Typhoon Haiyan: Returning to Normalcy After a Harsh Year


It’s been almost one year since I was last in Tacloban on the Philippines island of Leyte. A few days after typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms ever recorded – made landfall, I arrived in the utterly destroyed town. The images were harrowing: houses were completely washed away, businesses wiped out. Traumatized people were searching through the rubble for their belongings, and dead bodies laid along the sides of the road, waiting to be picked up by burial cars. 

So I return with a mix of feelings: anticipation, anxiety and excitement. Yet when I drive into the city center, I feel mainly surprise. Surprise to be in a bustling Asian city. I see food stalls grilling pork skewers where 12 months ago people wandered through the streets searching for anything edible. I see shops selling the latest mobile phone models whereas last year people desperately tried to reach their loved ones without a mobile connection or electricity to charge phones. I pass by outdoor stores selling hiking boots where last year people climbed barefoot through the rubble trying to salvage their few belongings.


My first stop is in San Jose, a neighbourhood of Tacloban. This is where Lourdes Hemelga and her family live. I met Lourdes last year in an evacuation center, where she gave birth to her daughter just hours after Haiyan left a path of destruction in Leyte. The CARE team has kept contact with her over the past year and we drive through the narrow streets where her small wooden house stands. After our joyful reunion, Lourdes recounts her ordeal of that traumatizing day one year ago:


“When the storm came, I was already due to give birth any day. At some point, the water from the storm surge crept higher and higher, and we had to leave our house. We climbed up a coconut tree to save our lives. That was extremely difficult with my large belly, but my husband pushed until I was out of the water. When the storm was over, I felt the labour pains. I went to three hospitals but none could help me because they had no electricity, no doctors, no nurses. I then felt the baby coming and gave birth on the street, in front of a church.”


She called her daughter Yolanda, after the local name of the storm. When I met her last year, she was sitting among 200 other homeless families, tired yet happy about her newborn.


Since then, a new life has begun for Lourdes, Yolanda, her two other children and her husband. They rebuilt their house with the materials they could find. After being jobless for several months, her husband found work as a truck driver and has begun providing a steady income for his family. And since she wanted to truly move on and leave the night of November 8 behind, Lourdes decided to rename her child.


“The name Yolanda evoked so many terrible memories and we could not stand that our little daughter was always associated with it. So we renamed her Mary Alphons,” she says and proudly hugs her small daughter. Before leaving, we ask Lourdes whether one year ago she thought she would not survive the night of typhoon Haiyan.  Her answer: “No, I was not scared. I knew I would somehow make it. I am strong.”


A few hours later, I meet a group of equally strong Filipino women. We drive to the village of Lapaz, one hour outside of Tacloban. A group of women are gathered around a construction site where about eight men are busy hammering and sawing. Together, they are rebuilding the last one of 104 damaged houses. It’s a joint effort: The families received cash, shelter materials and training on safe building techniques from CARE, yet they decide on the design and pace of rebuilding themselves. They can rebuild one wooden house within five days when the whole community assists. Together, the women laugh and joke and everyone expresses their deep gratitude to CARE and our partner ACCORD for the help.


Jennifer, a young mother starts crying. After a few moments I notice that these are tears of joy. “I am so thankful. My daughter has asthma, and since we have the new house, she has not had an attack. I can’t tell you how happy I am knowing that my children are safe now,” she says.


I am proud to see the achievements CARE has made in Tacloban and the surrounding villages. In total, we have helped more than 318,000 people with food, shelter support and financial assistance. Recovering from such a massive storm is not done within a year; many families still do not earn an income, many other still live in flimsy makeshift buildings. And many more will never forget the loss of their loved ones. Yet it is a reassuring feeling knowing that our work has achieved something meaningful, that we could give people a roof over their head – and that we will stay with them for the coming two years to help them rebuild their livelihoods as well. 

Written by Sandra Bulling, CI Media and Communications Coordinator