As Philippines recovers from Typhoon Haiyan, devastation spurs shopping spree in Tacloban

This city of survivors is also, by extension, a city of shoppers. People here lost almost everything, and now, they’re in a rush to buy it back.

Two months after a typhoon mangled this city, its shopping scene is perhaps the most encouraging barometer of recovery. Thousands throng the downtown streets each day, where makeshift rows of vendors hawk everything from pizza cutters to pork. For $7, you can even buy a T-shirt that says, “Tacloban survivor.”

In the days after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the region, this city of 220,000 had almost no lifelines, with grocery store shelves emptied by looters and aid slow to arrive. Now, you can easily buy the essentials. You can also buy discount-brand LeBron James jerseys in three different colors.

The scene is several shades from normal. The pizza cutters, for instance: They’re rusting vestiges salvaged from the typhoon wreckage, now being sold for 20 pesos (45 cents). And the pork? Butchers kill their animals on the spot, because there’s no electricity for cold storage. Cuts of meat are then displayed on outdoor stands and swarmed by flies.

Shopping in Tacloban is less a pleasure than a grimy necessity. Shoppers jam their bags with what might be called post-disaster essentials: pillows, radios, headlamps, cellphones. For those wary about the pork — aid workers strongly advise abstaining from eating it — Tacloban is flush with canned tuna, canned sausages, canned corn and white bread.

There are also reminders everywhere of this city’s trauma. The display bouquet in front of Elsa’s, a flower shop, bears a silver ribbon that customers are requesting with their orders. “Condolences,” it says.

Some stores in the four-block downtown grid are shuttered because the owners are dead or missing. Other stores are too heavily damaged to reopen. As of late December, Dunkin’ Donuts remained closed. Same with the palatial McDonald’s, which was targeted by looters. (Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras recalled one looter carrying away the McDonald’s “drive-thru” sign.)

One Philippine fast-food chain, Jollibee, has reopened, but it’s housed in a mobile van. There’s a bookstore, too, but the pages of its novels are wavy and yellowed, like the findings of a shipwreck. The books are left to dry in the sun.

Tacloban officials say their city’s economy, once among the fastest-growing in the Philippines, might not return to normal for several months. But they do think it will come back. “Companies have told us they will stay here and reopen,” Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said in an interview.

A whiteboard displayed in Tacloban’s city hall charts the progress. For now, 26 hardware stores have reopened. (They have lines out the door.) So have six grocery stores and mini-marts. Fifteen banks are open, too, though many close by 1 p.m.

Tacloban was the largest city to take a direct hit from Typhoon Haiyan, and merchants have come from across the region to sell their goods. They sell snacks, cigarettes, playing cards, San Miguel beer — often from stands erected on the sidewalks in the main shopping district. At night, when everything goes pitch dark, the merchants put up tents and sleep right next to their stands.

Much of the shopping activity is concentrated downtown, but Tacloban’s top shopping destination — Robinsons Mall — is on the city’s outskirts, along a national highway. In the days after the storm, Robinsons — already heavily damaged — was ransacked by looters, who walked away with DVD players, backpacks and rubber boots.

Robinsons reopened Dec. 19 with what passes for a gala in such a battered city. The food court and movie theater remain closed, but the supermarket and home-appliance areas have been patched up and restocked. The mall runs on a generator and is open only from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. — for 100 people at a time. Others stand outside in a line kept orderly by police.

“It’s a bit of a wait,” one Tacloban resident, Catalina A. Odita, said while standing in line. “But I need ingredients for adobo chicken.”

Because of the power constraints, the supermarket doesn’t have ice cream, frozen goods, fruits or vegetables. A few buckets are positioned along the floor to catch leaks.

On one of the flat-screen TVs in the electronics area, a well-edited slide show of typhoon photos plays on a loop — families sitting on roofs, military members carrying babies, helicopters bringing goods.

The TV is positioned near the Robinsons entrance, and every shopper has to walk by it. One recent Sunday morning, almost a dozen stopped and watched, standing there for minutes, until the images began to repeat themselves. Some dabbed tears.

Most shoppers, though, never slowed down, and just headed to the supermarket.

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Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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