By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
Life after Yolanda, Log 3
TACLOBAN CITY—The longer our news team has been here, the daily grind of stories we’ve been telling in post-Yolanda Leyte and Samar has looked back less on the tragedy we’ve seen and has turned instead to the mechanics of moving on.
We see more people walking the streets during the day, especially in downtown. Sidewalk stalls selling everything from fruit to fashion are flocked with buyers. And except for the torn roofs and the tenantless ruins left as scars of the storm, it seems it’s business as usual.
We’ve reported on how businesses have begun opening again and on how clean water and electricity need to be restored fast. At our news team’s impromptu story conferences over breakfast, we’ve called these updates “normalization” stories.
But what here is normal? It’s a word that Tacloban vice mayor Jerry Yaokasin hears often (usually from reporters) yet questions.
“We cannot say the city is now normal, because we will never be normal again,” he told them.
Every 8th of the month is now a reminder of how everything changed here after that storm. And on December 8, the first “month-sary” of Typhoon Yolanda / Haiyan, we saw how faces now preoccupied with daily concerns would still break into tears as they recalled how they survived the storm and how they lost their loved ones who did not.
The month-sary was on a Sunday, and many of the emotional scenes were found in Catholic churches like the cathedral of Palo, Leyte.
All it took was a choir, a guitar, and an inspirational song to set some crying. At a program that followed the Mass, 30 children performed “Yesterday’s Dream”. Some survivors were asked to share their stories.
One was Reggie Agner, who lost his mother and 3 siblings in the flood. Left with his father, he is facing the reality of their loss only now. He asked aloud, “Why didn’t I die with them?”
“I think about them all the time,” he said later. “Unlike before when it seemed okay since many others also died, now I feel sad.”
Over in Manila, the woes of the ordinary survivors took a backseat to “bigger” problems. Facing a Senate inquiry, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez wept as he lamented the supposed lack of help the city got from the national government in the aftermath of Yolanda.
Romualdez also questioned why Interior Secretary Mar Roxas had to ask him for a letter then asking the government to take over the city. An online video of the exchange also added fuel to their word war.
Yet the issue is hardly talked about in town, partly since many residents still don’t have electricity to watch TV. In one evacuation center, a generator is turned on twice a day to let people watch the noontime shows, one primetime soap, and the news.
People are instead busy trying to again earn a living. Some bakeries, restaurants, and hotels have begun operating on limited power. One branch of a fast food chain now serves burgers and fries via a food truck sent from Manila.
An outdoor gear shop that was swamped by the flood now sells its wares from an SUV parked by the storefront. Sold at slashed prices, the branded shirts, shorts, and bags are crowd-drawers.
A few rummage for dirtier items at trash piles still scattered in downtown: dented cans of fruit cocktail and condensed milk, caked heaps of wet animal feed, and mounds of soiled long-sleeves and jeans. Some salvage them for personal use. Others sell them again.
As families still search for thousands missing throughout Eastern Visayas, up to 35 bodies are still being unearthed from the debris every day. Some corpses still lie in the streets, waiting for someone to pick them up.
Mixed emotions, more pressing worries. As they struggle to bury their dead and their memories of the calamity, people here try to find closure in what ‘normal’ they can return to. To them, the squabble in Manila will not help anyone.
“They never went through what we went through. We almost lost our lives, we almost lost our families,” said vice mayor Yaokasin. “The last thing we want is finger pointing and political one-upmanship.”
But ask those offering candles at a mass grave or tearfully praying at a roofless cathedral and you will barely hear a complaint.
Their thanks are overflowing–to God for keeping them alive, to the nations that came to their aid, to the volunteers helping them get back on their feet.
Despite his loss, Reggie Agner chooses to get strength from the support he and his father are getting. All of them who survived, he said, were “witnesses to God’s love.” Reggie sees life differently now–serious and not to be taken lightly.
At a dusk memorial service where attendees sang “If We Hold on Together” with hands clasped, Tacloban’s city administrator Tecson Lim fought tears while asking if there was a purpose to why Yolanda visited them.
They survived, he said, “to fight against our human nature of fighting against one another.”
“We lived because we are now given the mission to make sure that our children and our children’s children do not suffer the same devastation that we did.”
As the priests blessed the dead, they called for a moment of silence—a short recollection to remind those remaining what they are now living for.