Six months after Typhoon Haiyan, Filipino rebuilds his life and helps others

Mr Pete Lacandazo, 58, with his grandsons Jerald (in green), 8, John Paul (second from right), 12, and adopted grandson Rex (right), 13, at the mass grave of their 22 perished family members in San Joaquin church in Palo, Leyte province, in central P
Mr Pete Lacandazo, 58, with his grandsons Jerald (in green), 8, John Paul (second from right), 12, and adopted grandson Rex (right), 13, at the mass grave of their 22 perished family members in San Joaquin church in Palo, Leyte province, in central Philippines on 2 May 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 
Mr Pete Lacandazo, with a sign in his backyard which lists the names of all 22 family members who perished when their home was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan on Nov 8 2013. -- ST FILE PHOTO: DESMOND FOO  

The last time we met in December, Mr Pete Lacandazo was lying on a wooden cot in a tiny shanty he had put up on the site where his house once stood.

There really was little else for him to do, except wait for his next ration of rice, water, sardines and noodles. For most of the day, he lay or sat on his cot, staring at rubble and brooding over his tremendous loss.

While everyone in his home town of Palo knew someone who died the day super typhoon Haiyan struck on Nov 8 last year, no one seemed to have lost as much as Mr Lacandazo.

That day, in the wee hours of the morning, 22 members of his family perished. Only he, his son, a son-in-law and three grandchildren survived.

Six months on, Mr Lacandazo seems to be managing well.

He is nearly halfway through building a new home, and he has kept himself busy with a government job. He has even adopted a 13-year-old boy, a neighbour, who lost his own family.

He has become a celebrity of sorts in his small community. His story has been told over and over by anyone with a pulpit that it reached the ears of Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

In February, Mr Aquino invited Mr Lacandazo to join him in celebrating the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, extolling him as an example of the resilient Haiyan victim, a symbol of hope against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Mimicking Mr Aquino with a drill sergeant's voice, Mr Lacandazo recounted the Philippine leader telling his audience: "This man here, he lost so many members of his family. Look at him. He's now even helping his village. Others are just sitting in a corner."

The hyperbole, though, is not lost on Mr Lacandazo.

He doesn't think he has done anything courageous or exceptional. He doesn't even think he has moved on at all.

"It doesn't seem like six months, but I somehow manage to breathe easier now," he said.

May 2, the day we visited him, was especially hard on him. It was the eve of his 58th birthday.

He especially misses his daughters who would whip up a feast for him and their big, boisterous clan on his birthday.

"It was already sad last Christmas," he said. "That was when I began looking for them."

Mr Lacandazo misses his eldest daughter, Arlene, most.

She was eight months pregnant when Haiyan struck.

He remembers holding on to her and a two-year-old grandchild, even as he began to drown from all the water that was pouring in from the sea. Then a large block of wood slammed into his face and he lost his grip.

He can still hear her screaming, "Father! Father!", as she was swept away.

The migraines come whenever he is alone, which is why he spends most of his time at the village hall. He now sits on the village council.

"I always get headaches. I keep thinking, had my daughters survived…," he said, his thoughts trailing.

"When I'm at the village hall, there are many people there, so I don't get headaches. When I get home, that's when it starts. The loneliness."

When he's not at the village hall, he oversees work at the house he's building.

The money for the house - 250,000 pesos (S$704) in all - included insurance payouts for two daughters and a donation from a Buddhist foundation.

"I didn't use the money on anything else, so that people can see that I'm putting everything in the house," he said.

The money, however, is running out, but he hopes he will have enough soon from other claims he has yet to file, so that he and his grandchildren can move out of the shanty.

"The important thing is we can move inside. It doesn't have to be finished," he said.

The house is unfinished business, like most other things in Mr Lacandazo's life.

The people have been trying to climb out of the hole that Haiyan put them in, he said. Many like him have started the ascent, but some have yet to take the first step. All are still waiting for help.

Recalling his meeting with the President, Mr Lacandazo thought he could use what little influence he had to help his town, but he too has had to wait in line.

"I handed him a folder, asking for help. We haven't heard anything yet. But it's okay. If it comes, it comes. I hope it comes," he said.

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