Building back, better after Typhoon Haiyan
On 8 November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines, and the city of Tacloban was obliterated overnight. Thousands died; millions were displaced.
Jonah Cortez is a survivor of the disaster. She's now part of Plan's Building Back Better project, which is reconstructing devastated villages and building shelters for over 6,000 displaced people.
I originally came from Mindanao. My father is a carpenter and fisherman, and he taught me the trade. Since childhood, I always tried to fish and build like he does; he’s been an inspiring figure throughout my life, one I wished to emulate always.
Life was hard growing up. There were 13 of us children, and although I am 9th among the siblings I still felt a great deal of responsibility. I knew my sisters and brothers wanted and needed to go to school, and so I always dreamt of helping my family attain a better life.
I was 15 years old when I came to Tacloban in 1997. I was looking for work, and managed to get a job as a cook in a hospital kitchen. It wasn’t much, but it gave me my independence and helped me earn an income. It was here that I also met my husband, in 2003. He drives a jeepney for a living, and while he taxied people here and there, I worked a new job managing some apartments for a property owner. In 2010, I stopped working and decided to stay at home to look after our ever growing family of 5 children.
I augment our meagre income by selling some local beverages in our village. Three of our children are in high school, one is in kindergarten and the youngest is two years old. Life is difficult, but we work hard to make sure our children grow up to live better lives than we did. Then, in November last year, our world turned upside down.
When the typhoon struck
We are used to typhoons in the Philippines, so when Haiyan hit, we didn’t recognise the danger. Things escalated quickly. The rain was so strong, and the coastal villages were quickly engulfed with floods. When the rushing water reached over our head we had to swim; I waded through the water, holding onto a wire while carrying my two-year-old child. My husband carried our five-year-old, and eventually we found respite in a two storey building.
The situation was desperate immediately afterward. We did the best we could to cobble together a makeshift shelter out of scraps of metal and tarp. At night we lay on debris to protect ourselves from the cold earth. We also heard that there was another tsunami coming. It’s hard to explain the terror we felt at this point, to lose everything in a matter of hours, and then you hear this – we were in a daze. Stories were being told; we heard that violent prisoners had broken out of the city jail; Tacloban was a warzone after Haiyan, and I remember fearing murder and rape, alongside the widespread looting. We were forced to flee altogether.
The fight for survival
After a week, we finally returned home to ruins. In the aftermath, it was very painful to see my children eat only once or twice a day, slowly starving. You try to look for food, your child cries, you feel helpless.
As a mother seeing all this, it hurt my heart.
Eventually aid started reaching us, and we survived through the relief goods. When organisations offered cash for work, we joined and took whatever work we could find. I cleaned up debris and helped unclog canals. We scraped together pennies, and worked until exhaustion set in. It was very hard but what else could we do?
A new opportunity
This is when I when I learned that Plan International was giving carpentry lessons in partnership with TESDA [Technical Education and Skills Development Authority]. I was eager to join since I had the skills. Soon, I became involved with the Building Back Better project. There are now 30 members of the Neighborhood Improvement Team; we are divided into four groups, working respectively on shelter, hygiene, disaster risk reduction and safety.
Not only did Plan International’s Building Back Better project help me rebuild my own home; I felt part of something greater.
As for our own house, there is still a lot to be done. We urgently need connection to a sanitation system. At present, we use a bucket to fetch water from a neighbour’s tap, which is only open at limited times and shared among many households.
Resilience for the future
Despite our difficulties, with Plan International’s intervention we have been able to find safe work and slowly improve our lives. It is for our children’s future: to ensure they have roofs over their heads and are able to go to school.
A year has passed since Typhoon Haiyan. It destroyed our country, but we are resilient.
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