December 6th, 2013
First Impressions of Tacloban
On December 5th, I was up at 4:00 am to get to the ferry in Cebu. It is a 2.5-hour boat ride to Ormoc, a town about 100 km west of Tacloban and a city also in the direct path of typhoon Yolanda. By the way, the international name of the typhoon is Haiyan but the name in the Philippines is Yolanda.
The first impression I had as the van made it’s way to Tacloban was the incredible size of the path of destruction. The 100 km between Palo and Tacloban looks like a war zone and it is easy to see the overwhelming rebuilding job ahead. For one example, it has been almost exactly 1 month since Yolanda made landfall and I wondered why there was still no electricity. The answer was pretty obvious; I could count on one hand the amount of hydro poles still standing in the entire trip between the cities. If you think hydro poles are usually a few hundred meters apart you realize the extent of that one problem. Then you look at the damage to the schools, hospitals and businesses and also realize that I did not see a single home in the entire trip that was completely spared from the wind or water. Here are a few photos from the van on the road towards Tacloban.
|Damage on the road to Tacloban|
I was sitting beside a man that had a home in Palo, very close to Tacloban and he told me some stories from his area. He told me about one man carrying a child in each arm as he climbed the rafters of their home to escape the rush of water. I saw an interview on CNN of the mayor of Tacloban who managed to survive by punching a hole in his ceiling and waiting out the storm clinging to the open air rafters of his roof while the water raged below, covering the entire first floor of his home. The damage I saw certainly confirmed that these stories were true. Here is a photo taken in Palo.
I thought I was well prepared for my first sights of Tacloban but despite watching around the clock coverage on CNN I don’t think anyone can really anticipate the sights and smells. It was hard to even figure out where we were in the city with many of the landmarks gone. A noticeable silence fell over the van as we inched along roads piled with debris and people walking along the edges. I also noticed the lack of greenery. Any trees left standing were stripped bare from the wind and the surrounding mountains looked like they just survived a massive forest fire. There was also a distinct smell coming from the huge mounds of debris still covering half the road in places. It is a smell composed of smoke from the constant burning within the piles of garbage and of course the possibility of composing bodies of humans and or animals.
|Street in Tacloban|
I had a hard time finding a hotel as the ones open were being used by the various aid agencies. I tried a half dozen and ended up finding a room at the Leyte Park Hotel. The front of the hotel has a generator but I am at the back without electricity or water but I do have a roof and the property is secure so that is all I really need. I got a few large jugs of water for my bath and will have to throw water over my head prior to sleeping because of the heat without a fan or an air-conditioner. The fact that I have a roof makes me far better off most here.
I went out to one of the worst hit areas of Tacloban to see if my friend Ruchelle was okay. She is in the City to see her brother and his family and they live in the town of San Jose near the Tacloban airport. The area is a narrow peninsula with water on both sides and is particularly exposed and vulnerable to strong winds.
Ruchelle was born and raised in Tacloban and lived in the San Jose area. Her mother, brother, sister in law and their children were in the home on November 8th. Ruchelle was in Tacloban earlier in the month but was applying for work in Taiwan so left on November 7th, the day before the typhoon, to be with her sister in Cebu. Imagine her feeling when she sees her street for the first time since she left.
Prior to leaving she wanted to ensure her family would be safe with the increasingly dire reports coming on the news about Yolanda. There was an evacuation center set up in the local elementary school and Ruchelle made sure her family were able to go on the 2nd floor of the school.
Here is a picture of the school with the 1st and 2nd floors.
When the typhoon hit Tacloban, at approximately 4:00 am and lasting until 11:00 am on Friday November 8th, the strongest winds ever recorded slammed into the city with a direct hit. The small area of land where San Jose is located between 2 bodies of water was directly in the path but the subsequent storm surge created the most destruction. A surge of about 15 feet completely covered the small area of land approximately 1 kilometer in width. The water completely submerged an entire floor of the school. There were numerous people including lots of children who took refuge only to drown when the water rushed in. The people on the second floor were safe but could hear the screams of frantic family members who were witnessing their relatives being swept away or submerged by the rushing water.
This area had the highest death toll and many of the people were actually taking refuge from the storm. One mistake made by the weather forecasters was their failure to use the world Tsunami. The massive 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, Thailand and a large area of Asia and the more recent one in Japan have made a strong impact on people around the world. The use of the word “storm surge” on the other hand has not and many people simply did not understand the risk involved with the water. If they heard the word tsunami, many said they would never have taken refuge is the buildings so close to the water.
Here is a home in the same area as the school. I was told that water was entering the windows of this house on the 2nd floor. Imagine being in that home when the storm hit. The first reaction to the wind blowing off the roof would be to escape down to the ground floor. Then you would be met with raging water that is quickly rising so your only escape is to go back up and hang on to the rafters with no roof above you and a driving rain.
|Water was at level of 2nd floor windows|
Here is a view from that home showing the impact of Yolanda.
The rebuilding efforts are going to take a long time and one of the reasons is the issue of land ownership. In the area of San Jose, there are sub-divisions of strong cement homes and those are typical of what we would be used to with the homeowner owning both the land and building. They would be owned by the relatively wealthy and their homes are strong and had far less damage, although I have yet to see a single home unscathed.
The real problem is what to do with the other homes, including those of Ruchelle’s family. The people in large areas here are squatters, building their relatively flimsy homes on vacant land. Large communities of squatter homes were destroyed and the government doesn’t want to face this potentially recurring destruction over and over again so they have initiated a no-building policy impacting thousands of families. The entire communities will be relocated in government housing and large areas have been told they cannot even have access to their homes. In the short-term they will be given tents and then move into homes when they are built. I don't have a lot of confidence in that program given the fact that homeless people are usually well down the priority list of governments.
A similar situation is occurring nearby in the area I went to next to try and find the families of a few kids I knew from my time at the orphanage. I went there to locate Angelina and also the twin girls Angel and April. I have been very worried about them and you can see why, here are a few pictures of the area where their homes were located.
|Angelina and the twins lived here|
|Area near the airport|
I saw that and my heart sank. No one could have lived if they stayed in their homes and after hearing about the problems at the shelters I began to feel worse. I managed to find out that Angelina survived the storm and was taken away to Cebu and is there now. I am trying to find where she is there and will give her a call when I can but am grateful to hear she survived with her family. I have not been able to locate the twins yet but will keep on looking. You can see from the photo that they have prohibited any new building there so there are hundreds of families that have lost everything except the clothes they were wearing.
My next mission was to try and find Michael. Those of you following my posts for the last few years will know that Michael was my special boy at the orphanage and there are pictures of him here on an earlier posting. I had visited him last Christmas and walked to the home where he lived with his mother. His mother was working as a housemaid for a local family and she lived with Michael and 4 siblings in a small home beside the mansion of the homeowner. Here is a picture of that mansion today.
|Home on Michael’s property|
It shows that the rich and poor here suffered extensively. Here is a current picture of the small concrete home where Michael lived last year.
I knocked on the door of the Mansion and a lady appeared. I introduced myself and said I was looking for Michael. It turns out that the lady was Michael’s aunt and she told me he survived and is living in another area of town. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and the Aunt gave me a big hug and said she knows all about me and how I am always looking out for her nephew. Apparently Michael’s mother told her that I would probably come back to Tacloban because I would be worried about Michael, ha ha ha.
There are numerous aid agencies here and I will try to meet with a few of the workers to see the kind of work they are doing. The hotel where I am staying is the headquarters of the Red Cross, both the Philippines and International Branches. I have seen the fire-trucks and ambulances around town and they have a very visible presence. I saw large tents being set up by the World Food Program and signs for Oxfam so there are people from all over the world here to help. It is nice to see such an international effort to help here.
I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel and heard a few volunteers talk about the reports of out of control crime and looting in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, something I also heard on the news coverage but I think it is unfair to focus on that. I’ve seen examples my whole life of looting and riots after hockey or baseball teams win or lose championship games. There are many examples of mayhem after a World Cup soccer game so focusing on the same behavior when people have lost everything shouldn’t be something that stands out. There are people everywhere in the world who take advantage of tragic events and it is no different here than it was in New Orleans after Katrina or Haiti after the earthquake. I can see the people here and know the appreciation they have for those helping and the overwhelming majority have no interest in taking advantage.
On Wednesday they found 120 bodies in the water under the big bridge in town, all had drowned during the storm surge. There are still a lot of people missing and the only hope is they can’t be reached because the communications are down. While I was walking along the road a group of men were clearing away some debris and on the road beside them was a body bag. One month after the storm and they are still pulling bodies from the wreckage.
Tomorrow I am going to the Missionaries of Charity orphanage and will write about what happened there shortly. I will be trying to post new pictures everyday on my Flickr account and updates to this journal as often as I can. There is a lot happening every day.