last year. More than 6,000 people died; nearly 2,000 more are missing, and millions were displaced when their homes were destroyed or washed away.

Authorities are still struggling with the simplest tasks, like clearing away debris and rebuilding houses and counting the dead. Recently NPR's Kelly McEvers went to the city of Tacloban, which bore the brunt of the storm. Here's an encore presentation of her report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The night Typhoon Haiyan made landfall last November, a guy named Bubi Arce and his friend decided to hide out in a two-story apartment.

BUBI ARCE: Communication cut off, TV gone, electricity gone, everything gone. And the roof flew away.

MCEVERS: Water filled the first floor, so they went to the second floor.

ARCE: And I said, do you know how to climb the wall? He said, why? If we don't do that, we're going to die.

MCEVERS: They climbed. The water went up, then went down. By the time they got outside, entire neighborhoods were missing. Cars, furniture, fish floated by. Under a bridge, Bubi and his friend saw the first dead body.

ARCE: And he said, no, it's a single - it's an isolated case. I don't think so. My friend said, why?

MCEVERS: Because if a body ended up that far inland, Bubi said...

ARCE: There's going to be a lot of dead people.

MCEVERS: Bubi's friend went to find his family. Bubi went to city hall. He found a working truck and a couple more friends. That's when he decided he had to start picking up bodies.

ARCE: First five in the first run, then seven, then 15, then 20.

MCEVERS: And that was just the first day. Why did you do it? I mean, what - you just thought, we need - this needs to be done?

ARCE: I know nobody would do it.

MCEVERS: At first Bubi and his team just put the bodies in a big pit, a mass grave in an existing cemetery. Then the government showed up, an alphabet soup of federal agencies, each with its own idea about what to do. Aid workers say the effort was pretty badly managed.

Now Bubi has been appointed the head of Task Force Cadaver in Tacloban, which means even though he's never done this before, Bubi is the guy in charge of collecting, burying and identifying bodies in the city, like 2,500 bodies. That's about a third of the total dead in the whole region.

And while things are getting better, there are still a lot of challenges: first, what to do with the bodies. Many people in Tacloban agreed an open mass grave was no good. So it was finally covered over with dirt.

Now authorities from the Philippine equivalent to the FBI are digging up these bodies, cataloging them and burying them separately until they can be ID-ed. Then there's the issue of how to make those IDs. If someone wants to match a body with a missing loved one, how do they do that?

Turns out they have to look in a stack of handwritten notebooks at a local branch of the Philippine National Police. Problem is their office was blown away by the storm. So the notebooks are kept under tarps inside this rain-soaked tent. Commander Ramos Bergonio shows me the notebooks. So this is like...

RAMOS BERGONIO: This is the case number.

MCEVERS: Case number, OK, time and date of the recovery.


MCEVERS: The place, height, approximate age.

BERGONIO: Yes, yes, this is the description.

MCEVERS: Wearing a black...

ARCE: Black sandal.

MCEVERS: Leopard print shorts. And the gender. So far there have been only a few hundred bodies identified. Thousands are still unknown. Officials are taking some DNA samples, but they say there's not enough money to test them, which brings us to another problem: what to do if IDs are never made?

Siobhan Reddel with the World Health Organization is in Tacloban to help Bubi and his team. Standing in the rain at a temporary cemetery, she says the ultimate goal is a monument to those who died in the storm.

SIOBHAN REDDEL: We have to know now there will be some that won't be able to be identified. And that will be important for the community and individuals to understand that they can come to a particular space, a particular monument and grieve knowing that it represents the loss of that person as well.

MCEVERS: And now for yet another problem: bodies are still being found every day as we see at the cemetery. So it's a body bag, and there's some tagging information on it. It's got a date. It's been assigned a number.

REDDEL: That's all the retrieval data.

MCEVERS: Siobhan is trying to get funding to bring in a team of dogs that are trained to scan the massive piles of debris and find the remaining bodies. She says that way people won't think their dead relatives are still out there. Siobhan and Bubi say there's a lot more to do, but, they say, they hope their failures and successes will be a lesson for cities and villages hit by the next Pacific storm. But for the people still looking for their relatives, it isn't much comfort.

So now we're kind of walking into a tent city, it's mostly mud, climbing in here into a tent. What's your name?


MCEVERS: Lorena?

SABUSA: Lorena Sabusa(ph).

MCEVERS: Lorena Sabusa now lives in this tent. During the storm, she and several of her nine kids sheltered in a sports stadium. After the storm, when she came back to her neighborhood, she saw that her house, everything, had simply washed away. Her sister, her niece and her brother-in-law were nowhere to be found. The family searched for three weeks for their bodies. We asked if they reported it to the police in the tent with the notebooks.

SABUSA: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She says, no, we didn't go to report it because it's not like they could've done anything. They're not going anything to help us now. And then I asked her, like, how did you know that they aren't alive anymore? She said, well, my niece that died, she showed her soul, like her other niece saw a child in white that was, like, wet and crouched over. So they knew that that was the ghost of the niece that died.

MCEVERS: As for her own sister, the mother of the girl, Lorena says she heard she survived and made it to shore in the next city over. Does she believe that?

SABUSA: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, she believes it.

MCEVERS: She believes her sister is alive. Disaster counselors say this is what you do when you don't get closure. You tell yourself a story that's easier to believe than the thing that might actually have happened. The best thing, they say, is to embrace the ambiguity. Maybe she did wash up on shore with amnesia, and maybe she didn't. That, not a positive ID verified by some government agency, is how Lorena's family might get through the grief. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, some other stories we're following. House Speaker John Boehner's immigration proposal was shot down by his own party almost as soon as he laid it out. NPR's Mara Liasson takes a look at the GOP's continuing internal debate over immigration. And in Kentucky, snake-handling pastor Jamie Coots has died. Police say he was bitten by a snake he was handling in his church. Coots was a Pentecostal minister, and NPR's John Burnett will have a remembrance.

And more about that cold, cold weather in so much of the country. It's keeping many people indoors, but not Everett Hall(ph). He's a gravedigger in rural Maine, and he works in all weather. He's been digging by hand for nearly half a century. So it is truly ALL THINGS CONSIDERED later today. But right now you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.