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Rebuilding from the rubble, with grace and gratitude

By Soyia Ellison

Narciso Lacay rebuilds the roof of his house with lumber provided by Habitat for Humanity. (Photo by Mikel Flamm/Habitat for Humanity International)

GUIUAN, Philippines (Nov. 26, 2013) — Sitting in what’s left of his church in Barangay Sapao in the city of Guiuan, Father Joseph Orsal ticks off the list of the dead in his parish of 12,000.

Five in this district.

Fifteen in the next.

Eighteen in the one closest to the shore.

Forty-nine in all, not counting the missing and presumed dead.

Those who survived lost nearly everything. Their houses have crumbled; their belongings have been soaked or swept away. What was once a neighborhood is now just a field of debris and downed coconut trees.

“It’s very devastated,” Orsal said. “I’m glad that Habitat is here.”

Habitat for Humanity Philippines distributed 300 shelter repair kits in the parish on Nov. 23 and has plans to distribute 5,700 more throughout the devastated city.

“This is the most meaningful and touching distribution I have experienced,” said Eugene Micubo, a Habitat Philippines disaster response worker. “People participated in a short program, and I remember one beneficiary cried during the invocation. To me, the most touching part was singing the national anthem despite the weather, waving the wet and partly damaged flag.”

It was in Guiuan, a city of 47,000 bordered by water on three sides, that Typhoon Haiyan first made landfall. As in much of the Philippines, residents here had never heard of storm surge, which caught them by surprise.

“It was like a tidal wave,” said Isabel Ramos, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher. “I thought we were going to die. And when the water came up … oh, my God.”

Ramos shares a concrete duplex with her son and his family. Their home is one of the few still standing, though its roof is gone and nearly all of its contents destroyed.

Yet Ramos greeted visitors on Monday with cheer.

“We’re still alive!” she called as she came to the door. “We survived, thank the Lord!”

Above her, two relatives were hard at work repairing the roof with materials from Habitat’s shelter repair kit.

“Thanks for the galvanized iron and the plywood,” she said. “We will rebuild.”

Up the hill from Ramos, Rennie Abulencia has nearly completed a simple shelter made from Habitat materials, which, in addition to plywood and galvanized iron sheets, include a hammer, saw, nails and timber.

Abulencia had to start from scratch because his house was completely destroyed. He is working quickly, with help from family members, so that his wife and two young sons can return from Manila, where they are staying with relatives.

Without the Habitat materials, he said, he has no idea what he would have done. He has no source of income now that his fishing boat has been destroyed.

Markita Gayoso’s family also lost their home and fishing boat.

During the storm, she put her elderly mother on the sofa and covered her with fishing nets to protect her. She and the rest of her family clustered in the corner, covering themselves with pillows and mats as the house slowly collapsed.

On Monday, relatives had started clearing away debris so that they could use Habitat materials to rebuild. Gayoso sifted among the remains, looking for items to salvage. About all she found were clothes.

“We have nothing left,” she said. “Everything’s gone. No more appliances. No nothing. But we are alive.”

For now, she and her neighbors who haven’t fled to the cities are surviving on food provided by relief organizations. During World War II, the U.S. Navy built a base in Guiuan, and humanitarian organizations are using the old airstrip to fly in goods daily. But Father Orsal worries about what will happen when the flights end.

Most residents made their living either by fishing or by harvesting and selling coconuts, he said. But now the boats and the trees are ruined.

Ramos, the resilient retired schoolteacher, remains positive.

“We will survive,” she said. “After our homes are rebuilt, we will start planting again. There are still coconuts to plant.”

Others echoed her sentiment. And all expressed gratitude for what they have received.

“Thank you very much to Habitat for helping us,” Gayoso said. “We’re starting to build up now. These materials will be of help.”