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Philippines faces massive resettlement needs as post-typhoon aid comes slowly

TACLOBAN, Philippines — The typhoon that recently barreled through the Philippines has left in its wake one of the most profound resettlement crises in decades, with the number of newly homeless far exceeding the capacity of aid groups and the government to respond.

Two months after one of the strongest typhoons on record, recovery in the central Philippines has been marked by a desperate scramble for shelter, as people return to the same areas that were ravaged and construct weaker, leakier and sometimes rotting versions of their old homes.

That urgent but crude attempt to rebuild has raised the prospect that the storm-prone areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan will emerge more vulnerable to future disasters. The self-made reconstruction effort also reflects the enormousness of the damage. November's catastrophe displaced more than 4 million people — twice the number of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Left largely to fend for themselves, people are living in or under whatever remains. They inhabit boats or freight containers flung ashore by the tsunami-like storm surge. They patch up near-destroyed homes with storm flotsam: twisted metal, plastic sheets and ripped mattresses. If the initial storm was a global media event, its aftermath is the opposite, taking place long after the news teams have decamped and attention has faded.

For those who lose homes in a disaster, there's almost never a quick solution, aid workers say. The Katrina-hit Gulf Coast had its infamous FEMA trailers. Port-au-Prince had its squalid tent cities. Northeastern Japan had its cramped evacuation centers — mostly schools and civic centers — the last of which closed only last month, almost three years after a tsunami and a series of nuclear meltdowns.

What's noteworthy in the Philippines, though, is not where people are resettling, but rather the degree to which they are staying put. Across the disaster zone, some 90 percent are still living in the same plot they were occupying before the typhoon on Nov. 8.

Even if survivors wanted to go elsewhere, they have few options. The region has a dearth of formal evacuation shelters, and the first 1,000 government-built "bunkhouses" here don't meet minimum international standards, according to aid workers.

Under ideal circumstances, the survivors would be rebuilding with new materials, not scraps, but help has been slow to arrive. Only 9 percent of those affected by the storm have received support for rebuilding, including nails, tarps and tents, according to the Shelter Cluster, a committee co-chaired by the United Nations' refugee agency.

Philippine manufacturers have failed to keep up with demand for even the most basic materials, such as corrugated metal, and Manila has been slow to import the materials from elsewhere. Leyte province, the area most directly hit by Haiyan, has received just 2 percent of the metal it needs for new roofs, Leyte Gov. Dominic Petilla said in an interview.

"If only you gave people a better option, they'd take it," Petilla said. "But we haven't done that."

Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people, proved to be so deadly not just because of its power, but because of what it picked up upon landfall. The storm splintered houses made of lumber and tin, and those splintered materials became spear-like weapons in the storm surge. Philippine government data show scores killed from puncture wounds and flying debris.

Some aid workers say it's almost commendable that the shantytowns have so quickly sprouted again. It's what they call "self-rescue," which you need on a disaster of this scale — at least on an emergency basis.

But viewed up close, the process looks more like peril than relief. In the waterfront slum neighborhoods of devastated Tacloban, Leyte's largest city, a few survivors are living on the second floor of a building that scarcely has a first floor left. One family is living in a home slanted like a ramp, debris wedged under one side. Rolando Bagro, 45, lives with his wife and four children inside the two concrete walls of their home that were left standing after the storm.

His new roof includes a blue tarp, some sheet metal and an umbrella. When it rains, he uses plastic jugs to catch the leaks. Because the second room of his family's home was bulldozed to a stump by the storm, Bagro's wife and children now sleep together in a single room on a piece of plywood the size of a child's bed. Bagro sleeps on a 3-foot-long bench he found after the storm.

"Every day is tiring," Bagro said with a faint smile as he showed his home to a guest. "Because look how I sleep."

Philippines faces massive resettlement needs as post-typhoon aid comes slowly 01/05/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 12:55am]
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