December 24, 2013

In the Philippines, Christmas infused with tragedy

The Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 6,100 people in the eastern Philippines, displaced at least 4 million others and left a country in ruins.

By Jim Gomez
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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A preacher pray’s during final dawn mass on Christmas eve at Palo Cathedral church in Palo, Leyte province in central Philippine, Wednesday.

The Associated Press

He owned a restaurant and a money-lending business. His new house was one of the grandest in the poor coastal neighborhood. Last year, he draped it in the best and brightest Christmas lights.

“We worked hard and were doing well then suddenly, like a bubble that burst, I lost everything,” he says.

Like many in Tacloban, Moro ignored an order from authorities to evacuate as Haiyan approached, thinking his house could withstand the storm.

He and his family were huddled by the staircase when a cargo ship, swept inland by the massive storm surge, smashed into the house, knocking them into the water.

He survived by grabbing a piece of bamboo. Now all that is left of his home is the staircase, a wall and a second-floor balcony beside the huge, steel-hulled ship, still stuck by the road.

Moro, 41, now lives with his sister. Sleeping tablets have helped him get through the worst of the past six weeks, he says.

On Christmas, he will visit the graves of his wife and his daughter, “to ask forgiveness for not having been able to save them.”

Although its roof got blown off by Haiyan’s wind and it became a burial ground for dozens of typhoon victims, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Palo, near Tacloban, hosted a festive event a day before Christmas: the mass wedding of 98 couples.

Originally scheduled for 147 couples on Nov. 16, the wedding was postponed when the monster storm struck, damaging the church’s interior, breaking its stained glass windows and scattering its pews.

A smaller number registered for Tuesday’s ceremony, apparently because the other couples left the region after the storm, said Monsignor Bernie Pantin, who officiated the wedding.

“I praised them for their strong faith whatever happens,” Pantin said.

Workers draped the roof with tarpaulins ahead of Christmas but part of the altar still got wet from a downpour later Tuesday. Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, the papal envoy to the Philippines, was to celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass at the damaged cathedral.

At night in Tacloban’s dark and dreary downtown, Joseph Bonavitacola’s restaurant is filled with chatter, mostly of foreign and local aid workers. His brick oven hardly gets any rest.

Red Christmas lanterns, lights and decor adorn window panes and a brick wall at Giuseppe’s, which has the ambiance of fine dining in Manila, the Philippine capital.

It’s hard to imagine how the Italian businessman, who has lived in the city for 20 years with his Filipino wife, reopened the place less than three weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated about 4,000 businesses. Only about 5 percent have reopened, officials say.

“The water was about this high,” Bonavitacola says, pointing to the chest-high wooden cashier counter. “The bar was down. The chiller was by the door. The doors were broken. There was lots of mud. Everything was upside down.”

Frightened by a jailbreak and lootings, he left for Manila with his family but returned after three days to start a massive cleanup with 20 employees. He fixed damaged equipment and got supplies from another branch of his restaurant.

Despite a power outage, he reopened Nov. 24 with candlelit tables. His message, exclaimed on a big sign outside: Rise Tacloban.

He also owns 10 meat shops that were inundated, and has begun to reopen them, keeping prices at pre-typhoon levels.

Outside his crowded restaurant, armed policemen stand guard. Most nearby shops remain shut.

“We try to make it feel as normal as possible,” says Bonavitacola’s wife, Catheryn. “Because outside, it’s still depressing.”

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