Typhoon Haiyan casts fishing community adrift

News Stories, 2 December 2013

© UNHCR/R. Rocamora
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, Francisco, Rodolfo and Felix Saballa stand among the debris left by the storm in Tacloban. Their brother is missing and the brothers lost documents.

TACLOBAN, Philippines, December 2 (UNHCR) It's hard to move on when you're surrounded by death. Every day the Saballa brothers sit and stare at the ruins of what was once their proud neighbourhood by the sea. They watch people pick at what's left wooden beams and iron sheets from collapsed homes, tattered clothes that are washed and worn again, soaked stuffed toys that are dried in the sun the detritus of Typhoon Haiyan.

As the sprawling mountain of debris starts to clear, the brothers dread what they will inevitably find underneath. "You can tell from the smell that there are still bodies buried under all this," said Rodolfo Saballa, looking at the sailboat that ran aground and now sits atop the rubble. "We are just waiting for the news."

At 54, Rodolfo is the oldest of the five brothers who grew up in Tacloban's Barangay (district) 61, a fishing community living on stilts along the coast. The night before the November 8 typhoon hit, his family sought shelter in brother Wilfredo's house, thinking that the concrete structure was safer. But the house collapsed in the storm surge, killing seven people instantly. Five are still missing, including several children and Wilfredo, a senior policeman due for retirement.

"We were so used to typhoons, we were confident nothing would happen. Our father never left home during the previous storms, he simply strengthened the posts," said Felix, 48. "Learn from this do not be stubborn like us."

In the aftermath, the surviving family members chose not to move into the nearby Astrodome evacuation centre as it was "overcrowded and dirty." They now live in makeshift shacks near the water. Home is a tarpaulin over some poles. It leaks when it rains and mosquitoes are rampant.

"We decided to stay here so, when new bodies are found, we can rush over to check if we know them," said Rodolfo. Besides the immediate task of identifying the dead, the brothers have no idea what to do next. Two who are fish vendors say the fishing business is on hold as the dock for boats has been destroyed.

"No one is going out to fish. No one will buy fish. There are dead bodies out there," said 51-year-old Francisco. "Everything is in limbo. We don't know how to rise from this tragedy, how to start our lives again."

Their lives could get more complicated amid reports that the government has ordered "no-build zones" along the country's coastlines to mitigate the risk of further typhoons and storm surges. The details and implications for people like the Saballas are still unclear.

As the co-lead of the inter-agency protection cluster responding to this natural disaster, UNHCR is monitoring such issues with partners to ensure the safety and access to livelihoods of people affected by relocation.

Rodolfo doesn't know what the future holds, but he is sure about one thing: "Our life is here. We have no choice but to stay and rebuild."

By Vivian Tan in Tacloban, Philippines