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The Philippines struggles to recover from a typhoon, especially Siargao Island


Lying in the path of many of the fiercest storms in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is accustomed to natural disasters. But one month after super Typhoon Rai laid waste to a swath of Philippine islands, rehabilitation has been painfully slow. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on one of the island's worst affected and last to receive help.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Super Typhoon Rai roared ashore on the island of Siargao December 16, unleashing 120-mile-per-hour winds. Thirty-nine-year-old Kara Ahorro (ph) says one minute, she and her partner were quietly eating breakfast at home. And the next minute, coconuts were falling to the ground like small bombs.

KARA AHORRO: Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom - one after the other.

MCCARTHY: Trees began falling in rapid succession.

AHORRO: They were uprooted. And this is a huge, adult mango tree.

MCCARTHY: Pulling on boots and a helmet, Ahorro's partner ventured out to check on neighbors, mostly women living alone, and found them sheltering under a massive wooden dining table as the tempest tore apart their homes.

AHORRO: I saw several parts of houses fly. Like, I see walls fly. I see doors fly. Even flooring, like, wooden floors, they are flying. And then the aluminum sheets, they're like blades hitting and cutting through everything.

MCCARTHY: These days, islanders rise early to reconstruct their homes in this Pacific-facing tourist spot fabled for its surfing. It bore the full fury of the storm, then looting. More than 7,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in this town, named for a military man in the Philippine-American War, General Luna. A low-slung paradise dotted with beach bars and resorts, it attracts the smart set and backpackers alike. The storm leveled it.

NORMAN TILOS: A lot of resorts, our cafes and restaurants are really demolished. I think 90% either demolished or heavily damaged.

MCCARTHY: That's Norman Tilos, who huddled with visitors in a large bathroom at his boutique guesthouse named The Living Room. He lost his thatched roof, but the concrete house survived. A management consultant by day, Tilos discovered Siargao, dubbed the most beautiful island in Asia, in 2019. And The Living Room became his passion project.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: His passion now is rebuilding. An older man instructs a younger one hammering nails in one of Tilos' projects. He's restoring 31 of the 51 houses destroyed in his village. Tilos has distributed tarps, medicine and hygiene kits to his neighbors. He's raised $8,000 to install water pumps and water filters to stave off dysentery, and supplied plywood, metal sheets and chainsaws to reconstruct homes. Tilos says the government has failed to assess need and that from Day 1, the private sector has been far ahead of government in restoring the island.

TILOS: The strong sense of community is there. And then days later, the government came in. But as far as I'm concerned, it's really the private sector that's very visible and doing so much. And I think we will recover fast because of this.

MCCARTHY: Kara Ahorro says some local governments are commendably organized, while others used the crisis to promote themselves in the upcoming election. She says private donations of rice were confiscated in order to slap campaign stickers on the bags.

AHORRO: We're in the middle of a disaster. We're in the middle of an emergency. And you would have the gall to prolong the distribution because you have to put your name on the items? So yeah, again, corruption at the lowest level.

MCCARTHY: Though the Philippine Armed Forces has been shipping in supplies, spokesman Colonel Ramon Zagala says Siargao's airport is still not fully operational. But the most frustrating for islanders is that the electric power grid got wiped out in the storm, and likely won't be back up for months. The colonel says the military lacks the expertise to repair it.

RAMON ZAGALA: A lot of the local government units and electric companies are doing their best. What I can tell you right now is that the island is running on generators to bring the island some power.

MCCARTHY: Meanwhile, some 45,000 people on the island still languish in evacuation centers. Philippine Red Cross chairman, Senator Richard Gordon, says Siargao is but a slice of the country's broader devastation that he says is every bit as bad as Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6,000 people in 2013. Then, the international community swarmed to the rescue. Today, Japan, China, the EU and the U.S. have pledged only modest aid. Gordon says the Philippines is competing with the pandemic for the world's attention. And he's worried.

RICHARD GORDON: It is like Haiyan. Haiyan killed more people. This one is killing the people slowly.

MCCARTHY: Gordon's urgent appeal is that Typhoon Rai not become the forgotten disaster.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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