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Haiyan survivors search for home amid the rubble

Tacloban victims wonder whether to abandon ruined city

Haiyan survivors search for home amid the rubble

The Buwanghog family scavenge for usable wood to rebuild their home

Joe Torres, Tacloban City

November 19, 2013

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Rochelle Buwanghog, 20, sits on the rubble that was once her home in the village of Sagcahan in Tacloban City. The stench of at least eight decomposing bodies nearby permeates the noonday heat, but it does not bother Rochelle. 

Surviving only on biscuits and water handed to her by friends, Rochelle awaits news of her older sister and her husband, and their two young children who went missing after super typhoon Haiyan battered the city on November 8.

"I am not leaving here until I see my sister," she says.

Then from a distance – from what used to be a street now filled with debris and bodies – two young girls shout over to her.

"Rochelle, Rochelle, they found your sister," the girls scream. "She's here," says one of the girls as she points at a body bag being carried by two policemen.

Rochelle stands up, nearly losing her balance on a plank of wood that serves as a bridge from one pile of debris to another. "How about the children," Rochelle shouts back. "Are the children there?

"They found my sister," Rochelle turns and whispers – smiling – and gingerly walks towards the other girls. "They found my sister," she shouts at her father who was picking up pieces of wood on the other side of what used to be the neighborhood. 

"They were inseparable," says Norberto Buwanghog, 65, Rochelle's father. "They were like twins," he adds, shaking his head. "But what can we do now? We have to let [the authorities] bury them in the common grave," he says.

Norberto continues picking up the pieces of wood and galvanized iron that used to be his home where Rochelle, her sister Linda and husband Ernesto, and their two children, aged eight and three, used to live. He seems unmindful of the commotion as people gathered to look at the remains of his daughter.

"What can I do?" he murmurs. "I have to build a shelter for those of us who are still alive," he says, as he calls on his son, 32-year old Eddie, who is also trying to scavenge wood and nails nearby.

An hour later, sitting on the same rubble that was once her home, Rochelle reminisces about her sister. "We were always together," she says amid sobs. "Life will never be the same again." 

Eddie says that they may be able to rebuild their house but not the family.

"Forever is not enough to rebuild our lives because we lost our loved ones," he says.

The Buwanghogs are among the estimated 2.2 million families – or about 10 million people – from 10,560 villages in 44 provinces that have been affected by the devastation wrought by super typhoon Haiyan.

Data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council shows that 3,982 people have been reported dead, 18,266 injured, and at least 1,602 others are still missing.

A total of 295,590 houses were reported destroyed and 301,650 have been damaged, latest government data shows. Meanwhile, 89,785 families or 418,988 people are staying in 1,595 evacuation centers.

While many choose to stay and rebuild their homes amid the wreckage of communities where the stench of dead bodies wafts from under the piles of destroyed houses, some are fleeing Tacloban, which they now describe as a "ghost city." 

Jennifer Lachica, a 31-year old mother of a six-month-old boy, says she has to flee because "there is nothing else there except the ghosts of the many people who died." 

She hugs her baby tightly with her left arm while holding on to her husband with her right hand as a C-130 military cargo plane of the Swedish Air Force takes off from Tacloban to the nearby city of Cebu following a supplies drop.

"The foreigners saved us," Jennifer says once the plane is airborne. "Our government seems to be at a loss. We did not receive any help for nine days that we were there waiting." 

Jennifer is one of the thousands of people who were waiting for days to be airlifted from Tacloban airport. With only three C-130 cargo planes, and no commercial flights to and from the devastated city during the first few days after the disaster, the Philippine Air Force was unable to bring out the stranded.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says 43 overseas donors have pledged or already sent assistance to support the ongoing relief and recovery operations, bringing to $127 million the current estimated value of international assistance to the country. 

The World Bank also announced it is mobilizing $500 million in loans to support reconstruction efforts “and to help Filipinos strengthen their resilience against increasingly frequent extreme weather events," the bank’s President Jim Yong Kim said in a statement. 

The United States has been leading relief efforts. Some 50 US ships and aircraft have been mobilized in the disaster zone, including 10 C-130 transport planes, 12 V-22 Ospreys and 14 Seahawk helicopters air-dropping supplies from the USS George Washington moored off the Leyte coast.

On the ground, however, survivors continue to desperately scramble for food and water, and other basic necessities. Despite announcements by the government that relief goods are being distributed, people are saying they are not getting enough.

Allan Refaca, 30, says he needs a hammer and nails to rebuild his house. "The dead should also be collected from the rubble," he says.

Refaca lives in a makeshift shelter with five other family members beside the road to the city's airport. 

"We're getting used to the stench of dead bodies, but for how long?" says his wife, Maribeth, who cooked rice for lunch a few meters from decomposing bodies.

Some 10 kms from the city, policemen and soldiers labor to carry corpses to a hillside mass grave where around 500 bodies were collected since last week.

While many have left or want to leave the disaster zone, many more chose to stay and rebuild their lives, like the Buwanghogs and Refacas.

"We are not leaving. This is our home. We will rise again," says Sienna Casio, a 23-year old mother of three, who was waiting for medical attention at Tacloban's government hospital. “Family and neighbors are all that we have after everything is gone."

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