EAST SAMAR, Philippines — It’s been five days since mega-Typhoon Haiyan stampeded across the Philippine central islands, leaving hundreds of thousands stranded without shelter, desperate for food, medical care and other vital relief.
Yet aid has only just started trickling in. While media attention has focused on destruction and looting in the provincial capital of Tacloban, the situation is particularly dire here in the more remote areas along the eastern coast.
Haiyan, which made landfall on Friday with winds exceeding 170 miles per hour, wrought destruction across the central Philippines. One of the strongest typhoons on record, the Philippines government currently reports a death toll exceeding 2,000, a number that could climb substantially.
So far, most of the casualties have been recorded in Leyte and Samar, the islands first hit by the storm. But here in isolated East Samar areas such as Hernani and Guian, supplies and relief workers have been slowest to arrive.
On a drive through East Samar, GlobalPost witnessed the region’s grave status.
The Pacific coastal village of Hernani is now completely unrecognizable. All structures, concrete and wooden, have been completely flattened. Nothing remains except beams.
One resident, who identified himself as Ronaldo, survived along with his family of eight by swimming when the 30-foot wave washed through their neighborhood. They are now working to rebuild the lives they once had, hammering together a house out of storm debris. With aid in short supply, they ration a bowl of coffee sachets, instant noodles and stale rice.
When the storm approached, 73-year-old Roban Isip, who owned a beautiful house by the sea had chosen to be evacuated to the nearby municipal hall. That flooded as well, but at least he was safe. All that remains of his house is the floor and one beam, from which his clothes — his last remaining possessions — hang drying.
In Batong, a neighborhood of Hernami, only six out of the 192 households are still partially standing. The others have been reduced to rubble, which typically reaches two-stories high. “The houses were built very close to each other so when the wind and water came they all fell like dominos,” said resident Sonia Bagwang.
So far, Batong residents have counted eight dead and 35 missing, out of the total population of 784. The villagers are slowly clearing up the rubble, where they expect to find the missing corpses.
“There used to be lots of foreigners here. It used to be such a beautiful place to swim and play on the beach but now no one goes there. The children are too scared to swim.
“This place now has no life. Neighbors steal from each other. But our community is doing a good job in helping each other out,” said Zokia Pangilinan, a Batong resident.
Melchor Margal, mayor of Salcedo, another village along the East Samar coast, reported 31 casualties including the missing. “I’ve just counted the missing as dead now as its already been four days,” he said.
In the village, which has a population of 20,358, nearly all of the 5,000 houses were demolished. According to Margal, two sub-villages of Salcedo have been completely leveled. They now sit under about 1,000 feet of sand.
“At times like this it is hard to keep your head. I do small things like wash my clothes to keep my mind sane,” he said.
At this point, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: When will the aid get here?
The global outpouring of empathy has been enormous. Twenty-three countries along with a number of international organizations have already sent shipments of assistance to victims, and even more major international relief teams are expected to arrive in the coming days. As roads are cleared of debris and runways become accessible, locals hope that the wait will soon come to an end. But for now, each hour seems an eternity.
Patience runs out
Progress has even been sluggish in Tacloban, the capital of Leyte, which suffered extreme damage and a high number of casualties. In some areas, the Philippines’ cherished solidarity appears to be at work. In others, survivors riven by hunger and thirst have resorted to looting, or to waiting in endless queues at the local airport in hopes of fleeing.
“I heard three days ago that aid had arrived in the city but we haven’t received anything,” said Cora Cabioc, a Tacloban resident. “So far the only aid I’ve received has been from people from the good of their heart. This morning I received a bag of rice from a Chinese businessman and this afternoon I received a care packet from Wilmers grocery store,” said Alfred Romualdez, mayor of Tanauan, which is about 6 miles from Tacloban.
“People are reporting that the situation is good but it really isn’t. In Tacloban we need water, more medicine supplies and food and that is in Tacloban alone. There are bigger issues in the rest of East Samar,” said Ryan Jopia, head of the Department of Health (DOH) with the Red Cross Philippines.
While Tacloban struggles, the damage and destruction in the villages of East Samar and the isolated peninsular of Leyte remain largely unaddressed.
Despite aid rushing to the Philippines from various donors around the world, and despite ships and aircraft sent to help, damaged local infrastructure and persistently bad weather are hindering relief distribution.
In East Samar, roads leading to destroyed settlements are either blocked by landslides and fallen trees, or are inaccessible.
Philippine Interior Minister Mar Roxas said that some relief supplies were beginning to arrive at the Tacloban airport, but added, “they could go no farther because debris was blocking the roads in the area.”
Meanwhile, the locals are improvising. In Hernani, the municipality has set up temporary hospitals to replace those the storm destroyed. Residents are walking for hours to seek help from the only medical facilities in the vicinity. Two fire trucks from the village of Borongan have been carrying water to the “barangays” (sub-villages) in the vicinity.
Workers from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) have been making the rounds to assess the damage and have been bringing some supplies with them. Military C-130 flights have just started to fly into the coastal town of Guian in Leyte to deliver food and aid.
Christopher Gonzalez, mayor of Guian, formerly an idyllic destination for foreign surfers, said on Tuesday a C-130 delivered 260 bags of food. “But that’s not enough to feed 30,000 households,” he said.
And as word has spread of aid arriving in Guian, mayors from nearby villages arrived personally to collect supplies for their people. “It’s hard to keep peace and order here. People from nearby villages are looting and most of the police have their own concerns to take care of,” said Margal.
While aid from Red Cross International has been stuck at the ports and has only recently been making its way to the affected provinces, local Red Cross volunteers have improvised.
“We’ve been bringing used clothing and food which we’ve solicited form the nearby villages and have bought food from our own expenses. We’re expecting the supplies from Red Cross International to get here in the next couple of days, but we can’t sit back and wait that long,” said John Ang, a Red Cross Volunteer from Borongan.
Guian reports looters coming in from nearby villages to raid the biggest shopping mall there. A security guard was allegedly killed, along with two other civilians in a stampede to get to the food. In response, President Benigno Aquino has declared the city a state of emergency, augmenting the number of army and police presence.
Philippine Red Cross head and political personality Richard Gordon admitted to the press that the Red Cross deliberately “slowed the delivery of relief goods” due to the ongoing looting. His agency had already ordered 10,000 body bags, but he stated “we do not know how many people have been washed out to sea.”
Life in a limbo
As aid trickles in, the towns along the coast of East Samar — where schools, shops and even banks have been destroyed — continue to remain in limbo.
“The nearest place to buy food is about 3 kilometers [1.9 miles] away but even if you had money in a bank you can’t withdraw because the ATMs are down,” said Atty Clarence Cherreguine.
Residents aren’t expecting electricity or a cellphone signal anytime soon. “We currently don’t have power and we’re fortunate if it returns in three months. All of our power cables are down,” he added.
Left to fend for themselves, the villagers have been compiling lists of the dead, missing and injured. When they find bodies, they bury them on their own. Rico Bano from Hernani gathered his friends to bury his brother, who had died during the storm, in the demolished local graveyard. Lacking a coffin, they used cement to provide him with a proper burial.
As a reminder of how intrinsic typhoons are to this Pacific nation, past the cemetery stands the ruins of a Spanish colonial church, destroyed by a typhoon about a century ago, according to the local residents.