By Cecil Morella

Children in Leyte (MNS photo)

Children in Leyte (MNS photo)

TACLOBAN, December 24, 2013 (AFP) – Philippine survivors of deadly typhoon Haiyan defiantly prepared to celebrate Christmas in their ruined communities Tuesday where hogs were being roasted, festive trees adorned streets and churches were filled to overflowing.

“Nothing can stop us from welcoming Christmas even though we have lost our home,” 63-year-old butcher’s wife Ellen Miano told AFP from a tiny shanty rising from a field of debris in the central city of Tacloban.

Haiyan’s ferocious 315 kilometers (195 miles) an hour winds flattened the gritty Magallanes neighborhood on Tacloban’s coast, then swept up everything else with giant waves in a day of terror on November 8.

Tacloban and nearby districts accounted for more than 5,000 of the 6,000-plus confirmed deaths, with nearly 2,000 others missing, making it the country’s deadliest storm and one of its worst natural disasters.

The storm made 4.4 million homeless and caused $12.9 billion in damage, according to the government, which estimates it will take the affected central region, an area the size of Portugal, four years to recover.

Miano, who lives with her husband and four young nephews and nieces in the 2×3-metre (6×10-feet) home put together from salvaged wood and sheet metal, said the family would eat a traditional Christmas dinner at midnight, with fried noodles and sliced bread given to them by a relief agency.

Their 20-year-old neighbor Ronfrey Magdua built a giant, 4-metre-tall star-shaped lantern using salvaged wood and wrapped in the Philippine flag’s motif of red, white and blue, and put it up in the yard of a family that perished in the disaster.

“I made this in honour of the dead,” the jobless young man told AFP, saying he spent about 2,000 pesos (45 dollars) of his own savings on the project.

Water and electricity have only been restored to a few commercial areas in Tacloban—a once-bustling city of over 221,000.

But amid the damage, many are trying to restore normality, rebuilding their homes out of salvaged scrap or with material purchased with money provided by aid agencies.

Others huddle in white tents provided by the United Nations.

Some of the survivors have received small amounts of cash from the UN, the Philippine government and other aid groups.

The UN’s World Food Programme has given out 1,300 pesos to 18,000 of the poorest families in Tacloban and nearby areas, said spokeswoman Amor Almagro.

The UN agency plans to provide $6 million to 100,000 families in the next few weeks. Other agencies are financing government schemes where people who lost their jobs are paid the minimum daily wage to clear debris from roads, Almagro told AFP.

The small dining table in the shanty of carpenter’s wife and mother-of-two Jean Dotado, 31, in Palo town was laden with apples, oranges, grapes, sliced bread and peanut butter, funded by the UN cash windfall.

“These should tide us through Christmas,” said Dotado, whose makeshift home, comprising roofing and wooden planks scavenged from a local school destroyed by the typhoon, also contained sardines, sacks of rice, and instant noodles regularly from aid groups.

Dotado’s neighbour Shirley Dinalo, 20, said she would use the cash handout to buy medicines for her two daughters, aged two and four, who have been suffering from colds.

The family is staying with her in-laws after their own house was destroyed by storm surges. She told AFP her husband, a van driver, did not have any money and the family did not plan on doing anything special Wednesday.

“When it rains hard I lie in bed, unable to sleep, worrying that a typhoon will hit us again,” she said.

Despite continuing hardship, damaged churches in Tacloban and nearby towns opened their doors early Tuesday for the last of the pre-dawn masses held in the 10 days until Christmas Eve.

“There will always be something beautiful that will come after what happened to us,” Bernardo Pantin, the parish priest of Palo town adjacent to Tacloban, told around 100 parishioners at a makeshift church made from coconut lumber and blue tarpaulin.

“It (the typhoon) changed our lives, but we know that good things will follow. But of course it will take time,” Pantin told AFP.

For some, though, it is hard to be optimistic.

At the Palo parish of San Joaquin, six-year-old Clifford Cobacha and his uncle Rico Cobacha, 27, attended pre-dawn mass and later lit candles in the church courtyard in front of a cluster of three small wooden crosses that marked the grave of his mother and two brothers.

More than 300 other bodies are buried in the church courtyard, marked with small wooden crosses.

“It will be difficult to celebrate Christmas after we lost 15 relatives,” the elder Cobacha told AFP. Eight of them lay amongst the mass graves, with seven others, including the boy’s father, still missing.