In Philippine city of Tacloban, a conflicted Christmas for typhoon victims

December 24, 2013

At dawn Mass at the Santo Niño Church, the Rev. Mark Marowen Adona, 31, told the Catholic faithful to follow the example of the Virgin Mary “to always be at the service of the Lord” and to emulate her “courage to build on trust” after she was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would give birth to a son, Jesus.

The churchgoers listened in semi-darkness, as electricity was not fully available in the city. Only the altar and its centerpiece, the ivory image of the infant Jesus, believed to be miraculous, was well lit. Outside, the colored lights from the big blue, red and green Christmas lanterns hanging on the sides of the church made moving shadows of the worshipers who were standing up as teenagers were frolicking by the churchyard’s fountain.

Even as the parish carried on the traditional observance of nine dawn Masses before Christmas and the occasional holiday trimmings showed up along the streets of neighborhoods crushed by last month’s devastating typhoon, deep emotional wounds lay just beneath the surface of this city. The Nov. 8 typhoon, Haiyan, had left almost everything in ruins — and everyone a victim

“We are happy, but also sad,” Edna Robles, 25, said. “But we are thankful that no one died in our families.” She was carrying her baby and standing outside the church with her friend Recyl Tondo, 29. Both live on a hillside community overlooking the sea.

The two mothers brought their five small children to the 4:30 a.m. Mass, a ritual with a deep history in Leyte province; the first Catholic Mass was held off its southern coast, on Limasawa Island, in 1521. Beneath where they live, the storm surge that lifted the sea into a mini-tsunami washed out entire shanty communities.

Over the course of less than 24 hours, Haiyan affected more than 14 million people in 44 provinces in the central Philippines, displaced more than 4 million residents, damaged about 1 million houses and left nearly 1,800 people missing, according to a report by the United Nations. Of the more 6,000 people reported dead from the typhoon — thought to be the strongest yet recorded — 80 percent were from the Leyte towns of Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan.

“I am a victim, too,” said Gloria Fabrigas, 49, a physician from the city health office. She was wiping away tears as she emerged from a therapy session at a cafe with a visiting psychologist friend. “Because you are a doctor, people come to you for almost anything,” she said.

Fabrigas, a widow, said she had sent her 14-year-old son to Manila, the Philippine capital, after the disaster. “That’s better,” she said, “because if he was here, I would still have to think about him.”

Many well-off city residents left Tacloban after the typhoon and have not returned, and the parked cars that usually line the sides of the church’s premises during dawn Masses were nowhere in sight. Many of those who remained in the city had nowhere else to go.

Fabrigas said that at the city’s Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center (EVRMC), more than 600 mothers had given birth since the typhoon. Many rural clinics were destroyed. And the lack of vehicles to take pregnant women to hospitals means they are giving birth in evacuation centers, such as schools.

“Our estimate is that there will be at least 500 deliveries per day in the school areas,” said Enrique Ona, secretary of the Health Department. Ona was visiting Tacloban last week, along with a delegation of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who described the devastated area as indicating “very clearly what the international scientists said — that this is a man-made disaster.”

Bubi Arce was in charge of the team collecting the bodies in ­Tacloban. “I don’t want to forget this. We must be very prepared next time,” he said. “I never asked God: ‘Why did this happen? Why here?’ ” Arce said. “But I believe that the Earth is alive. We have to take care of it.”

At the dawn Mass, one of the young men hanging out by the fountain turned serious when asked about death in his family. The body of his uncle, a soldier stationed at the airport during the typhoon and among the several men in uniform who perished there, was found on Dio Island 18 days later.

As Christmas approached, residents were grappling with mixed feelings of gratitude for being alive and guilt for not being able to help enough during the disaster. Herminia Ayuste, 63, a nurse at EVRMC, said she was tormented by guilt after turning away a group of evacuees from the hospital’s main building during the typhoon. Others were already camped out there, and Ayuste did not think more people could be accommodated. When the water rose, the nurse was gripped by fear that those she had not welcomed had drowned. The hospital guard later told her that the evacuees had found shelter in the outpatient building.

“I was feeling very bad,” Ayuste said, “because the Lord said that we must help and give shelter to the poor.”

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