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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers, in for Arun Rath.

It was one of the strongest storms ever recorded at landfall. Typhoon Haiyan clocked at 147 miles an hour when it struck the Philippines late last year. More than 6,000 people were killed, nearly 2,000 more are missing, and millions were displaced when their homes were destroyed or washed away. And still, authorities are struggling with the simplest tasks like clearing away debris, rebuilding houses and counting the dead.

I just got back from the Philippine city of Tacloban, a city that bore the brunt of the typhoon. I landed at an airport that has no walls, no control tower. It was clear it's a place with a lot of work to do. And that's our cover story today: Tacloban two months after the storm.

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MCEVERS: I started my tour of Tacloban with Aurora Almendral, a reporter who was there right after the storm and who keeps coming back.

So we just got - we just landed in Tacloban. It's pouring rain. The skies are grey, and everything is soaking wet. And we're driving down, like, the main drag, right?

AURORA ALMENDRAL: Yeah. This is the main airport road.

MCEVERS: And you were here, like, the fourth day after the storm. You were here really early.

ALMENDRAL: Yeah.

MCEVERS: How is it different?

ALMENDRAL: Well, this main road was completely blocked by debris, as in you couldn't drive down it. And we had to walk. We had to walk through debris. We had to walk through neighborhoods. We had to climb, like, 10-foot high piles of people's former houses.

MCEVERS: So now, the roads are clear. We're obviously - we're in a car. We're going down. But what struck you when you got here yesterday?

ALMENDRAL: There's been a lot of cleanup, but what also struck me is that there's - it's not finished. It's, like, far from finished.

MCEVERS: Hardly any single structure of the structures that remain has a roof.

ALMENDRAL: I mean, it's about 100 times better probably. But nothing is fixed. So it's been cleared, but nothing has been repaired for the most part. Like...

MCEVERS: There's no electricity.

ALMENDRAL: There's a little bit of electricity, but this area, no.

MCEVERS: So it's a sense that there's still, like, a long way to go.

ALMENDRAL: For sure. I mean, there's no way to look at this and think, yeah, this is fine, this is normal. It's miles from normal.

We keep driving into the city. Getting closer to downtown, we start seeing people in the streets.

MCEVERS: Shops are open. There's food. People are selling lumber. Obviously, there's fuel. Are prices really inflated?

ALMENDRAL: The food is quite expensive. It's just slightly less than double the price for something, which is huge, especially if you're making zero money because you don't have a job.

MCEVERS: You operating a, quote, unquote, "shop" out of - almost out of like a pile of garbage.

ALMENDRAL: Make a little table and gather some stuff and sell it.

MCEVERS: Here's a stall selling instant coffee, limes, boiled eggs.

Beyond downtown, we come to another hard-hit area. This is where massive ships crashed onto shore and destroyed entire neighborhoods.

So, yeah, I mean, these are already areas where people's houses were sort of built in a pretty haphazard way. But it looks like people are rebuilding their stilt houses, like lots of them, exactly where they were before.

ALMENDRAL: Anything you see standing has been rebuilt. This entire area was completely flattened.

MCEVERS: So, I mean, the next typhoon and all these...

ALMENDRAL: I mean, unless there's another option, we know exactly where the typhoon is going to pass. And that's a bay. You know, the ships were there for a reason.

MCEVERS: And what'll happen?

ALMENDRAL: So if there's any more ships that come, when another typhoon comes, it's going to be, like, the same sort of, like, running-over thing.

MCEVERS: The same running-over thing, if authorities don't provide housing. The Philippine government is building temporary dorms called bunkhouses where each family lives in one small room. But critics say the bunkhouses aren't strong enough to withstand the next storm. And they say with four million people displaced, a few thousand bunkhouses aren't nearly enough.

Arjun Jain is with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He says the era of big storms is upon us, and officials, international organizations and communities need to do better at responding.

ARJUN JAIN: These storms are not just freak storms. They are probably going to hit many coastlines all over the world, and they are probably just going to get stronger over the next few years and over the next few decades. And we just have to be better prepared to deal with that. We all need to have better contingency plans. We all need to have faster recovery plans. And I think both the Philippines and other countries by the coastlines have to be prepared for this much better.

MCEVERS: One thing Tacloban was not prepared for was how to deal with so many casualties. So let's back up for a minute to November 8, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan is about to make landfall in Tacloban. A guy named Bubi Arce and his friend decide to hide out in a two-story apartment.

BUBI ARCE: Communication cut off, TV gone, electricity gone, everything gone. And the roof flew away.

MCEVERS: Water filled the first floor, so they went to the second floor.

ARCE: And I said, do you know how to climb the wall? He said, why? If we don't do that, we're going to die.

MCEVERS: They climbed. The water went up, then went down. By the time they got outside, entire neighborhoods were missing. Cars, furniture, fish floated by. Under a bridge, Bubi and his friend saw the first dead body.

ARCE: And he said, no, it's a single. It's an isolated case. I said, I don't think so. My friend said, why?

MCEVERS: Because if a body ended up that far inland, Bubi said...

ARCE: There's going to be a lot of dead people.

MCEVERS: Bubi's friend went to find his family. Bubi went to city hall. He found a working truck and a couple more friends. That's when he decided he had to start picking up bodies.

ARCE: First five in the first run, then seven, then 15, then 20.

MCEVERS: And that was just the first day.

I mean, why did you do it? I mean, what - you just thought, we need - this needs to be done?

ARCE: I know nobody would do it.

MCEVERS: At first, Bubi and his team just put the bodies in a big pit, a mass grave in an existing cemetery. Then the government showed up, an alphabet soup of federal agencies, each with its own idea about what to do. Aid workers say the effort was pretty badly managed.

Now, more than two months after the storm, Bubi has been appointed the head of Task Force Cadaver in Tacloban, which means even though he's never done this before, Bubi is the guy in charge of collecting, burying and identifying bodies in the city, like 2,500 bodies. That's about a third of the total dead in the whole region.

And while things are getting better, there are still a lot of challenges. First, what to do with the bodies. Many people in Tacloban agreed an open mass grave was no good. So just a few weeks ago, it was finally covered over with dirt.

Now, authorities from the Philippine equivalent to the FBI are digging up these bodies, cataloging them and burying them separately until they can be ID'ed. Then there's the issue of how to make those IDs. If someone wants to match a body with a missing loved one, how do they do that?

Turns out they have to look in a stack of handwritten notebooks at a local branch of the Philippine National Police. Problem is their office was blown away by the storm. So the notebooks are kept under tarps inside this rain-soaked tent.

Commander Ramos Bergonio(ph) shows me the notebooks.

So this is like...

RAMOS BERGONIO: This is the case number.

MCEVERS: Case number, okay.

BERGONIO: Yeah, or...

MCEVERS: Time and date of the recovery.

BERGONIO: Place.

MCEVERS: The place, height, approximate age.

BERGONIO: Yes. Yes. This is the description.

MCEVERS: Wearing a black...

BERGONIO: Black sandal.

MCEVERS: Leopard print shorts. And the gender.

So far, there have been only a few hundred bodies identified. Thousands are still unknown. Officials are taking some DNA samples, but they say there's not enough money to test them, which brings us to another problem: what to do if IDs are never made?

Siobhan Reddel with the World Health Organization is in Tacloban to help Bubi and his team, standing in the rain at a temporary cemetery. She says the ultimate goal is a monument to those who died in the storm.

SIOBHAN REDDEL: We have to know now there will be some that won't be able to be identified. And that will be important for the community and individuals to understand that they can come to a particular space, a particular monument and grieve knowing that it represents the loss of that person as well.

MCEVERS: And now for yet another problem, bodies are still being found every day as we see at the cemetery.

So it's a body bag, and there's some tagging information on it. It's got a date. It's been assigned a number.

REDDEL: That's all the retrieval data.

MCEVERS: Siobhan is trying to get funding to bring in a team of dogs that are trained to scan the massive piles of debris and find the remaining bodies. She says that way, people won't think their dead relatives are still out there. Siobhan and Bubi say there's a lot more to do, but, they say, they hope their failures and successes will be a lesson for cities and villages hit by the next Pacific storm. But for the people still looking for their relatives, it isn't much comfort.

So now, we're kind of walking into - in a tent city, it's mostly mud, climbing in here into a tent. What's her name?

LORENA SABUSA: Lorena.

MCEVERS: Lorena?

SABUSA: Lorena Sabusa(ph).

MCEVERS: Lorena Sabusa now lives in this tent. During the storm, she and several of her nine kids sheltered in a sports stadium. After the storm, when she came back to her neighborhood, she saw that her house, everything had simply washed away. Her sister, her niece and her brother-in-law were just gone. The family searched for three weeks for their bodies. We asked if they reported it to the police in the tent with the notebooks.

SABUSA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She says, no, we didn't go to report it, because it's not like they could've done anything. They're not going anything to help us now. And then I asked her, like, how did you know that they aren't alive anymore? She said, well, my niece that died, she showed her soul. Like, her other niece saw a child in white that was, like, wet and crouched over. So they knew that that was the ghost of the niece that died.

MCEVERS: As for Lorena's own sister, the mother of the girl, Lorena says she heard she survived and made it to shore in the next city over.

Does she believe that?

SABUSA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, she believes it.

MCEVERS: She believes her sister is alive. Disaster counselors say this is what you do when you don't get closure. You tell yourself a story that's easier to believe than the thing that might actually have happened. The best thing, they say, is to embrace the ambiguity. Maybe she did wash up on shore, with amnesia. Maybe she didn't. That, not a positive ID verified by some government agency, is how Lorena's family might get through the grief.

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MCEVERS: This is NPR News.

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