Typhoon Haiyan

In typhoon-hit Tablocan, tide turns on favourite daughter Imelda Marcos

Former first lady's family dominates the area around Tacloban, and some are blaming the clan for a belated local relief effort

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 11:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 3:53am

Look around the once-gracious city by a horseshoe-shaped bay and it is still possible to imagine it before the mass deaths and devastation of last Friday's typhoon, when it was a jewel of the Pacific thanks in good part to a local who became a global celebrity: Imelda Marcos, the flamboyant former first lady of the Philippines.

Spaced along the main coastal road of Tacloban are St Nino's Shrine, an elegant mansion that once held Marcos' infamous shoe collection; a stately white community hall fit for a much larger city; and the pink St Nino's Church. All were built or restored at lavish expense when Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country from 1966 to 1986.

Our view of the Marcos family has fallen … they are not taking care of us

Imelda Marcos' family, the Romualdez clan, has dominated local politics for generations. She held a congressional seat for the province in the 1990s, one of her nephews is the mayor of Tacloban and another is a congressman in the region.

So as Tacloban residents fume over the widespread initial failure of relief efforts to provide food, water, medical treatment or even security, some of the blame is falling on a family that many here have long revered.

The debate over who is responsible was in full swing on Thursday at a bus shelter outside St Nino's Shrine, which lost the collection of shoes that symbolised Marcos' opulent lifestyle to a museum in Manila, but still displays her collection of ancient vases.

As a tropical downpour began to turn roads clogged with debris into ankle-deep lakes, local resident Perlin Bechachino explained why she still held Marcos, 84, and the Romualdez family in high esteem. (Marcos' maiden name was Romualdez.)

Bechachino cited the family's many donations to St Nino's Church, where she attends services every Sunday. She praised the local government for warning people five days in advance that a typhoon was coming, prompting her to head with her family to an official evacuation centre that did not fill with water - unlike others where people drowned when the sea entered.

And she spoke almost rapturously about how she had been one of 500 people at a relief station this week to receive food directly from Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, the former first lady's son.

"I really love the Marcos family, because they have loved the people of Tacloban city."

But seven other newly homeless people who were huddled under the bus shelter angrily disagreed and faulted the local government - which is supposed to respond to disasters - and by extension, the Romualdez clan.

"I'm missing my son; he's 24 years old," said Teresita Aroza, 54. "I've not received anything at all from the local government."

Standing with her husband, her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, Aroza described how they had been in their home as a wall of water from the storm surge hit last Friday evening and the house crumbled. They rushed to their neighbours' more solid house, only to find them drowned inside.

Then an even bigger wave swept the family out to sea. The family members at the bus shelter had survived by holding on to floating banana trees and paddling to shore, but Aroza's son disappeared in the torrents.

They have been opening body bags along a coastal road and checking the purple, misshapen corpses inside to try to find her son. By Thursday they had received no food or water as the aid response continued to falter.

"The Marcos family is distant from the people," Aroza said. "We always respected the Marcos family, but we did not idolise them, and now our view of the Marcos family has fallen because they are not taking care of us."

Aroza's 21-year-old daughter, Devi Aroza, said "75 per cent of the people now do not like the Marcoses".

Bechachino countered that the storm had been so dreadful that no-one could have managed its effects. But with opinion in the bus shelter against her and the rain tapering off, she left quickly to chase a passing bicycle cart and ask for help in moving the few possessions that her family had salvaged from their home.

Mayor Alfred Romualdez of Tacloban, Marcos' nephew, made the same point as Bechachino in interviews on Wednesday and Thursday, contending that Super Typhoon Haiyan would have devastated any city and slowed recovery. Buildings sturdy enough to be designated as evacuation centres are required to have roofs that could withstand winds of up to 160km/h, he said. Typhoon Haiyan had sustained winds nearly twice that fast, based on satellite estimates, and gusts were even more powerful.

"How do you prepare for a super typhoon like that, when you don't have the structures?"

Romualdez said that he had not been able to speak to his aunt since the typhoon. But a niece, who insisted on anonymity, said other family members were sheltering Marcos from the worst of the news as she recovered from an infection.

"She just knows that a strong typhoon hit, but she's not being told the extent of the damage," the niece said. "The family is concerned that she will find a way to go there if she finds out what happened. She cannot be stopped - they can't control her."

At St Nino's Shrine, it was clear that the Marcos name retains at least some of its mystique. While nearly every store in the area was stripped clean, this building - sometimes called the Imelda Marcos shrine -was unscathed.

Gonzalo Lu said he and other security guards had pushed back crowds who sought shelter after the typhoon. "We would have killed and died before we'd let anyone in," he said.

How you can help the relief effort


World Vision


Salvation Army

Red Cross


Through the Philippine consulate

Catholic Relief Services

UN World Food Programme