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MENAFN - Khaleej Times - 20/08/2014
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(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) Its not yet a year since the worlds most devastating storm reached landfall and while aid workers began pulling out last month recovery efforts are far from over.It has been eight months since I met Father Virgie Murillo. His tone is still as upbeat and warm as it was in the days after the typhoon as he generously transported me from mangled mansions to mass graves.

“Compared to eight months ago there’s a big difference” he says.

I can still remember the video he showed me shot on a smartphone of Typhoon Haiyan in action taken from his mission house in Bagacay just outside the centre of Tacloban. The wind howled like a wild animal whipping rain at a horizontal angle.

Today when I talk to him over our mobile phones I’m greeted with a familiar soundtrack. Father Virgie is outside and the wind is beginning to shriek.

Typhoon Rammasun had just visited the beautiful archipelago of the Phillipines on July 15 killing almost 100 primarily along the country’s north-east. Rammasun left Tacloban mostly untouched but as I speak to Father Virgie Typhoon Matso is bearing down causing huge rainfall.

“Now at this time there is another typhoon so we are experiencing heavy rains but no wind.”

He says there have been improvements in conditions since I last saw the country — primarily thanks to international humanitarian groups.

“In Tacloban there is already a gradual improvement in the city thanks to the foreign organisations they’ve helped a lot in the restoration and the rehabilitation… especially in building transitional shelters so the focus is on rehabilitation giving (traditional small fishing) bancas in the coastal areas. There’s also programmes for farmers who are being given seeds for vegetable farming that’s also good.

“In my place… my neighbours were able to restore their houses through the humanitarian aid they give (building materials) and lumber.” But work being done by the government is lagging he says.

The so-called bunkhouses being built by the government have come under scrutiny for being overpriced and substandard as the beleaguered government continues to face a billion-peso corruption scandal.

“Compared to the bunk houses of the government… the ones built up in the northern part (by NGOs) are nicer.”

Another issue is starting to rear itself relating to the ownership of land where government bunkhouses — inside which families of as many as 10 are living in units the size of two table tennis tables — have been built.

“The agreement (between the government and owners) will expire so I think they will be transferred.”

This will mean people who have already lost their homes are now going to be faced with further upheaval.

“There is a big question there at this point I have no idea. If these evacuees residing in the bunk houses are transferred where will the materials go”

But even these people may be lucky; Father Virgie says there are other people still living in tents. THANK YOU... In Tacloban there is already a gradual improvement in the city thanks to the foreign aid organisations.

Inside the city centre of Tacloban Father Virgie says about 60 per cent of the shops are now open for business while the others — many of which faced huge structural damage and looting — remain shuttered.

The largely Chinese businessmen who owned the shops have leased them to others rather than reopen them themselves as the future of Tacloban remains unclear.

But closer to home Father Virgie has problems of his own.

Father Virgie is responsible for 14 of the area’s churches and more than 10000 families and like a majority of churches in the area the one he presides over suffered serious structural damage during Typhoon Haiyan. The roof was blown off and is yet to be replaced.

“Until now I am still using a tarp as my temporary roof for my small church. However considering the period of time being exposed under the heat of the sun and sometimes under the rain the tarp has now deteriorated… when it rains the water now gets in the church.”

The influential Catholic church is fighting too many fires to be able to help. LIVING IN HOPE... Typhoon Haiyan had a big impact on the country and recovery work is “huge”.

“Since almost all the churches were destroyed what we do now we just work as much we can and try our best. We look for ‘adoption’ we call it ‘Adopt a Parish’ if there is somebody who would like to adopt a church and rebuild.”

So far Father Virgie has been out of luck and the foreign aid agencies cannot help either:

“While residents have been receiving help from foreign organisation…the foreign organisations don’t directly help the church they have this policy.” As the typhoon season makes things wetter Father Virgie is facing more problems as the water has been eroding the flooring tiles which now also need to be changed. But for now he is focused on only on repairing the roof of the small church which accommodates 250 people — something that should cost about Dh25000.

“For my small church that’s the problem because of the roofing we experience typhoons.”

Maurice Dewulf is the United Nations Development Programme country director for the Philippines. He says the recent Typhoon Rammasun (known locally as Glenda) during which about 100 people died “has shown that preparedness and response mechanisms worked well”.

“In Albay where the typhoon made its landfall first there (were) zero casualties.”

He says Typhoon Haiyan left a big impact on the country and recovery work needed is “huge”.

“Some initial recovery work has started and (the) Government has just finalised following a very detailed needs assessment its Recovery Plan. In addition people themselves have shown remarkable resilience and have not waited for this major plan to start rebuilding — wherever they can — their livelihoods.”

This is a testament to the indefatigable Filipino spirit where people continue to fight back no matter how many knocks they take.

This is just as well because foreign aid is beginning to pull out. Dewulf says the initial humanitarian response strategy was planned for a year but may now be shortened. It’s easy to understand why in a world currently facing a surfeit of humanitarian crises.

“Some humanitarian needs remain particularly in the shelter area as this is linked to the requirement to not rebuild houses in the no-safe zones and relocate people to safer areas.”

That means as many as 200000 families need to be relocated to designated safe zones. Dewulf says the designs for building plans are ready and land is in the process of being identified — though from where the funding will come is still being “worked out”.

“As the recovery plan cannot cover all requirements and as the area had a 50 per cent poverty rate even before Yolanda external financial support will always be welcome and find good use.”

In addition to the UNDP the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) also provided immense financial and logistical support in the wake of Haiyan acting as the lead agency in the immediate response. But their operations concluded at the end of July.

WFP Philippines country director Praveen Agrawal says aid given by the WFP reached about 3 million in more than 100 of the worst typhoon-affected municipalities.

The way aid is being given has now transitioned Agrawal says explaining the global heavyweight NGO is now moving into a more sustainbility-focused approach.

“WFP began implementation of its recovery programme through Cash-for-Assets activities in the most affected areas in the provinces of Aklan in Panay Island and Eastern Samar based on the needs assessment done between the government and our partners.”

Once these assessments were done the government asked WFP to take care of the needs of those in Eastern Samar and Aklan while they addressed the needs in other areas. BACK IN BUSINESS... Inside Tacloban’s city centre about 60 % of the shops are open for business says Father Virgie

“WFP supported 38000 families in agricultural activities aimed rehabilitating and creating assets that will enhance the community’s food security and stimulate the local economy.” As to whether the country may experience another Haiyan Agrawal says lessons have been learned — and WFP is leading the charge. The programme has approved a 10 million capacity-building programme called “National Response Capacity-Building Applying Lessons from the Haiyan/Yolanda Emergency” which will be implemented over the next two years. The idea is to form a network of ‘Government Disaster Response Centres’ in three of the poorest provinces in the country that will have stocks of emergency relief items but will also conduct Government disaster-response and logistics training.

The WFP is also working with specific “disaster-prone areas” in the Philippines to improve their readiness to cope with crises.

“Some of the capacity-building provided (include) hazard mapping setting up early-warning systems and provision of quick-impact infrastructure projects like construction of flood controls and operation centres.”

Agrawal says while emergency assistance to the country will end this month but the WFP “will continue to monitor the development in close contact with the Government of the Philippines and our partners”.

Typhoons and the Philippines unfortunately seem to go hand-in-hand.

The country must now hope as aid and aid agencies refocus their attention on other global disasters that it is prepared in the wake of Haiyan to take on whatever else Mother Nature throws its way.

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