After Typhoon Haiyan, the scale of misery in the Philippines is hard to measure. For one mother and father in the hardest hit city, it is infinite.
TACLOBAN — In the churchyard, children are playing with coins, absorbed by their game and oblivious to what’s happening around them. A few meters away, five black plastic sacks lie in the sun. They are among Tacloban’s dead still waiting to be buried five days after Typhoon Haiyan struck. The smell is overpowering, and survivors cope by tying rags over their noses and mouths.
Maria Fe Llanado sits inside the church. She could go out into the streets and search, as others are doing. Or she could go back to the place where her house once stood. But she doesn’t have the strength, so she sits in the church and thinks of her daughters.
Jean Pearl was 15 and did not survive. Her sister Jessa Marie is a year older, and she has so far not been found.
Six days ago, the family was all together in their house near the bay. They had heard the storm warnings but stayed at home because they thought their house could survive the wind. They hadn’t foreseen the wave. The storm had already been raging for some time when water suddenly flooded the house. They fled to a nearby school, but the two daughters were lost in the confusion. The water continued to rise and Maria hung on to a roof beam for almost two hours until it receded.
Then she came to the Church of the Redeemer in Tacloban. Her husband also made it there, and the two of them went searching through the rubble. On Saturday morning they found the body of their younger daughter, Jean Pearl. They could not bury her. She was wrapped in a plastic sack and taken away to a mass grave. Every day now survivors come to Father Edwin with a list of the dead and he blesses them before they are taken away on the back of a truck. In Tacloban alone, more than 2,000 people have died.
Aid is slow in coming
Father Edwin’s church now houses 325 families. All need water and food, but help is slow in coming. Many survivors have gone through the streets and emptied out shops. “You can call that looting,” says Father Edwin. “I call it surviving.” Officials come every few days and ask him to give them a list of everything he needs, but so far no supplies have been delivered. “It’s frustrating,” he says, “but I didn’t expect anything else.”
A Spanish worker at Care International explains that distributing aid is particularly difficult at the moment. There are bottlenecks at the harbors and airports. There are no warehouses, and the authorities have all suffered so much that they are preoccupied with getting themselves back on their feet. “My office is a pile of rubble, and I have to look after my family first,” says one Tacloban official.
The government has declared a state of emergency and sent the army to Tacloban. Many are afraid that desperation will breed violence. Haiyan's survivors have already stormed the airport in an attempt to get away, and on Wednesday shots were heard in the harbor. “But we have it under control,” says Lt. Colonel Leo Madronal. He assures us that aid is on its way. Three airports in the affected area are now functioning, and cargo ships are bringing deliveries to the harbor. But nobody I speak to in Tacloban has seen any sign of it.
Desperate to escape
In the harbor there is a large ship that is due to be unloaded that afternoon. A crowd is pressing against the barrier, desperate to board it and escape. Among them is Ellen Go, who worked for the city authorities and wants to bring her children and grandchildren onto the ship. The journey to Cebu is free.
“Relatives will look after our children, and then we will come back to rebuild our house,” she says in a low voice, her face very composed. She reminds me of something Father Edwin said: “We Filipinos are tough.” Even this disaster will not break them. They’ll get through it, he believes, although they do not expect much help from their government.
This Filipino self-sufficiency is evident at Ormoc, four hours away from Tacloban. Although the city wasn’t hit by water, the storm destroyed almost every house. When the ferries dock in the harbor, there is chaos as cartons of water bottles and sacks of rice are piled up and passengers shout and shove. Wheelbarrows of supplies are pushed through the crowd and disappear.
The dominant feeling in Ormoc is frustration. They have nothing left here, but all the news reports are focused on Tacloban, as if there are no other places that have been brought to their knees. The streets are littered with corrugated iron from battered roofs, and the city hall has had all its windows broken. But its walls are still standing — a unplanned symbol of strength and defiance. Inside, Engr Godi Ebcas tells us that four days after the storm, no aid has reached Ormoc. He believes it has all gone to Tacloban. “But we need food too,” he says. “Urgently.”
“I love Tacloban”
Back in the Tacloban church, Maria Fe Llanado and her husband are still waiting for news. A friend of their daughter’s told them that she saw Jessa Marie wandering through the streets in a state of shock. She tried to speak to her, but the wounded girl simply walked on. The father asked why she didn’t bring their daughter back to them, but he got no reply. Maria stares blankly into space, not seeming to notice her 3-year-old nephew tugging at her shirt.
It is time for me to leave Tacloban. The car passes mountains of rubble and people who are all searching for someone or something. We see soldiers on motorbikes with automatic rifles. At a bus stop, there is a poster with a red heart and the words, “I love Tacloban.” It is deserted. Only a black plastic sack is on the bench.