While it doesn’t quite match the heroic images of aid work and emergency relief that is so often seen in the media, clearing debris is critical to the Caritas response in areas affected by Typhoon Haiyan.
Tacloban City, on the east coast of Leyte Island, was devastated both by Super Typhoon Haiyan on Friday 8th November 2013 and by a giant 5.2 metre wave of water, known as a storm surge. Thousands of people were killed as the wave flooded the city and completely flattened coastal regions as far as 100 metres inland.
Between winds gusting up to 380 km/h and the tsunami-like surge, the typhoon created a volume of damage and debris that is hard to exaggerate.
Piled several metres deep in many places, the debris not only poses a health risk as its organic contents begins to rot and attract plagues of vermin, but it can also lead to floods as it blocks drains and canals.
Tragically, the debris also contains the bodies of many of those missing: though there is at least some closure for families when their lost loved ones are finally retrieved by clean-up workers.
Most importantly for long term recovery, clearing of the land means that communities can begin to rebuild.
Soon after the disaster, many families managed to heap the debris into piles, and then constructed temporary shelters in the spaces. While this solved their most immediate concerns, there are longer term challenges for Caritas and local communities to overcome together.
Cash-for-work programmes are one of the ways Caritas injects money into the devastated economy while also clearing up the mess left behind by Typhoon Haiyan.
It was crucial that the mountains of sodden debris and mud were gone before any work to provide permanent clean water supplies and new homes and schools could begin.
Palo town was torn apart as Haiyan cut a deadly gash through the Philippines. Like Tacloban, the cleanup operation has been immense.
Dax Tibus runs the Caritas programme in Palo, having travelled to Leyte from his home on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao to help the relief effort.
“I’ve formed people into teams of 10 as at times like this we all need to feel that we belong to each other to get the hard work done,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from working for Caritas in my home region where I ran programmes to heal the wounds left by ethnic and religious violence.”
Dax knows that digging through the debris has to be done with care and consideration. When bodies are discovered, the teams need time to process their emotions. Team members work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and are happy to have the regular income and the consolation of their comradeship.
The work is going well ; the leader of one of the teams has come to show Dax which parts of a target area have already been cleared.
Anything re-useable must be shifted from the rubbish and salvaged. Wood is in especially short supply. This is how people who have lost their homes will get some of the materials to rebuild them.
Dax Tibus likes working with his teams and visiting to see what they have achieved. “This has to be done before we can move on – both physically and emotionally – to put Typhoon Haiyan behind us.”