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Christmas glows faintly after storm

TACLOBAN, Philippines — Christmas lights blink in a handful of restaurants in Tacloban, but at nightfall, much of this city flattened by Typhoon Haiyan slips into darkness.

A few downtown shops have reopened. Roadside vendors peddle fruits of the season: oranges and red apples. There is rebuilding, though much of it consists of residents hammering shelters out of scavenged debris.

The Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 6,100 people in the eastern Philippines, displaced at least 4 million others, and left its most gruesome mark on Tacloban, a city of 240,000 that will need years to recover.

Soon after the storm, Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla promised to restore power by Christmas Eve or resign, and indeed, electricity has returned to nearly all of the more than 300 towns that lost it. But relatively few people are able to use it. Officials say many storm-ravaged houses and shops will spend the holidays in the dark because their wiring systems are damaged.

City Hall, a seaside hilltop complex surrounded by ruins, buzzes with typhoon relief work, with dozens of staffers and foreign aid workers busy on the phone or huddled in talks.

"I am hoping by a year you'll see some significant improvements," Mayor Alfred Romualdez said. But he's not sure when his city will fully bounce back.

Christmas Day Mass was to be celebrated by the papal envoy. There was to be a Christmas Eve dinner for foreign aid workers and local officials.

But mostly, Christmas was expected to be a celebration amid deprivation, in tents, makeshift homes and damaged churches. The smell of death remains in parts of the city. Thousands of people have simply left.

"Many of them, I know, prefer not to spend it here," Romualdez said. "Maybe a change of scenery first and then come back after the holidays."

• • •

More than six weeks after Typhoon Haiyan struck, leaving well over 2,000 people dead in Tacloban alone, the work of collecting corpses continues. Soldiers, police, firefighters and volunteers have cleared what had been a heartbreaking landscape of bodies strewn across the ruined city, but the stench in scattered mounds of debris means there are more left to find.

Fire officer Rolando Unay, a doting grandfather with five children, said that although the work is difficult he sees the good in it.

"Every time I lift a child's body, I could feel that the agony of a parent, a family somewhere, is about to end," he said.

At a corner the other day, a distraught fisherman, Hubert Labanan, waved at Unay's truck to stop. He pointed to the remains of his mother by the roadside. Villagers found her remains under a pile of wood and other debris that they cleared while preparing to repair a house.

Holding back tears, Labanan told Unay's crew that he had lost his own home in the storm and was too poor to bury his mother in a cemetery. He begged that she be taken to a mass grave.

As Unay's team left with his mother's remains, Labanan waved goodbye, then stood motionless until the orange truck vanished from his sight.

• • •

Although its roof got blown off by Haiyan's wind and it became a burial ground for dozens of typhoon victims, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Palo, near Tacloban, hosted a festive event a day before Christmas: the mass wedding of 98 couples.

Originally scheduled for 147 couples on Nov. 16, the wedding was postponed when the monster storm struck, damaging the church's interior, breaking its stained glass windows and scattering its pews.

A smaller number registered for Tuesday's ceremony, apparently because the other couples left the region after the storm, said Monsignor Bernie Pantin, who officiated the wedding.

"I praised them for their strong faith whatever happens," he said.

Workers draped the roof with tarpaulins ahead of Christmas but part of the altar still got wet from a downpour later Tuesday. Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, the papal envoy to the Philippines, was to celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass at the damaged cathedral.

Former convict Raul Moralita, 49, fixes the Christmas tree on top of his makeshift shelter in the city of Tacloban. Much of the city still is without power, and bodies still are being found buried beneath debris more than six weeks after the typhoon.

European Pressphoto Agency

Former convict Raul Moralita, 49, fixes the Christmas tree on top of his makeshift shelter in the city of Tacloban. Much of the city still is without power, and bodies still are being found buried beneath debris more than six weeks after the typhoon.

Christmas glows faintly after storm 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:23pm]
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