‘Business as Usual, Without Our Roof’: Rebuilding After Haiyan

With startling speed, Filipinos are rebuilding homes and livelihoods amid the wreckage — and aid agencies are learning how to help them

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Dan Kedmey / TIME

Jonathan Cuyos, 39, owner of JRC hardware store in Daanbantayan, Philippines, stands amid the wreckage of his warehouse

Correction appended: Nov. 26, 2013, 11:55 p.m. E.T.

The wind thundered in Annabell Coyoca’s ears. It shook the walls and stripped sheets of metal from the roof overhead. She wondered if the world might be coming to an end.

Her city, Daanbantayan, had fallen smack in the path of Supertyphoon Haiyan, the most powerful recorded storm ever to batter the Philippines, where it was known as Yolanda. Haiyan’s two menacing arms of windswept clouds stretched 775 km from tip to tip, and they pummeled the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar on Nov. 8, then swung west across the midsection of the Philippines, landing a hard blow on the northern tip of Cebu island. An estimated 4 million people have been made homeless by the typhoon, and the official death toll currently stands at 5,200, with fears that it will rise further.

Coyoca was in the middle of a maelstrom of 305-km/h winds that blew the roof off her hardware store in the central market. The sliding metal front doors went too. Overturned shelves had spilled lightbulbs, paint cans, nails — the whole of her inventory across the floor in a shattered mess.

“First, I cried,” Coyoca says. Then she surveyed the damage to the neighboring businesses. None was spared. “When I looked at the other places, I said, ‘Maybe God is fair,’” she says with a laugh and a sigh.

That afternoon, her employees recovered some metal roofing and nailed it across the doorframes. On Saturday, they salvaged the sellable merchandise. On Sunday, her hardware store, with less merchandise than debris, reopened. “Business as usual,” Coyoca says, as sunlight streamed into the store behind her. “Without our roof.”

Local businesses, those grocers, street peddlers and hardware-store owners that collectively supplied a community before the storm, have no less of an incentive to sell after the winds die down. The speed with which they spring back to work, even under the most adverse conditions, often takes relief workers by surprise, as if signs of life had popped up on the moon or inside an active volcano. Increasingly, the aid community is finding ways to harness the power of local markets to feed, clothe and house a desperate community.

“It’s about following the market,” says Puspa Indra, 35, a regional adviser for Oxfam International’s Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods team. “A lot of aid organizations start with the Santa Claus approach,” she says, importing food, clothing and tarps, but the donations from abroad inadvertently deliver a second blow to local businesses struggling to recover from the storm. If those businesses close for good, Indra warns, “then we create another disaster.”

With the U.N. tracking $134 million in global aid for the Philippines and busily working toward a fundraising target of $348 million, this great wave of money could lift or crush local markets, depending on where it is spent. “There’s a big realization at this point about the importance of using the local market,” Indra says.

In a hotel conference room in Cebu City, the staging ground for international relief efforts, an Oxfam team papered over the walls with maps, lists and matrices. “You will see this transform into sort of a war room” says Dante Dalabajan, a project manager for Oxfam.

They stuck sticky notes to the wall, each with a hand-scrawled observation from the field. “Massive dead-body issues,” read one note. “Open defecation,” read another. The horrors kept piling up. But one note stood out for its ostensible blandness. “Markets are getting farther and farther,” it read.

Annie Calma, a member of Oxfam’s rapid-assessment team, explained that people in Hernani, Samar province, had been traveling roughly 30 minutes by a torn-up road to the town of MacArthur, where a few functioning stores remained. But the shelves were running bare, and fear of looting had caused shopkeepers to shutter their doors. So the people were now going to Balangkayan, a two-hour drive away.

“Can you imagine the implication for their money?” Calma asks. “They have to spend more time on travel, more money on transport.” And their stress and insecurity could spread to the neighboring town.

In other words, a market collapse can deepen a humanitarian crisis; a revival can alleviate it. To reverse the contagion, the Oxfam team searches for one functioning market at the perimeter of a devastated area and infuse it with cash. Give the affected families money, and they will shop in local stores, the stores will order more goods, which will circulate through the devastated areas in an ever widening circle of repair, work and prosperity. A little cash goes a long way. Amelito Bantilan, 42, said he fed his family and more than 20 others with a 40-kg haul of fish that had swum free of a devastated fish farm up the coast. But, he says, “It could’ve been more than 40 kilos,” if he’d only had the money to repair his net.

To help people like Bantilan, Oxfam workers give cash envelopes to recipients who can spend the money in local markets as they please. At one handout, people lined up in the courtyard of a public school turned evacuation center, expecting to receive sanitation and water-purification kits, which they were given — along with 2,000 pesos ($46) per family. Some raised their eyebrows in surprise, others shook the hands of every relief worker and journalist in sight.

Within minutes, word had spread that a stack of money was at the end of the receiving line, but no one in the line broke rank. The crowd required no control beyond a few schoolteachers and a thin guiding rope. The only sign that the mood had changed was an elderly woman, overcome with emotion, who repeatedly wiped tears from her eyes. A majority of the recipients said they would spend the money on a new roof. They had been sleeping in the wreckage of their homes underneath sacks split and stretched like tarps.

Many also said they would buy rice, but their demands were not uniform. Gilda Nulla sat at a school desk pushed into a dark corner of a classroom, clutching the side of her torso. She was in pain and required urgent medical care for a kidney infection, but she couldn’t afford a bus fare to a hospital, much less the 38 pesos (87¢) a day to buy medicine, plus 5,000 pesos ($114) for a blood transfusion. So she had remained seated in the desk, fixing a blank stare at an invisible point in space. For her, the money could not arrive fast enough.

And as soon as Mary Anne Omanda received the money, she hopped on a motorcyle and gunned it to town to buy a recharger pack for her cell phone, so she could tell her family outside of the town, “We’re still O.K.”

Not everyone agrees with this kind of relief. “I don’t like giving financial assistance,” says Augusto Corro, mayor of Daanbantayan. “I’d rather give them supplies because you don’t know where the money will go.” In the worst-case scenario, he said, it might be diverted to alcohol and gambling. Besides, he added, “We know what they need.”

But would he have known what fishing net to buy for Bantilan, what medicine to buy for Nulla, or that Omanda’s family was waiting for a call? Oxfam workers concede that it is difficult to explain the benefits of cash to outsiders. Donors like to see tangible goods, sacks of clothing and tanks of water, delivered to disaster areas. They have trouble imagining that money can be spent in a roofless store.

Robert Uy, who like Coyoca is the owner of a damaged hardware store in Daanbantayan’s central market, said on the third day after the typhoon, the roads were clear, and he began receiving daily shipments of stock. He found a patch of cell-phone service on a beach down the road, from where he could place orders. Sales tripled in the days after Haiyan, but the shelves never ran bare. He also boasted that his box of nails sold for 20 pesos (46¢) less than at his competitor’s store up the street.

Not only was he back in business, he was already competing for customers.

An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of global aid tracked by the U.N. It is $134 million, not $134 billion.