This is the fifth of a series of five articles from Michele Penna, reporting on the Philippines typhoon aftermath in Tacloban

“Tindog Tacloban!” read a large poster in the city center. It roughly meant “stand up Tacloban” and was a sign that, as of November 26, things were changing in the city devastated by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, messages on the few walls still standing called for help and food. “SOS Tacloban,” read one. “We need food, Lord,” said another. But after a while the mood began to change from despair to some degree of optimism. Or, at least, stoic acceptance.

In one of the last media briefings I was able to attend, City Administrator Tecson John S. Lim assured reporters that much had been done: small shops were reopening, a restaurant was operating, food could be purchased at a local market and some banks were again providing ATM services. The security situation, too, had vastly improved: police and soldiers were everywhere and there was no sign of looting.

A street vendor in downtown Tacloban. Pic: Michele Penna.

When Yolanda came, prospects were grim and many wondered if the government would be able to manage the situation. Against much skepticism, it seems they have successfully responded to the crisis: even the Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum – which I saw surrounded by workers waiting for their payments – reopened on December 8.

It remains to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit in the long run and whether they will erase the bad memories from the immediate aftermath of Yolanda. Criticism has been particularly harsh with regard to the first 72 hours after the typhoon, when chaos reigned and desperate people took to the streets to loot what they could find. “People from the city moved out and people from here tried to go to Tacloban. They heard someone was grabbing stuff and they wanted to do the same. It was chaos,” a girl from a nearby village told me.

(MORE: Leaving Tacloban: Typhoon survivors search for a new beginning)

When I spoke to him, the city’s Vice Major, Hon. Jerry Samb Yaokasin, did not shy away from the hot issues. “How we responded after the typhoon is something we should all go back to and think about. It was too slow, there were not enough people and resources involved, and that made a difference for the worse,” he commented. According to him, the looting started even before the typhoon and safety, as of November 26, had not been completely restored. “There are still rapes and lootings going on in the suburbs, but they are unreported because people are either not there or too busy to care.”

There was a distinct note of remorse in the Vice Mayor’s voice. “We did not expect the water to come up, but this time it was different. Many stayed at home, especially men. They were afraid their possessions would be stolen. But at the end of the day lives are more important than belongings.”

I asked him if there was some truth in the stories of corruption going around. The Vice Major had his own personal anecdote in that regard: “one donor promised me 100 burners for cooking and guess what, they never arrived. Disappeared!”

During our interview, Mr Yaokasin did not resist the temptation to address the responsibilities of central government: “The law says that it is up to the local government to take action. But when 90 per cent of people are affected you just can’t. You need help from the central government.”

(MORE: Helping out in Tacloban: NGOs bring hope to typhoon-hit city)

That both people and authorities were unprepared is what you heard at every corner. Captain Amado Gutierrez, spokesperson of the Army’s 8th Infantry Division, told Asian Correspondent that “people criticize the slow response because they have no idea of how the situation was. The roads were blocked and chaos was everywhere.” According to him, the military “responded in the afternoon of November 9, when 100 troops moved into the city.”

A source who was in Tacloban on the day Yolanda hit the city and who wished to remain anonymous had a different story to tell: “They say there were 800 troops immediately after the whole thing happened, but it is not true, there was nobody.” The source argued that the government should have planned better: “What would any government do in a situation like this? They would prepare and send troops right after the typhoon. But the government in Manila did not do anything. With the military around, people would not have got together in looting mobs.”

The debate about what could have been and was not done will be handed over to history and, before that, to the next elections. Meanwhile, the most striking feature of Tacloban was the attitude of its people. Desperation, the expected outcome of such a disaster, was difficult to perceive anywhere.

Even in the Redemptorist Church – now a shelter for those who have no home to go back to – people did their outmost to get on with their lives. Among children sleeping on benches, an old man almost took me by the hand to see the local priest. He had lost everything and was far from sure about his future, but would not deny help to a stranger. As a matter of fact, he provided it with a great smile.

Pic: Michele Penna.

At another local church, Father Oliver told me they were holding regular masses three times a day during the week and five times on Sunday. Besides that, they provide various goods, from food to bedding and other things needed in daily life. “But we also ask them to work a bit,” the Father told me. According to him, keeping people busy should be a priority in order to avoid social unrest.

As the days went by, he must have been increasingly satisfied: more and more people were pouring into the streets to work. They did all sorts of jobs: men pulled wooden beams, women washed clothes next to water pipes. At the Astrodome – a former basketball court turned shelter – a few youngsters were building shelters with wooden planks.

(MORE: Philippines: The plight of the children of Tacloban)

Still at the Astrodome, a girl approached me to ask if I had heard anything about her sister, who survived Yolanda but had then disappeared in search of a relative. She was afraid that something might have happened to her. “Maybe she was raped,” she said. Stuck in the impossibility of finding her missing sibling, the girl devoted herself to helping out with medical assistance, gathering people and taking children to doctors.

On the seaside, among piles of rubbish and pieces of wood, I was caught by a middle-aged woman taking pictures of four poles sticking out of the rubble. “That was my house, I lived here,” she said. “We did not expect this. We thought it would be like in 1991, we did not expect the water to come up.” How did she survive? “I was not at home, I went to the shelter with my children. But my brother…” It was sadly obvious what happened to her brother, but she was nevertheless thankful, “because we are alive”. Looking at her, there was no doubt: Yolanda may have destroyed Tacloban, but it failed to cow its people.

(MORE: The toughest job: Dealing with the dead in Tacloban)