Typhoon Haiyan: In a shattered town, a family struggles on in the wake of a wave that ripped it apart

Victory Island suffered 100 per cent damage in the storm – but some have lost more than houses

Within the taxonomy of grief and despair, the experience of Maria Alterado and her husband, Benito, must rank alongside few others.

When Typhoon Haiyan raced across the ocean towards their island, 31 members of their extended family hid inside their home, held hands and prayed. A huge wave shattered the building and cast many of them into the boiling ocean. When they hauled themselves out, they realised 12 of them – three of the couple’s children, nine grand children and daughter-in-law - were no longer there.

Their fishing boats were gone so they could not even launch a search. They stood together where their home had once stood and wailed.

“It’s hurts my heart. I cannot think that I have lost them,” said Mrs Alterado, weeping as she sat in the shade offered by a neighbour’s only partly-damaged house.

The Alterado’s home, Victory Island, a fishing community of 750 people, is one of 60 parishes of Guiuan, a town on the eastern coast of Samar island that has earned the uncherished distinction of being a place where 100 per cent of its buildings  have been damaged or destroyed by the storm.

“According to our estimates, the town is 100 per cent damaged,” said the deputy mayor, Rogel Cablao, standing on the second floor of the town hall, whose destroyed walls looked out over a vista of utter destruction. “I think 90 are destroyed. Maybe ten per cent can be rebuilt.”

Though the town was transformed into a sea of twisted metal and splintered timber, the death toll in Guiuan was less than in the city of Tacloban-  four hours away by road through a landscape of wrecked villages and flattened trees -  because there was no real storm surge. City officials say 99 people are listed as dead, 2,669 injured and that 16 people are categorised as missing. All of the missing are from Victory Island.

On the island, 45 minutes away in a narrow wooden boat fitted with an outboard engine, no-one believes those people survived. While the corpse of one of Mrs Alterado’s grandchildren was recovered, she does not even expect to find the other bodies.

There is no graveyard sited on the thin soil of Victory Island and usually when there is a death, the body is taken by boat to the church on a neighbouring island for a funeral mass. Mrs Alterado is having to grieve the loss of her sons Benmar, 40, Billy, 22, and 18-year-old Elimar as well as all of those grandchildren, without even a body to which to say goodbye.

The youngest of the victims was Alyssa, one of three daughters of another son, Albert, who perished. She was just eight months old. Albert survived. When the storm struck, it was the youngest who struggled the most to hold on.

While aid agencies rushed to the city of Tacloban, they have been slower to get help to Guiuan. But that is slowly happening. A number of NGOs, the Philippine government and various UN organisations are now operating in the town.

The US military, meanwhile has been flying in shipments of aid to huge airstrip, which the Americans built at the end of World War II, located on the outskirts of the town. Blackhawk helicopters from the USS Washington along with C130 transport planes have been landing regularly with food water and materials for emergency shelters.

“I think it’s great that is is being used,” said John Patterson of USAid after watching another helicopter being unloaded. “It’s a symbol of the great relationship between the two countries.”


The task of rebuilding the different neighbourhoods of Guiuan will be vast. Officials said they had estimated it would cost at least $160m. During several walks around the shattered city, it appeared the building that had best withstood the force of the typhoon was a holding cell in the police station where half-a-dozen suspects smiled through the bars.

“I have experienced five typhoons but this was the harshest,” said 75-year-old Dellava Cablao, a retired college teachers whose home had lost part of the roof. “Usually the winds are around 200kph or 220kph. But this was 300.”

One of the city’s most precious buildings to suffer harm was the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built alongside the ocean in 1597 and one of the oldest churches in the Philippines. On Sunday evening, as a pink sun set to the west, hundreds of people gathered in front of the church to celebrate mass.

“We are trying to get people onto their feet and to not let them lose hope,” Father Andy Agargo said, after the service. “And to tell them that despite of the catastrophe we are going to remain strong.”

Among his congregation was Rosemary Bernado Aristoso, a mother of four daughters and one son. Two of her children work in the Gulf and for days they were unable to make contact. Asked what would be the hardest thing to overcome, Mrs Aristoso did not hesitate: “The emotional hardship. All my children are traumatised.”

Yet despite the scenes of utter destruction, many, if not most, of the people in Guiuan appeared resilient, determined to rebuild their homes once they had the wherewithal to do so.

At the Guiuan East Central Primary School, which had also suffered extensive damage, the teachers had been showing up every morning, even through they expected no pupils. A half-dozen teacehrs in smart, clean clothes, all wearing make-up, explained that they had come to the school just two hours after the storm struck.

“The pupils have suffered so much, it is important to quickly them them start a normal life after the calamity and resume their innocence,” said Lourdes Guimboliot, the district supervisor.

She said children typicality displayed trauma by getting angry and fighting or crying. The teachers needed tents and school-books to establish temporary arrangements for the school’s 2,600 pupils.

So far a handful of children had shown up for lessons, but with no facilities to offer them, the staff had instead been suggesting the children took a trip to the town’s airport, site of the relief deliveries.

“This is the solution to the trauma,” said Mrs Guimboliot, with a laugh. “We tell them to and look at the long-nosed Americans, the handsome Americans.”

On Victory Island, so named in 1975 after a local governor, there was less optimism. The sea had not only taken their family members and their photographs and documents, but it had also taken most of their boats and nets. Even the fish had gone; the ocean had been furiously stirred up, they said.

Aid had been slow to arrive. Two days earlier a US helicopter had dropped food, water and medicine but other than that, they said, they had received no visitors. [Mr Cablao, the deputy mayor said relief had been delivered to all the parishes, including Victory Island.}

“It is back to zero for us. There is no fishing for us,” said Lorenzo Chavez, the village head. “This is the big problem for us.”

Mrs Alterado and her husband were to dazed to say anything other than a few words. Asked how she might rebuild her home, her life, she said: “I have no money.”

DOCTOR’S DIARY - RICHARD VILLAR

The damage is truly appalling, the injuries are frequently horrendous.. [but] the people are utterly astonishing. So resilient, so strong, so determined. Yet they somehow also have time  to be pleasant. The most common words we hear are: “Thank you for coming.”

It is impossible to overstate the damage in Tacloban – it is widespread and awful. The whole landscape has changed.

Every passenger in our tiny plane fell silent when we emerged from the aircraft. When Typhoon Haiyan came through, this was a visitation from Hell. The smell of death lay everywhere.

There was only one thing any reasonable person could do – assist, assist, assist.

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