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Philippine typhoon survivors welcome Christmas

24 December 2013, 12:36

Tacloban - Philippine survivors of one of the strongest typhoons ever to hit land on Tuesday defiantly prepared to celebrate Christmas in the ruins of their communities.

Hogs were being roasted, Christmas trees adorned streets, last-minute shoppers filled downtown and heavily damaged churches overflowed with parishioners on the eve of the country's most joyous holiday.

"Nothing can stop us from welcoming Christmas even though we have lost our home," said 63-year-old butcher's wife Ellen Miano from a tiny shanty rising from a field of debris in the central city of Tacloban.

Haiyan's ferocious 315km an hour winds flattened the gritty neighbourhood on Tacloban's coast, called Magallanes, then swept up everything else with giant waves in a day of terror on 8 November.

Tacloban and nearby districts accounted for more than 5 000 of the 6 000-plus confirmed deaths, with nearly 2 000 others missing, making it the country's deadliest storm and one of its worst natural disasters.


Miano, who lives with her husband and four young nephews and nieces in the 2m by 3m hovel put together from salvaged wood and sheet metal, said the family would eat a traditional Christmas dinner at 00:00, with fried noodles and sliced bread given to them by a relief agency.

Their 20-year-old neighbour Ronfrey Magdua built a giant, 4m-tall star-shaped lantern using salvaged wood and wrapped in the Philippine flag's motif of red, white and blue, and put it up in the yard of a family that perished in the disaster.

"I made this in honour of the dead," said the jobless young man, saying he spent about 2 000 pesos ($45) of his own savings on the project.

"I made many of my neighbours happy. Some of them told me it relieves some of their stress," said Magdua, who lost a dozen distant relatives to the storm surge.

Some of the survivors have received small amounts of cash from the UN, the Philippine government and other aid organisations taking part in a scheme designed to revive the economy of devastated communities.

The UN's World Food Programme has given out 1 300 pesos to some 18 000 of the poorest families in Tacloban and nearby areas in the run-up to Christmas Day to spend on rebuilding their lives, said spokesperson Amor Almagro.

The UN agency plans to provide $6m to 100 000 families in the next few weeks, with other agencies also financing government schemes where people who lost their jobs are paid the minimum daily wage to clear debris from roads, said Almagro.

The storm made 4.4 million homeless and caused $12.9bn in damage, according to the government, which estimates it will take the affected central region, an area the size of Portugal, four years to recover.

Mass graves

But damaged churches in Tacloban and nearby towns opened their doors early on Tuesday for the last of the pre-dawn masses held in the 10 days until 25 December that mark the country's holiday season.

"There will always be something beautiful that will come after what happened to us," Bernardo Pantin, the parish priest of Palo town adjacent to Tacloban, told his parishioners in a homily.

About 100 people attended mass at a makeshift church made from coconut lumber and blue tarpaulin, after the old one was totally blown down by the winds.

"It [the typhoon] changed our lives, but we know that good things will follow. But of course it will take time," Pantin said.

At the Palo parish of San Joaquin, 6-year-old Clifford Cobacha and his uncle Rico Cobacha, 27, attended pre-dawn mass and later lit candles in the church courtyard in front of a cluster of three small wooden crosses that marked the grave of his mother and two brothers.

More than 300 other bodies are buried in the church courtyard, their graves also marked with small wooden crosses

"It will be difficult to celebrate Christmas after we lost 15 relatives," said the elder Cobacha. Eight of them lay among the mass graves, with seven others, including the boy's father, still missing.



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