For Philippine typhoon survivors, Christmas brings hope amid the rubble

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines Mon Dec 16, 2013 12:07pm GMT

1 of 3. Typhoon Haiyan survivors take part in the first out of nine days of Christmas vigil masses at a damaged church in Palo, Leyte, central Philippines December 16, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro

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TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Thousands of survivors of super typhoon Haiyan walked in darkness towards damaged churches in central Philippines at the start of Christmas vigil dawn masses on Monday, clinging to their faith as they struggle to piece together shattered lives.

Haiyan reduced almost everything in its path to rubble when it swept ashore in the central Philippines on November 8, killing at least 6,069 people, leaving 1,779 missing and 4 million either homeless or with damaged homes.

The dawn masses are a widespread tradition in the Philippines, where 80 percent of a population of about 97 million are Catholic, and many believe those who complete the vigil will be granted a wish.

"I'm hoping that our condition will improve," said Martin Tumlos, 38, the driver of a motorcycle taxi, as he hunched over the dirt grave of his one-year-old son, Marcho John, at a common burial site in the front yard of a Catholic church.

"It's painful but I have accepted what happened," said Tumlos, whose son drowned after slipping from his mother's hands when raging waters engulfed a single-storey public school where they had taken refuge from the typhoon.

Power has been restored to less than 1 percent of Tacloban, a key business hub. Just a few dozen restaurants, gas stations, banks, retail shops and salons have reopened, as businessmen struggle to bring in supplies amid devastated infrastructure.

"In terms of normalcy, this is just a rough estimate, we're just less than 10 percent," said city administrator Tecson John Lim.

Tacloban city still pulls an average of about 25 bodies a day from the rubble of flattened structures, or from its eastern shores, he added.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who has been criticised over the slow emergency response and whose leadership is being tested by the daunting task of reconstruction, says about 130 billion pesos ($2.9 billion) is needed "to put everybody at least in a better situation than where they are".

A United Nations humanitarian body, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), announced plans on Monday to raise $791 million to fund direct assistance to typhoon victims via food aid, shelter, and access to water, health and sanitation services.

The plan draws on the expertise of 14 U.N. agencies, 40 non-government and international bodies, and the Philippine government, which is set to release its own recovery and reconstruction plan on Wednesday.

The humanitarian plan, which UN OCHA says is already funded up to 30 percent, or $237 million, also includes livelihood projects such as cash for work, support to farmers and fishermen, and debris clearing in Tacloban and nearby towns of Leyte province, which accounted for 86 percent of the deaths.

Robinsons Retail Holdings Inc plans to reopen this week the grocery at its Tacloban mall looted by desperate survivors seeking food and water in the days after the typhoon.

Jack Uy, president of the city's Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said just under half its members plan to resume operations in the new year, perhaps as soon as the second week of January.

"Most of the stores are very eager to open again," Uy told Reuters.

($1=44.1450 Philippine pesos)

(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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