Visiting the heartland of Haiyan (Yolanda)

Notebook Mar 14, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Notebook_Jan-2014I just arrived in Manila from a two-day visit of Tanauan, Leyte (from Friday Feb. 28 to today Sunday, March 2). Tanauan is one of the most devastated towns of Leyte after super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit Eastern Visayas in the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013.

The visit was mainly for my wife and her sister to see the extent of the damage and to talk to their relatives there. They have an ancestral home there and another home with a cousin.

Emma Ripalda at the graveyard by the roadside where 9 members of her family are buried.

Emma Ripalda at the graveyard by the roadside where 9 members of her family are buried.

This was the first time we would see with our own eyes the disaster area. So far, we had seen only the pictures from the international media and the Manila-based online news sites. So as our plane was about to land, the three of us were anxious of what we would see. Through the plane windows we tried to see and expected dramatic scenes of destruction all over the place.  But no sign of disaster yet. We saw green grass and later water on either side of the runway.

It was obvious we were emotional from the gazes in our eyes. When we got down the plane, we could only see the damaged airport building and a big crowd cramped in the luggage area. Destruction was obvious in the airport but nothing dramatic so far. In the parking, children were begging for money to buy food. That was the first time I saw that in Tacloban airport. Tacloban is the capital city of Leyte and also one of the most devastated by the super typhoon.

As our van negotiated the asphalt and dirt roads from Tacloban to Tanauan, that’s when we saw destroyed houses and buildings, the uprooted trees, the headless coconut trees, the remaining debris swept away from the roads. I immediately took pictures, some of which I posted in my blog.

From the airplane after I boarded throughout the almost one-hour flight, I couldn’t stop thinking of the impact the storm had and still have on thousands of people who survived it all. Thousands died (conflicting claims: 6,000 to more than 10,000), more were injured and instantly became homeless. Many of those who survived have left the disaster areas and went to other towns and cities where they could live a more normal life.

I could imagine how those who died and those who survived were shocked when the eye of the storm hit their areas. There were stories and stories of tragedy published in various international and Philippine publications. There were stories circulated in emails and in blogs and on social media. This is so far, I believe, the most talked about typhoon by virtue of the number of lives lost, the property and houses damaged and the abruptness of the shock, not to mention the persisting controversy on the slowness of and politics-ridden relief operations.

As I took photos from our moving vehicle, I couldn’t recover from the emotion I had in the plane. I could feel the tragedy in my bones. As I saw the roofless houses and the torn walls, the flattened spaces where there used to be houses and buildings.

In the initial days and weeks after the storm, there was no water, no food, no electricity, no  survivor livelihood at all.  A 96-year old woman said it was worse than than the aftermath of WW2. People talked about seeing dead bodies wrapped in plastic or cloth or  covered with mud being carried on the streets and brought to a plaza to be piled up to be buried later. The stench was too strong it was unbearable.

Yolanda flood watermark on a picture at the first floor of a house in Tanauan    Photos:HG

Yolanda flood watermark on a picture at the first floor of a house in Tanauan
Photos:HG

At the height of the storm, the velocity of the wind was more than 300 kilometers per hour. (Imagine if you’re driving 100 km/hour on the highway you already consider it fast. Multiply that by 3 and you have the peak speed of the Yolanda storm.) The height of the flood was approximately between 10 feet to 20 feet depending on the elevation of the soil. People described the movement of the flood as like being inside a huge washing machine. Their houses swayed from side to side as the strong wind and water blew the walls of their houses. People talked of water rising quickly on the first floor of their house that they had to run and climb to the second floor. Those who were trapped on the first floor died from drowning as the water rose quickly to the ceiling. Those who escaped to the second floor said the water was up to their knees as their furniture were thrown all over the place and the roofs were ripped open.

A survivor said she had to put the children in the house, as young as 4-year olds, inside the closets on the second floor to prevent them from being thrown by the wind through the gaps in the walls. Another survivor said they had to hold a baby up to the ceiling to save her from being drowned. There were people who had to stand on the beams of their roofs because water was about to reach their roof. Another survivor said she saw the body of a lifeless infant floating on the water inside a church. A man was seen carrying the body of a woman on his shoulders with her limbs hanging on his sides. When he was asked who that was, he said it was her girlfriend.

A Toyota FX was thrown more than a dozen meters away and dropped on a metal slide in the plaza. Its roof, front,  and sides crumpled.

In a nearby city, Tacloban, people described a few huge ships were pushed from the sea into in land behind houses. One was said to have contained rice that was quickly taken by hungry residents. One is said to be now serving as living quarters of survivors.

After the storm subsided, mud was almost knee-high inside the houses. Debris composed of pieces of wood, sheets of roof, trunks and branches of trees, electricity posts, broken furniture, any object you can imagine, littered the streets and any space available. It took weeks and months to wash away the black and smelly mud from the houses and for debris to be cleared from the streets so vehicles and people could pass.

Many people left the disaster areas because there was hardly any food left after the storm had left. Potable water was not available, the taps were not working. Since people were used to drinking mineral water before Yolanda, whatever water that was saved, they called it “funeral water “ because people were used to seeing cadavers discovered on the wet soil. In some areas, relief food hardly came. And in many areas where distribution was conducted, local politics reared its ugly head. I was told that barangays where the mayors had won in elections were favourites for relief goods and those where he or she had lost were punished with no relief goods or hardly anything at all.

What stares you in the eyes after the visuals and the emotional stories from the survivors is the reality that the poor who lived in small houses made of wood and and nipa or palm and corrugated sheets for their roof, suffered most because their houses were swept away completely or almost completely by the giant strong waves said to have had the speed of more than 300 km per hour. They and their families either died instantly of drowning or from injuries from being physically thrown by the rushing and splashing storm water. Those who had big and strong houses had mostly their roofs ripped open and their first floors flooded and damaged. Many of them survived by rushing to the second floor.

On the way to Tanauan from the Tacloban airport, we saw a middle- age woman sitting by the sidewalk in front of a makeshift grave. On a piece of wood with a stick stuck on the soil are names of members of her family, nine in all. We got off the van and talked to her. She said nine members of her family died on Nov. 8 — her parents, husband, four children and two grandchildren. Her story was very similar to other survivors’ stories: the strong waves swept their small house, her family drowned or hit by flying hard objects.

We met and interviewed the mayor of Tanauan who told of how he led the rescue operations and the distribution of relief goods. He has a house in Tacloban and didn’t talk about how it was affected by the storm. He and his wife have another house somewhere and their children live safely in another country.

We talked to an owner of a hotel in Tacloban whose house was hardly damaged and whose business was not seriously affected by the typhoon and the flood. In fact, the hotel business in Tacloban was having a hey day since most foreigners or temporary visitors had no other place to stay in except in the few existing hotel buildings that withstood the typhoon.
This scenario is repeated in disaster after disaster in the Philippines and other countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the U.S. among others. I read somewhere that disaster is a great equalizer; that in the face of natural disasters, there’s no rich or poor, that everyone is affected equally.

This claim doesn’t hold when you check the aftermath of a calamity. What makes it worse is, if you’re poor and if you’re on the wrong side of the political fence, you are doubly unlucky: you suffer the most in lost lives and property and you’re in the last priority when it comes to relief goods and rehabilitation help.