The airport is where life is: victims queue to find a way to leave, to get on any of the foreign military planes that will take them anywhere but the dead landscape of Leyte and Samar, the twin island provinces that met the wrath of a storm surge on November 8. They wait there in the heat and rain at the end of this world beyond their imagination.
It is where things move and shove. Everyday Air Force planes from Cebu in the central Philippines bring in a stream of aid workers and tons of relief goods and they fly back with refugees on board. And to all other parts of the provinces, to far-flung areas, the American Ospreys and Black Hawks and the Philippine Hueys and Sokols unload boxes and sacks for relief goods.
Until after the first few days, when the extent of loss had not yet been seen from the outside, Tacloban woke up to death and ruin. In the apocalyptic setting, it brought out the extremes of courage and despair, compassion and crime, fear and the determination to survive—it was as if the city became the underworld of a futuristic movie, its people trapped without food, water, electricity, fleeing to the airport as their last hope out when there was barely nothing there save one or two Air Force planes.
Sitting along the bay, which had been washed out, the airport has since then sprung to a frenzied activity as the focal point of the disaster in the eyes of the world; more than 20 countries offered help when the Philippines itself was not prepared to carry out a disaster response, having only three C-130s, about half a dozen helicopters on hand, and a small Navy.
In the absence of command and control on the ground, an issue raised against the government as the days wore on, Tacloban’s airport and that of Cebu’s air base and later, Guiuan in Samar province, became the vital chords for the relief operations.
Survivors are still looking for their loved ones. Even in the retrieval of the bodies, turf rivalries among government agencies have broken out. The President himself has downplayed the casualty count, but it is now coming out bigger than what he’d said it was. Officially it’s more than 5,000. Sources on the ground say it could be more than 10,000, not wishing to disclose it for the chilling effect created by politics, which could well delay the process of grieving, of moving on.
Those among the typhoon victims who choose to stay in Tacloban continue to search in the hope that their families could come together again. They’d rather stay to watch over their homes, destroyed as they were, to prevent looters from taking the little they’ve got left. Some of the poor prefer to stay because they're used to fate throwing them in any direction and left only with their hard-earned fortitude to sustain themselves.
The Astrodome as Shelter
I saw that in the astrodome, Tacloban’s gathering place for the entertainment crowd where about 300 people were estimated to have drowned when the roof caved in and water gushed in at the height of the typhoon. The survivors made their own shelters around it, moving from the coastal village that wiped out their shacks, starting life anew, collecting whatever furniture they could find in the debris. One shelter had a Christmas tree and a collection of teddy bears.
It was cleaned up for the big show of Manny Pacquiao’s boxing match on widescreen television, to the bigger awe of the children who’d been watching Cartoon Network a few days before that, thanks to a cable company that had a generator.
And there in that neighborhood, they’ve begun to get food other than the standard distribution of relief packs from social workers; they’ve caught a huge harvest of fish from the same water that took away their families, friends, or neighbors. By the crumbled wall, bananas and taros were on sale. (In other streets, small businesses have also re-opened. Lechon is fast selling, a sign moving toward normalcy.)
One man was preparing his lunch from his own small catch of milkfish. He was a fisherman and he was cutting up his fish as painstakingly as any cook making a stew over his improvised grill on charcoal. He spoke plainly, filling me in with the facts of his life after Yolanda: he lost his wife, he lost one of his seven children, nothing of his little home was saved, nothing. He had tried to get his banca but he saw that someone had taken it and he could not take it away from the man who was trying to save his life.
He was 50 years old and he walked from the devastation of his village in an exodus, to find the chaos in the city. He settled by the astrodome where he found a slab of cement to sleep on.
It was the motion of his days that made the tragedy of Yolanda powerful, yet to see such kind of resilience is somehow common in the psyche of many Filipinos. I spent a good deal of time one morning watching a gang of boys—the kind you would see hanging out in sari-sari stores—play a mean game of basketball in a schoolyard. There was nothing unusual there to fathom; it was as it was in the collective narrative of the Philippines.
Across the school, traffic was building up of official cars and trucks by the sports complex where cabinet members held court for briefings and coordination with a multitude of aid organizations, disaster teams, humanitarian groups.
People handling the operations at Tacloban’s airport would jokingly refer to the sports complex in town as ‘Mount Olympus,’ giving a picture of the gap between bureaucracy and the essentials on the ground where ‘we put our boots in the mud,’ as one Filipino officer said. The airport almost resembles a camp: the World Food Program, an Australian hospital, the U.S. Marines, the Philippine Air Force, and a team from the general headquarters in Manila have stationed their own tents to oversee the huge logistics of the relief operations.
By and large, the C-130s from more than a dozen countries were stationed in Cebu’s Mactan Air Base, flying on rotation similar to an airline schedule and its cargo handling, to Tacloban, Ormoc, and Guiuan. A senior military officer from the headquarters in Manila had set it in place along with the help of a 26-year old American systems analyst who has been involved in other humanitarian efforts. ‘Disaster response is like any military operations,’ said Luke Beckman, ‘except that you don’t get shot at.’
The State of Guiuan
On the far side of the Visayas, off the shores of Guiuan in Eastern Samar saw the American aircraft carrier USS George Washington, from where it had its own operation toward the second week of the aftermath, having seven ships at its disposal to bring in personnel, helicopters, trucks, equipment to different parts of the affected provinces.
It’s a twist in history to see them back in Samar that was made the ‘howling wilderness’ during the early period of Philippine-American colonial wars more than one hundred years ago.
Guiuan, a surfing town at the bottom of Samar’s peninsula, was where I had first landed from Cebu a week after the typhoon, courtesy of the Australian Air Force. There a U.S. Marine team had already set up an air controller tent by the airstrip that was built by the Americans at the end of World War II, when General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines as promised, landing on Leyte Gulf where a memorial of his statue remained undisturbed by the effects of Yolanda.
On a slow ride to town, the road was lined with the ruins of the houses, the people seated outside in quiet acceptance, others cleaning up their space, covering their blown-off roofs, or putting back walls of tarpaulins if they could. When I reached the courtyard of the centuries-old Spanish church, which had partly crumbled, I saw them: the children playing volleyball. And when they saw me taking pictures, they stopped and surrounded me, telling me what had happened in their tiny voices of wonderment.
I listened to them until the gray clouds of night covered the town and I had to stay in the police station before curfew struck at 8p.m. To the older ones who told me their stories outside the station, where they had gathered to charge their cell phones and lined up to make free calls, they had never seen anything like it. Slowly they were coming out of the shock, the sheer desperation that had driven many people to do things in the worst of human conditions.
They had prepared as they had been warned, but nothing like this had devastated their lives. Constantly battered by typhoons year-round, more so in recent months, the country has yet to build a system of both risk reduction and disaster response, failing to see a bigger scope of hazard and to identify vulnerable zones that need protection. A government council on risk reduction is too bureaucratic and, in the absence of a comprehensive response, is reduced to doing the body count.
In the small town of Guian, only the weatherman knew what they were up against. He was on the tower watching the storm, which had hit Guiuan first before it struck a bigger path west, crossing Samar, hitting across Leyte toward northern Cebu and other parts of Panay and Palawan. His neighbors thought he was a fool protecting his house.
The sun had been out the day before Yolanda came and many of the villagers thought it was just one of those typhoons that would come and go, as they had experienced for many years. ‘We had no match to the wind,’ said a school principal I talked to before the start of the Sunday Mass that was celebrated outdoors under the full moon, a rare celebration after having survived the storm surge ten days on and getting on with their lives.
Sixty-year old Baby Gaytos and her husband, a professor at the local university, had a good laugh at the priest’s jokes that put them at ease, laughter as coping mechanism. They came along with many of the folks in this town whom the priest says were too strong in spirit to be crushed by this. I could see that and the overwhelming strength that would take for the people in this part of the Visayas to rise again.
When the principal found out I was sleeping on the floor of the police station near the jailhouse, she invited me to stay at her place. It is in gestures like this that touches the heart and wipes away the heaviness of suffering. Part of the roof is gone, she said, almost apologetically. Two walls were shattered, but there’s a home that would welcome me.
If I get lost, she said, the neighbors will tell me where to find her house, in a small village called Hollywood.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.