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Meeting a monster: First person account

By: - Reporter / @deejayapINQ
/ 12:37 AM November 17, 2013

AP FILE PHOTO

(Editor’s Note: DJ Yap, the Inquirer’s environment reporter, and photographer Niño Jesus Orbeta were the first Inquirer team sent from Manila to cover Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban City. They arrived on Nov. 7, a day before the world’s strongest typhoon landed. His tweet on that fateful Friday morning—“Sounds of glass shattering; hotel guests in lobby, restless, alarmed. ‘Jesus Christ,’ says our fotog Niño Orbeta. ‘Worse than Reming.’”—was the first and last time we heard from them until they sent word through GMA 7 on Saturday night that they made it through the storm.)

The woman’s smile was a ray of sunshine utterly out of place on that dark and desperate Friday.

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She was standing among the ruins of an old church in downtown Tacloban when I chanced upon her, just hours after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: “Haiyan”) tore into the city, sending its residents into the clutches of despair.

Hers was the first true smile I saw that day, the sight of it so unexpected, so jarring, that I found myself asking the one question journalists were supposed to avoid during a catastrophe: “How are you?”

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“We are all right. With God’s mercy we are all safe,” she replied.

Her name is Julita Jaca, and she is 65 years old. She was paying a visit to all the churches in town to say her prayers as her “way of thanking Mama Mary” for saving her and her neighbors.

Along with those neighbors, Jaca had taken refuge on the second floor of their house in a village overlooking Cancabato Bay. They survived, almost miraculously, the ferocious surge of wind and water that flattened entire villages and killed multitudes in the coastal parts of Leyte.

But something was bothering Jaca.

Her 33-year-old son, she said, was reluctant to let the neighbors stay with them and to share the week’s supply of food and water the family had stocked up in preparation for the storm.

“I want to tell my son that it’s not the time to be selfish,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I want him to understand that it is during times like this that we must help others. We should not be selfish.”

Her voice broke then, replaced by quiet sobs.

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For the first time that day, I came close to crying, too.

All day, the Inquirer team consisting of myself and photographer Niño Jesus Orbeta walked the streets of Tacloban, absorbing the scenes of shock, terror, grief and desolation that had engulfed this city of 220,000 people.

Of the emotional stories we documented, it was Jaca’s account, punctuated by smiles and tears, that struck the most strident chord in me.

Here was a mother driven to tears not by the loss of her loved ones or the deaths all around her, but by the erosion of her son’s humanity.

It was at some level a triumph of the spirit.

Orbeta and I arrived in Tacloban early Thursday morning. It was drizzling when our plane touched down in what then seemed to be an auspicious time.

Nothing to worry about

On the way to the hotel, the tricycle driver told us that there was nothing to worry about downtown. “The most it [the flooding] will reach is up to the knee,” he said. We were almost reassured.

“We need to find a solid building,” said Orbeta, who hails from Bicol, one of the places frequently battered by tropical cyclones blowing in from the Pacific.

A lot of hotels downtown were fully booked, with mostly residents of low-lying settlements. We checked in at Asia Stars Hotel on one of the main avenues not far from the Port of Tacloban.

We spent the rest of Thursday surveying the storm preparations around the city and the adjacent town of Palo, where Douglas MacArthur famously landed in 1944.

Residents went about their business unmindful of the ominous clouds on the horizon. It was calm, perhaps too calm.

That night, Orbeta and I discussed our game plan for the next day, Yolanda’s landfall. The expectation was Tacloban would be hit, but not too badly. We were to hire a vehicle to take us to the areas expected to be most devastated from the storm, and we would return to Tacloban to file our stories and photographs.

But as I browsed for weather updates on the Internet and checked Yolanda’s track, I thought, “Aren’t we on the direct path of the storm?”

Coming into Tacloban, we had gathered that Yolanda would hit the “Samar-Leyte area,” and there were indications it would be moving northwest, theoretically hitting Samar more heavily than Leyte.

In fact, my biggest concern at that point was that the storm might strike another area too distant for us to go.

I was very, very wrong.

‘This is a strong one’

At 4 a.m. on Friday, we woke to the howling and whistling of the wind outside, punctuated by what sounded like booms and crashes, of things slamming into buildings, the grating noises of metal hitting metal, of glass breaking and shattering. It was so fierce the walls of the hotel shook lightly.

“Jesus Christ. This is a strong one,” Orbeta said, quickly slinging his camera around his neck to snap pictures of the scene outside. We went to the fire exit on the fourth floor to look through the glass window.

The view was white. Sheets of water were sweeping furiously inland, practically horizontally.

We saw corrugated metal roofing and other things we couldn’t identify flying past. Cars were being dragged through the flooded street. An electric pole was swaying dangerously. The tide was sweeping inward, unbelievably strong, fast.

We rushed out the fire exit, afraid that debris might hit the window. And soon enough, just as we closed the door, we heard the shattering of glass.

A sharp object had pierced the fire exit window, letting the water in and flooding our floor.

What’s going on?

Downstairs, the water had reached the ceiling of the ground floor. Hotel guests were leaving their rooms, filling the lobby, alarmed and restless.

“What is going on?” one whispered.

Conversations were hushed, as though people were afraid of further angering the heavens.

The lights went out.

Orbeta and I went back to our room. Our phones and modems had no signal. The hotel Wi-Fi was no longer accessible. There was no water from the faucet.

I took stock of our supplies: just a 1-liter bottle of water for each of us, a couple small packs of SkyFlakes crackers, a handful of Fudgee cake bars. How are we going to survive on this?

I thought of my family back home. I had not even told them where I was.

I entertained morbid thoughts. Before shutting down my phones and laptop to save on battery, I deleted everything I didn’t want people to find there should I be killed. I felt like laughing at the ridiculousness of it.

I lay in my bed, Orbeta in his. “Many people are probably dying right now,” I said aloud. Orbeta agreed.

In the darkness we listened in silence to Yolanda’s roar.

By 9 a.m., the waters had subsided, but the winds remained strong, and a current still ran through the streets, only this time moving in the opposite direction, back east where the disturbance had come.

From our vantage point at the hotel entrance, we could see children wading through ankle-deep waters, some of them entering shops forced open by the surging water. They were already looting even before the storm had completely blown away.

By noon, we headed out to assess the damage, to talk to people who were affected, to record their ordeal.

First bodies

I saw the first bodies almost immediately. They were of a woman and her young son on a wooden cart being pushed by two men.

I signaled to Orbeta, and he began taking pictures.

I chased the tragic carriage through the main thoroughfare to the small alleys. Everywhere the pushcart went, residents mutely watched, some of them coming closer to look at the faces of the dead.

The two corpses were taken to a village outpost. Then on top of the mother, somebody placed a dead baby that had gotten separated from them.

It wasn’t difficult to spot the woman’s husband and the children’s father. He was weeping on the pavement, a broken man. He had lost his entire family.

This story was repeated everywhere I went in what remained of Tacloban, of mothers and husbands and children, dead or missing. Some of the bereaved had faces so racked with pain I couldn’t bear to watch, let alone try to talk to them.

And those I managed to interview spoke of a heart-wrenching grief.

Len de Guzman emerged, hysterical from a public elementary school that was supposed to be an evacuation center. Her 6-year-old daughter Ellen Shane had died in her arms, drowned as they clung to the ceiling of a classroom, frantically trying to keep their heads above the water.

Bodies were everywhere, under the rubble, on the sidewalks, some covered with blankets, others uncovered, still dripping blood.

Tragedy up close

We didn’t need to look for them. All we needed to do was follow the trail of men and women, dazed, crying, helpless, in the streets.

I had never seen a tragedy this close. My emotions were drained, my mind numb. That was when I met Julita Jaca with her incongruous smile. Maybe it was she who saved my sanity.

Orbeta and I walked for hours that first day, recording harrowing stories and images even as we had no way of transmitting them to our editors.

Our feet were blistered, our backs sore. We returned to the hotel in the evening, spent and hungry.

“We will have to ration our food,” I told Orbeta in jest. We laughed at our meager supplies laid out on the bedside table.

The hotel management had served porridge and boiled eggs to the guests earlier that day, but the porridge was gone by the time we came back. We ate a boiled egg and drank precious sips of water for dinner that night.

The next day, the scene on the streets downtown was postapocalyptic: barefoot residents sifting through trash that remained uncollected, the homeless wandering around, stores looted and emptied, the looters still around howling.

“It’s anarchy,” the owner of our hotel said, expressing his fear that people might soon try to break into the building out of desperation.

Lawlessness had gripped Tacloban, and nowhere was this more evident than in the establishments stripped not only of food and water but practically anything of value: bags, clothes, shoes and slippers, appliances, TV sets, DVD players.

Human nature

The paranoia and panic were contagious. Truthfully, I was feeling it, too. Our drinking water was running out. Our empty stomachs were groaning.

Were we to resort to looting, too? It was unconscionable, but in some ways, understandable.

Was Thomas Hobbes right after all? Was this the true nature of humans without law and without government?

Fortunately, Orbeta and I came across a woman selling bottled water, soft drinks and potato chips from a roadside. She allowed us to buy two big bottles of water and a couple of packs of chips. She couldn’t sell us more, the woman said, as she had nothing else to feed her family.

By our fourth day in Tacloban, we were brimming with stories and images, but with nothing to show for it.

Orbeta was concerned that the longer we stayed there, unable to send our materials, our stories and photos would no longer be usable, overtaken by newer developments.

“They do not even know yet that we are OK,” I reminded him, referring to our editors.

By chance, we met a team from GMA 7 network led by reporters Jiggy Manicad and Micaela Papa. They were on their way to Palo, where they had set up to broadcast live via satellite.

(The Inquirer would later acquire satellite phones to be used by subsequent teams sent to the area.)

We had also wanted to visit Palo, so we accepted the GMA 7 team’s kind offer to join their party.

Heart-wrenching scenes

Palo was 13 kilometers away, and the walk was punishing. My feet bled from chafing. The streets were filled with people carrying all sorts of things taken from stores, anything that could be useful.

Others were looking for their loved ones in the piles of bodies.

Two young men were peering at the faces of the corpses lying in front of a building. I witnessed the exact moment they recognized their dead father.

Tears streamed down their faces, and the older brother could only sit down beside the body, his face crumpled.

It was heart-wrenching.

Palo was just as devastated as Tacloban, if not more so.

The corpses, most of them now in body bags, were taken to a cathedral. They had started to putrefy. Family members stood some distance away.

The somber silence was interrupted by a commotion on the road. Men aboard a moving truck were giving away dressed chickens.

People immediately swarmed around the truck as chickens flew like projectiles from it.

Although deep in grief, the residents erupted with laughter, delighted by the unexpected treat.

A little boy who got a chicken played with it, flapping its wings and clucking his tongue, as he walked home, bringing dinner for his family.

We’re alive

Later that night, toward the end of his report, Jiggy Manicad announced on live TV that we were safe. (One editor, Juliet Labog-Javellana, would tell me later how worried sick she was about us, and how Manicad’s announcement eased her worries).

The GMA 7 team also told us that they were to hitch a ride on a C-130 military transport plane, which was to land in the Tacloban airport early the next morning. Manicad offered to let us come with them, and we gladly accepted.

The news team had also invited a few others who were stranded in Tacloban. They didn’t need to do it, but they did. I am forever thankful to them for their generosity.

On the ride to the airport, in two rental vans, Orbeta and I saw dozens of people, including little children, walking aimlessly in the streets, in the stillness and darkness of the wee hours, against a backdrop of a city in ruins. It was 3 a.m.

Where will these people sleep? What will become of them? Will help ever reach them? I wondered.

What I saw in the broad light of day had been horrible. But nothing prepared me for the night. It was far grimmer, darker, what “nightmare” means, but real.

The buildings of Tacloban will rise again, no doubt, but it will take much longer to heal the people.

Meeting a monster

I am no stranger to monster typhoons.

I’d flown to Mindanao for two Decembers in a row, in 2011 and 2012, to report on the aftermath of Tropical Storm “Sendong” (“Washi”) and Typhoon “Pablo” (“Bopha”), respectively. I covered the devastation inflicted by Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”) on the eastern parts of Metro Manila four years ago.

But Yolanda was the first monster I set out to meet a day before it came.

It was the first one to truly take me out of my comfort zone, to make me fear for my life, and to show me a terrifying glimpse of the nature of people at their best, at their most desolate, and at their most wicked.

I arrived in Tacloban a veteran reporter of disasters, mistakenly believing I had seen it all. I left the broken city humbled and grateful, sure only of the knowledge that I knew nothing at all.

I won’t ever forget what happened there. May it never happen again.

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TAGS: Asia Stars Hotel, Cancabato Bay, DJ Yap, Jiggy Manicad, Julita Jaca, Micaela Papa, Niño Jesus Orbeta, Port of Tacloban, Supertyphoon Yolanda, Tacloban, Typhoon Yolanda, Yolanda aid
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