Typhoon Haiyan survivors struggle to make sense of shattered world …
The power cut out at 10pm, but Flora Paraskovich had enough charge left in her laptop to watch the gathering storm as it inched across the screen, closer and closer to her home. The 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines2 are regularly buffeted by high winds and rains. This time, though, the meteorologists’ warnings had alarmed the 35-year-old enough to make her rush home to Guiuan from her job nearly 100 miles away in Tacloban.
Her family looked at her as though she was stupid when she arrived on Thursday evening and started packing their belongings, trying to explain to them what winds gusting to 150mph meant. It was not, she told them, just another typhoon. On Friday night, as they headed for bed, she monitored the progress of the swirling mass.
Moments later, her connection was cut. The town of 45,000 people was now on its own. Guiuan occupies a long, narrow spit on the easternmost side of the Philippines.
This is where Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 after crossing the Pacific, and until last Friday it was a peaceful settlement that made its living from fishing and coconuts and recently from a growing number of surf tourists. But the super-typhoon that made landfall at its southern tip has left little trace of that tranquil community. “We are 100% wiped out by Yolanda,” the mayor, Sheen Gonzales, told the Guardian. “It was like the end of the world.” Yolanda known as Haiyan outside the Philippines snapped the soaring palm trees like matchsticks.
It tore off roofs, burst through windows and walls and flattened homes. Five days on, the town smells of decay. The banks, the lawyers’ offices, the pawnshop, the schools and the market are all ravaged.
They are probably beyond rescue, as is the prized 17th-century Church of the Immaculate Conception. Even the funeral parlour is in ruins. Trucks lie on their sides.
Power lines have been toppled. People salvage coconuts from beside the uprooted palms. Like other areas across Eastern Samar province, Guiuan’s devastation has been largely overlooked.
Although it was the first to suffer, its remoteness and the storm damage left it without any aid or contact for days after the typhoon struck; officials say the aid that is arriving remains entirely inadequate. “It was like a nuclear bomb struck us,” said Henry Afable, mayor of nearby Maydolong. At midnight on Friday, Paraskovich decided it was time to rouse her family.
An hour or two later, the wind began to whistle, then howl. It was 4.40am when the full force of the storm smashed into the town. Paraskovich’s mother and siblings and their children had been joined by neighbours who thought their house could withstand the gales.
“We went from room to room,” said Paraskovich. When the roof started falling off, her brother had to carry their 80-year-old mother from the living room to his room. “But that faced the water, so the windows started to move. She ended up in the kitchen, under a table, sitting with a big basin covering her head while we sheltered under the sink.
Most of the debris fell away from us; some came down slowly. Everything was blown away, the house fell over and water came in. It was terrifying.
It was not slowing down but a constant wind, getting stronger and wilder.” For three hours, the typhoon battered the town. Those who had fled to the evacuation centres were no safer.
One person died in a gymnasium; others were killed by falling masonry as gusts destroyed the roof of the church. “I told my wife: be strong. If you worry, we will die,” said Segundo Carado, 56. By the time the storm ebbed, at least 87 of Guiuan’s townsfolk were dead.
“There were still tin sheets being blown around,” said Paraskovich. “Trees were cut into pieces. A few were standing, but with no more leaves left. In some places the water was up to here” she gestured at her chin “and most of the people were killed.”
Another 23 are missing and at least 931 injured, Gonzales said as he concluded a relief co-ordination meeting in the shattered municipal offices. Every window in the building is broken; the roof is collapsed on to the second floor. Gonzales is one of several officials in Eastern Samar to order the evacuation of the most vulnerable areas, rather than calling on people to leave voluntarily.
In nearby Maydolong, the police even had to shoot into the air to make people move. None of it was enough. “We prepared food, water, our houses, my municipal hall but in the end everything was destroyed,” said Mark Biong, the youthful mayor of another town, Giporlos.
Nine of its 15,000 residents died in the typhoon itself most were children hit by flying debris and three more died soon afterwards. On Wednesday morning, Biong was waiting at the airstrip at Guiuan in the hope of getting supplies. So far he had been given just 480 family packs for 6,000 affected households, he said.
“I can’t deliver that It will just create chaos if I bring that little food for my town. People will get angry about it.” Compared to Guiuan and Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province, Giporlos had been calm, he said, but he did not know how long that would last. “It’s very little aid and it’s already five days.
Imagine how hard it is for me and my people.” The arrival of the first air force planes had calmed people, Paraskovich said. She was able to get a lift to nearby Cebu to buy medicine for her mother and hoped to return to Guiuan soon.
“The first few days we felt we were alone and no one cared about us,” she added. “On the first two days people could get food. On the third day people were starting to worry. For now people still have something to eat, but how long it will last is the question.”
Though the city saw some looting, police patrols soon restored order, she said. Water shortages were also less desperate than in some areas because some people had pumps or wells although her family’s well is filthy. Officials hope filtration equipment will arrive soon.
Around the town, people have constructed flimsy shelters from corrugated iron blown off buildings, or they have pulled tarpaulins across what little remains of their walls. Some are even trying to get back to work; one woman sold bananas from a makeshift table. “We have learned a lot of lessons to be self-reliant and not rely on the government, because we can’t rely much on them in times of disasters,” said Paraskovich.
But authorities needed to better prepare people to face such storms, she added. “How many typhoons have already hit the Philippines for you to learn what has to be done? Look at the housing people don’t have any idea what proper planning is. When another typhoon comes it will still be the same.
Our next house will be made of concrete. But most families cannot afford to build those kinds of homes. People don’t have access to loans; what you can afford is what you build.”
What most can afford next time around is likely to be even flimsier. “The only thing people here do is work on plantations or go to sea,” said Afable, the Maydolong mayor. “The coconut trees that are still standing will die in a few months’ time and 90-95% of the fishing boats were destroyed.” Many are trying to leave.
Scores of residents stood and sweltered at the airstrip for hours, hoping to find space on a returning cargo plane. Infants fretted in their mothers’ arms. One father said his nine-year-old daughter had not been able to sleep since the disaster, dropping off only to wake up in tears.
For many, the days of hunger, thirst and homelessness are growing unbearable. “No more hope,” said fruitseller Marissa Quirante, one of many who begged for outside aid. Mayor Gonzales echoed that call as he sat in the ruins of his offices, with one hand bandaged, against a backdrop of wrecked buildings and wrenched trees. “I am appealing to the world to give us food because our daily livelihood is broken.
I’m appealing to people to give us temporary shelters.
We need your help.” Outside, the skies that wreaked havoc last Friday were clear and implausibly blue. “I consider this to be my second life,” he said.