Typhoon Haiyan: 'This is God's punishment'... Rebuilding lives amid the ruins of the Philippines

As the Philippines struggles to deal with the aftermath of the typhoon, survivors survey the wreckage of their  lives, in an atmosphere of decay – and increasing fear

Tacloban

Almost seven days after a storm besieged her city and turned her world upside down, Marie Gloria Troyo sat and recalled how she had saved the lives of her brother and sister – pushing them on to the rafters of a school room and clinging tightly to them for six hours as the winds raged and the sky turned black.

As waters rose around them, she was convinced their time had come, that they were all to die. She was certain her hands would become too cold in the rain for them to be of any use to her. And yet somehow they all held on.

“I could not see anything. It was so dark, even though it was the day,” said the 23-year-old, sitting at the school that had been established as an emergency evacuation centre. “I was just thinking of my brother, Regine, and my sister Fortunata. I could not feel my hands. We were praying and crying and asking God for help.”

A week after Typhoon Haiyan roared through the eastern Philippines, the city of Tacloban is still struggling to cope with the devastation wrought by perhaps the most powerful ever storm of its kind. At its peak, the typhoon’s winds were as strong as 200mph.

Queues of bewildered, bedraggled people crowd at the wrecked airport, desperate for a chance to get out. In the city, thousands gather in the shells of their homes or else in one of two dozen basic emergency shelters established by the authorities.

The streets are lined with filth and garbage and in a number of locations bloated corpses still lie in body bags placed by the kerbsides. In places, it is difficult to breathe without the rot of decay and death catching in the throat. Everywhere people are walking – on the lookout for food, for water and for anything that make things a little more comfortable for them.

The cityscape is a slideshow of the bizarre, sitting alongside the everyday; boats swept high on to dry land, hawkers selling looted cigarettes, young couple pausing to stop and gaze at one another on Avenida Veteranos, a motorcyclist giving a lift to a friend carrying his own motorcycle on his lap.

Perhaps oddest of all was in the city’s MacArthur Park neighbourhood, where every building had been wrecked, every tree denuded of leaves. And yet, somehow, the statue remembering the occasion on 20 October 1944 when General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines, survived largely unscathed. Far in the distance, behind the glimmering frieze of the general and his men, sat a warship, part of the relief mission.

Nearby, in the Philippines Science High School, another emergency shelter, around 3,000 people were camping in the hallways and classrooms, cooking rice and washing clothes. Smoke trailed into the hot morning sky.

The college’s principal, Ray Garnace, said the 250 or so families had no sanitation; people were using the abandoned third floor of the college to defecate. Fearing the spread of disease, he said he had urged them to dig a pit at the back of the building.

Annetta Navarra, wearing a purple T-shirt, was among the thousands of city residents wondering how to rebuild their lives. When the storm struck at around 6am last Friday morning, she went to stay in the house of a neighbour. Her husband, Virgilio, and son stayed at their home, to look after the family business. The storm came, water swept in at the height of a coconut tree and her husband was washed away. A piece of debris hit his head. Her son survived.

“We found him three days after the storm. His body was decomposing,” Mrs Navarra said quietly of her husband. “My son found him. We had to bury him in a rice field.” Did she have a photograph of her husband? “Our house was swept away, there is nothing left – not a single thing,” she said. “All of our clothes were washed away. I just have what some neighbours gave me.”

Like the others waiting in the wreck of the school, Mrs Navarra had been there for seven days. She had no idea how much longer she might have to remain.

She said she and her son had talked of getting some land close to where they had lived and rebuilding, though she said: “I have no life.”.

Last night it emerged that a Briton, Colin Bembridge, 61, from Grimsby, was staying with his Filipino partner Maybelle Go, 35, and their three-year-old daughter near Tacloban when the typhoon struck. The pharmacist, who lives with his family in England, had been visiting relatives.

The authorities have faced criticism that the aid operation has not progressed more quickly. Distribution of food and water only began on Thursday. Aid experts say they would have expected things to have moved faster.

At the same time, they have acknowledged the challenges specific to this disaster. The storm wrought havoc to a huge area, disrupting infrastructure and blocking roads. Many local government employees did not show up for work for a number of days because their own homes had been destroyed.

Officials say 600,000 people have been displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the islands of Samar and Leyte hardest. The death toll, meanwhile, has risen to 4,460, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Some officials have projected that the eventual toll will top 10,000.

President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman, the Information Minister, Ricky Carandang, said that as many as 90 per cent of employees were not available to work in the days following the storms. Yet he insisted that progress was made.

“Every day we are delivering things. We certainly need to speed things up but I think it is better than it was five or six days ago,” he said. “Now the airport is open, there is partial restoration of power, water, cell phone service. It’s a significant improvement.”

Aid experts say that, even at this stage, the priorities for the people of Tacloban and the surrounding area remain very basic – food, water, shelter and sanitation. There is also concern about providing safe areas for children.

“The Philippines is no stranger to natural disasters. There were 20 typhoons this year. Previous responses have been faster,” said Tomoo Hozumi, a Unicef spokesman.

Local people said Tacloban was perhaps 95 per cent Roman Catholic, with just a small number of Muslims. Many people struggling in the aftermath said they believed the mighty storm had been an act of God.

“Oh, there is a God. He saved us,” said 75-year-old Soledad Majos, a mother of nine children, who had spent the last five days in a church that had been transformed into an emergency shelter.

Why, then, send such a devastating storm? “Because there are so many bad people. This is his punishment.”

Doctor’s diary: Richard Villar in Cebu

Orthopaedic surgeon Richard Villar has been deployed as part of a team of 12 emergency British medical staff by the Department for International Development (DFID). He arrived yesterday in Cebu, the hub of the aid effort.

“Twelve hours in an A380 plane is a very long time but nevertheless our travels to the Philippines disaster area are now well under way. Briefing documents have been read, maps studied, and the team is as ready as it can be. There are already several workers in the catastrophe zone who are moving the heavens to ensure we are well occupied as soon as possible.

“Local emergency response efforts are important. Once a relief programme is established, there can be upwards of 500 organisations present. Imagine a stretch of road, say a mile and a half long. Then pitch multiple tents on each side of the road, shoulder to shoulder, each with different insignia for all the different organisations.

“To put it lightly, the situation on the ground is fluid. Lists of our medical equipment, all three metric tons of it, are distributed and I glance through the contents. This is essential as, however qualified we may be at disaster and conflict surgery, a surgical team can only operate with suitable equipment. The kit seems good and there is plenty of it. But it is basic and I can see it is likely we might have to upgrade.

“Our leader reminds us that there are plenty of dead bodies still to be removed, and that many will find this distressing, but in terms of spreading disease, a dead body poses no risk to the living. The winds are also continuing, not as strong as the original, dramatic, perilous Typhoon Haiyan, but still sufficient to cause continuing damage. ‘The winds can blow for up to 16 hours at a time,’ we are told.

“Aid work is very opportunistic. Little is predictable, so you catnap when you can, eat whenever possible and keep your electrical items charged at all times. You can never tell what lies around the corner.”

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