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A New Year's resolution for Typhoon Haiyan survivors

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 24 Dec 2013 07:42 AM
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Children, who are victims of super typhoon Haiyan, stand beside an improvised Christmas tree decorated with empty cans and bottles at the ravaged town of Tanuan, Leyte province, central Philippines, on Dec. 19, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
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When I met Rene Orquestra last month, he was lying in a hospital bed in Cebu in the central Philippines. The 37-year-old government employee had badly swollen feet, a one-inch-deep hole at the back of his left leg and what looked like boils that had burst around both ankles. 

He had been airlifted out of Tacloban the day after Super Storm Haiyan had turned most of the city into rubble, and had been taken to a hospital on the grounds of the Cebu military airport. By the time I visited, he had been there for 10 days and could not wait to get back to Tacloban and start working again.

He got hurt trying to carry his neighbour’s children to safety. A sharp piece of wood lodged into his left leg, a corrugated iron sheet cut his right leg, and another piece of wood hit his head. He was in enormous pain when the doctor, who was worried the wound would turn gangrenous, dressed it.

As our interview came to an end and I wished him well, he asked with genuine interest where I came from. After I told him, he took both my hands in his and said, “We are very thankful to you and everyone. Many countries and people are helping Tacloban.”

I could feel tears welling up in my eyes as I mumbled something slightly incoherent.

Seeing the corpses lining the road from the airport to Tacloban city was unpleasant. Seeing the devastation of the storm on Tacloban and other cities was distressing.

Yet it was meeting survivors like ReneOphelia and Ricael Ebar that touched me most and left the biggest impression on me. It has also led me to make a New Year resolution that for once I know I won’t break - to cover their recovery throughout the year and to make sure, as much as my journalistic skills enable me to, that funds reach those who need it most.

STOP COUNTING THE DEAD, START CARING FOR THE LIVING

When Rene thanked me for just doing my job, it was a good reminder to me that while the media write about the scale of the disaster - trying to beat each other to count the dead - there are a lot more people still alive who need taking care of.

I started the year with a trip to the Philippines to cover the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo), which had hit the southern island of Mindanao in December 2012. It was the strongest storm in 2012, ruining vast parts of northern Mindanao, affecting 6 million people and possibly pushing back the already poor province's economy by years.

My last major assignment of the year was also in the Philippines, this time for Typhoon Haiyan (which goes by the local name Yolanda) - possibly the strongest storm on record ever to make landfall. Almost 8,000 people were killed or are missing, around 4 million remain displaced and 14 million were affected.

In between Bopha and Haiyan, the country experienced at least 24 storms, a major earthquake and a serious firefight between government forces and a breakaway faction of the insurgency group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). With all these crises combined, an estimated 4.5 million people are displaced across the country.

Last week, the government announced a four-year, $8.2 billion recovery plan and Aquino emphasised the need to reduce the risks of disasters posed by a changing climate.

Personality politics, corruption, donor fatigue and unclear land rights may hamper the biggest rebuilding effort we’ve seen in Southeast Asia since the 2004 tsunami, but if successful, the Philippines could prove a model not only on how to build back better but also how island countries can also build resilience to climate change.

Here’s me wishing for the best.

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