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Typhoon mom’s story of hope, survival

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AFP

Typhoon Haiyan survivor Emily Sagalis stands next to her baby inside their tent that is serving as temporary shelter.

Tacloban, Philippines - In the savage aftermath of the Philippines' deadliest storm, an exhausted young woman gave birth to a girl on a filthy floor with little more than determination to sustain them.

Emily Sagalis survived the tsunami-like ocean surges of Super Typhoon Haiyan by gripping a fence with one hand, while using the other to protect her swollen belly from chunks of metal and other fast-floating debris.

Three days later the 21-year-old was lying on a concrete floor in labour amid broken glass, splintered wood and other wreckage of a destroyed airport building that had been turned into a makeshift medical centre.

A military doctor told an AFP journalist who witnessed the birth - the first at the centre since the typhoon - that Emily's life was in danger as there were no antibiotics to treat seemingly inevitable infections.

But with the medics overwhelmed by a torrent of critically injured survivors, Emily was forced to leave with Bea Joy just seven hours after giving birth.

Haiyan, one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded, claimed about 8 000 lives in November last year, with many people dying in the terrifying days that followed when medicines, food and water were scarce.

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Emily Sagalis holds her child in airport building where she gave birth shortly after the storm.

AFP

Emily and Bea Joy, however, defeated death, and today the first-time mother is striving with powerful maternal instincts to create lives of security and happiness on top of the weakest foundations.

“I am happy that Bea Joy is happy and healthy. That's the most important thing,” Emily told AFP on a recent visit to their shanty rebuilt alongside hundreds of tents provided by international relief agencies.

The home Emily shares with Bea Joy and her unemployed husband, Jobert, is so close to the Pacific Ocean that the grey sand beach forms the floor of their tiny kitchen and sleeping area.

It is built on the same site as their previous home in San Jose, a fishing community in Tacloban city where all the buildings were wiped out as higher-than-coconut-tree waves generated by Haiyan powered inland.

Thousands of people have returned to San Jose and neighbouring towns to live in crudely built homes, or in white tents from the United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that has helped lead relief efforts.

Emily, Jobert and Bea Joy have so far had a steady supply of food and water, thanks almost entirely to donations from foreign and local charities.

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Medical staff tending to Emily Sagalis shortly after giving birth inside a destroyed building in the central Philippine city of Tacloban.

AFP

They have also remained relatively healthy, avoiding debilitating mosquito-borne viruses and other illnesses that are a relentless threat in the typhoon zones.

Emily never did suffer from infections from the cuts suffered during the storm and giving birth in unsterile conditions.

That is about where the mercies end.

The fresh salt-filled breeze from the Pacific Ocean haunts Emily.

“We are afraid because we are near the sea. When there is a strong wind... I start thinking about how to flee,” she said as she washed clothes by hand in a plastic bucket outside her house.

Like their neighbours, Emily and Jobert have to continue living in San Jose as they have no money to go anywhere else and the government has yet to deliver on promises to relocate them.

Jobert was working as a delivery man in Manila, the nation's capital 600 kilometres away, when the typhoon hit. He lost his job when he decided to return home and care for his family.

“I'll do any job... but not if it is far away. I have to stay here,” said Jobert, 29, whose mother died in the storm.

A year ago, Emily also worked in Manila, as a maid, and the pair earned a combined $150 (about R1 500) a month - placing them among the poorest of the working masses in the Philippines but with enough to survive independently.

Now, the family income is about a dollar a day, which Jobert earns by taking passengers in and around San Jose on a pedicab that was donated by a relief agency.

That money goes almost immediately on nappies for Bea Joy, plus some eggs and other supplements to the relief food.

Emily spends most of her days doing daily chores and caring for Bea Joy. She cooks on an open fire in their cramped, sandy kitchen. The roof is made from a UNHCR tarpaulin and corrugated iron sheets salvaged after the storm.

Even during the day, meals are eaten sitting down on the concrete floor of their tiny living area in dusk-like darkness, as there is no electricity.

The heat and humidity inside feels suffocating, with Bea Joy's swinging hammock generating the only faint movements of the air.

Emily and Jobert are desperate for more, but not a lot.

“We are hoping we can have the life we had before, a normal life. We hope that we can have a new home, not like this one,” Jobert said.

Emily, whose potentially beautiful smile reveals the rotten and disfigured teeth of an impoverished childhood, struggles to offer a vision for her family's future other than ensuring Bea Joy remains healthy.

But her fortitude since the typhoon also engenders confidence.

After giving birth, Emily left the airport on a pedicab and took a half-hour ride with Bea Joy through corpse-strewn roads back to an evacuation centre.

Asked if she felt fear then, or when she was in labour at the shattered airport compound, Emily shook her head in the negative and said: “I just tried to be strong for my baby.” - Sapa-AFP

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