PALO, LEYTE PROVINCE, Philippines — With tradesmen sawing and welding and hammering twenty feet up on scaffolding, and clattering rain pouring down through a gaping hole in the roof, it wasn't a typical baptismal setting — especially for inside a cathedral.
But on Christmas Eve in Palo, a town of around 60,000 people in the typhoon-hit central Philippines, 47 pairs of new parents formed a line from altar to door inside the wrecked Palo Cathedral, undaunted. Newborns nestled in their mothers’ arms for a Christmastime mass baptism into the Catholic Church — the majority faith in this archipelagic country of 105 million people.
The joy of new life and the Christmas holiday comes on the heels of colossal tragedy, however, with Palo part of a region where at least 6,100 people were killed and 4 million left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. The Nov. 8 tempest was by many accounts the most powerful storm ever recorded.
As well as swinging a wrecking ball of wind, rain and waves through landmark buildings like the Palo Cathedral, Yolanda damaged or destroyed more than 1 million homes, according to a government rebuilding plan published Dec. 16.
30-year-old priest Father Martin Cubi was among a group of locals who sheltered in a nearby rectory when the storm hit last month, lifting the roof off the church as 200-mph winds roared through Palo, snapping tree trunks as they went.
“More important than the damage to the church is that people who sheltered here were safe during the storm,” Cubi says, thankful that downtown Palo was spared the massive waves that all but flattened nearby Tacloban, a city of just over 220,000.
With rain streaming through the hole where the church's domed roof once sat, chatty workmen were still busy on Christmas Eve repairing the smashed Palo cathedral interior, one of the thousands of rebuilding jobs being carried out across the central Philippines.
25-year-old Mary Jane Morano gave birth to baby Ricky on Dec. 6 — “a blessing” after she survived the typhoon while eight months’ pregnant, she says.
Waiting at the front of the line for the baptism ceremony, the new mother was beaming. “I am happy to be able to have my baby Ricky here this morning, he's just 18 days old!” she said.
The signs of a budding, but painstaking, rebuilding job are pervasive around Palo and in the countryside beyond, which before the storm was a verdant patchwork of rice fields and coconut groves. The landscape now is littered with twisted roof metals, downed electricity pylons, and coconut trees stripped of their foliage, if not snapped in half. Fields are scarred and uprooted.
It should be planting season for rice farmers, but most of the fields and seed stocks are too damaged to sow. Farmers interviewed in villages outside Palo say that they don't have seeds or money to plant in time for a rice harvest that should take place in March or April.
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A total of 600,000 hectares of farming land across the central Visayas region were damaged by Yolanda’s wrath, according to the government, in a country where about three in 10 people work in agriculture.
Many lost their homes as well as their livelihoods. Farmer Rudy Ibanez, whose home was destroyed in the storm, says his rice field was badly damaged. Though he is working to patch up his three acres of ground, he has no money for seeds to plant, anyway, and will likely miss the imminent growing season.
Provincial governments and international aid groups like Oxfam are supplementing meals for those farmers who can no longer make ends meet.
“We got three kilos of rice and some other things like noodles and oil twice a week, and some shelter, but we can't grow rice yet,” Ibanez says.
Many students also lost their daily routines to the storm. While kids around the world are on a holiday break between terms, hundreds of thousands of school-goers in the Philippines have been on a disaster-enforced sabbatical since last month, with almost 3,000 of the region's more than 4,300 primary schools out of action, according to government data.
The interior of a classroom at a damaged primary school in San Isidro, Leyte Province, Philippines. Classes will restart in January, in a temporary tent set up next door, while the school building gets repaired. (Simon Roughneen)
In parts of the battered countryside, tents — some emblazoned with UNICEF logos — have been set up to function as temporary schools come January.
Brianna Krizzia Carson is a 15-year-old high school student from San Isidro "barangay," or village, about a fifteen-minute drive from Palo. She says she's looking forward to getting back to the books in the new year.
“Hopefully in early January we will be back at class, we've been bored these last weeks,” she says, speaking in the Carson family home in San Isidro.
First, however, she and 13-year-old sister Brinelli Kaye, like millions of people across the storm-ravaged region, have a bittersweet Christmas to look forward to.
“Our dad works in Dubai and took a month's leave to come home to fix the house after the storm,” explains Brinelli Kaye. “But he will leave tomorrow (Christmas Day) and will be back in Dubai the day after,” she sighs.
Around ten percent of Filipinos work abroad, remitting millions of pesos to families in what until recently has been a slow-growth economy.
But as catastrophic as Yolanda was, Filipinos have weathered many storms over the years, and undoubtedly will again.
Asked if the death and destruction visible all around had prompted local Catholics to question their faith, Palo Cathedral priest Martin Cubi shook his head.
“For us this kind of disaster is a test of our faith, and though this church was destroyed, our faith was not,” he says, gesturing toward the crowd of young parents waiting, in the pouring rain, to have their new babies baptized.