There’s no waking up from this nightmare
The second night I spent back home in Manila after five days of covering the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban City, I had a bad dream.
A man with half his face gone had me in a choke hold. He was drowning in my waterless bedroom and was clinging on to me.
As I struggled to free myself, I woke up with a start. I ran to my parents’ bedroom, where I spent the rest of the night.
Tens of thousands of Tacloban residents struggled in the deep, black water that washed away their city as a supertyphoon barreled through Eastern Visayas on Nov. 8.
They did not wake from their nightmare.
I saw their bodies lying on the streets, their limbs frozen. Many had their arms reaching out to the sky and their legs bent, as if they were clinging on to something. Most had their mouths agape, tongues out. The bodies were all bloated and blackened.
The sight of corpses became like nothing out of the ordinary to those who survived.
The living, even the children, were no longer frightened to see dead bodies. They simply walked by the corpses. At most, they covered their noses as the smell became worse, as the days went by and the bodies remained uncollected.
Nothing prepared me for this horrifying scene in Tacloban City when I arrived there at 10 in the morning of Saturday, Nov. 9, on board the second Philippine Air Force C-130 flight to land in what used to be Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport.
All the veteran reporters and battle-tested security forces that I asked told me it was the worst disaster they had seen in their lives.
I had been dispatched to Tacloban the day after Yolanda had done its worst. My editors could not contact my colleagues, reporter DJ Yap and photojournalist Niño Jesus Orbeta, who had been sent to Tacloban the day before the typhoon made landfall.
The last the Inquirer office in Manila heard from DJ was his tweet that the strong winds had broken the windows at the hotel where they were staying in.
On a mission
My other mission was to find the parents of our editorial assistant, Rima Granali.
On the night of the storm, a hysterical Rima called me up. She knew I was leaving for Tacloban the next day and asked if I could find her parents for her.
At the Tacloban airport, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas briefed the media on what they had seen so far and what to expect once we reached the city.
Under driving rain, they urged us to work together, as power lines were down and communication was out.
But of course, working together as one group was quite a challenge. In media, competition always kicks in.
But just like in “The Hunger Games,” alliances were formed.
The soldiers quickly set up a command base at the airport. Military medics lost no time in treating the wounded, who had gone to the airport the moment they heard the planes landing.
“We were hit by a storm surge. We need help. Downtown doesn’t look good,”
Dr. Lemuel Gatchalian, an ophthalmologist who lives in the city, told me at the airport.
He had biked from his house in Sagkahan, a downtown district, after hearing that help had arrived.
“Doc!” one man shouted as he ran to us. Speaking in Visayan, the two asked how the other was, if their families were okay. They shook hands and hugged each other.
There was not a single structure at the airport that was not damaged. In one of the rooms that no longer had windows, the bodies of two dead soldiers lay side by side.
Fellow soldiers who had arrived earlier that morning had found the bodies in the ruins of the airport and carried them into the room and covered them with dry cardboard before they were loaded on the next flight back to Manila.
Two other soldiers remain missing to this day.
I saw around 50 people lining up at the airport. Most had gashes on their arms and legs. Some wore clothes that were torn and still wet. They either sought medical treatment or asked for relief supplies.
A number of Air Force Hueys had arrived and government workers began the job of delivering the sacks of relief supplies the aircraft brought downtown. The buzz of the choppers was nonstop. It felt like there was a war and the military was in full swing.
One junior officer told me he was appalled when a government social worker asked the victims to sign a sheet of paper after they were handed their relief packs at the airport.
“I told her the victims’ signatures were of no use anymore. What’s important is they are given food and water immediately. I took the paper and threw it away,” the officer said.
It was a portent of things to come.
I hitched a ride on the Huey piloted by Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Lauro Catalino de la Cruz when he made an ocular inspection of Tacloban City.
The city of 220,000 was utterly destroyed. From the air, I saw people walking among the debris. Coconut trees were either bent or broken. Roofs were torn away. Vehicles were upside down.
Balyuan Amphitheater facing the sea was nearly gone. The only structure that looked unscathed was the Central Bank building near the airport.
There were no superlatives adequate enough to describe what I saw.
We landed at a quadrangle near the Tacloban City Hall. I wore my battle dress uniform as a Navy reservist officer, figuring it might help me hasten my search for DJ, Niño and Rima’s parents. I also wanted to find my classmates from the National Defense College of the Philippines, who live in Tacloban.
Help against looters
The uniform only drew the attention of people seeking help. A Chinese-Filipino businessman who sold phone cards asked me and Maj. Ruben Guinolbay for security against the looters.
“Please, even just one soldier with an M16. I know my shop will be ransacked next,” the man pleaded. We got his name and address.
Truth be told, we weren’t certain if we could get the man any help. But Guinolbay said he would relay the message to the higher-ups.
As I walked along Real Street, hoping to bump into DJ and Niño, two young men brought a crying 9-year-old boy to me.
The boy had gotten separated from his mother, who had joined the looters at the Gaisano mall. I brought the boy to the Tacloban police station, where the base command of the Office of Civil Defense was being set up.
With Globe and Smart down, only satellite phones were working. Smart had set up a desk that provided free calls. I joined the queue. Everyone was given a chance to call until the phones’ batteries went dead.
Every call made was emotional. They cried, they shouted through the choppy lines. I could hear some trying to calm down the person at the other end. Two nuns from St. Paul Hospital called Manila asking for medicines, as they said they were quickly running out of supplies.
Back to primitive age
Communication was my main problem throughout my stay in Tacloban. Without it, all the stories I gathered were useless.
A Bureau of Fire Protection official was right. Eastern Visayas had been thrown back to the primitive age.
To get a message to someone, you didn’t call. You went to him or her, even if it meant walking for hours.
On Sunday noon, I was told by a Malacañang staffer that DJ and Niño were already at the airport waiting for a flight to Cebu province.
It was in Cebu that I got hold of Rima, who told me her parents were OK.
I thought my plan to fly back to Cebu every afternoon to file my stories seemed brilliant. I managed to take a C-130 flight on Sunday and return to Tacloban City on Monday.
By Monday afternoon, however, thousands of desperate Leyteños wanted to leave the province, swamping the C-130 cargo planes.
From then on, I struggled to send my stories to Manila. It was frustrating that with so much material on hand, I could barely manage to send them to my editors.
After the telcos partially restored the communication lines, all the media people using the airport as a base had to climb up to the third floor of the CAAP (Civil Aviation Advisory Publications) tower and deal with erratic phone signal.
But we were still thankful. Having little was better than having none at all.
No sense of urgency
It was more frustrating to see that people were getting hungrier by the day.
Despite the presence of top government officials on the ground, I felt there was no sense of urgency in the response to the really massive need of the survivors.
Yes, I could see how hard they were working. But somewhere along the line, as Gazmin himself admitted five days after the storm, there was a bottleneck that could not be identified.
On Saturday afternoon, I saw small relief bags being distributed to residents of one small village. That was the only time I saw relief supplies distributed to the victims.
“We may have survived the storm but we will die of hunger,” I heard an old woman tell her companion.
But wanting to give the government the benefit of the doubt, I thought maybe I was not seeing the activities in other barangays, where village chiefs had been contacted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
By afternoon on Monday, I still had not seen a semblance of organized relief distribution in the city nor proper evacuation centers or shelters being set up.
Debris was still everywhere. I saw the same corpses, still waiting to be collected.
Something was really wrong.
“People here are scavenging for food and water,” sighed Toto Cinco, whose family owns the Leyte Park Hotel, as we drove around the city on Monday afternoon in his nephew’s car, which luckily survived but not without a lot of damage.
Cinco and his nephews, Jed and Kester, remained in Tacloban to help oversee Leyte Park, where a number of people had sought refuge.
No plan, no system
I was starting to think the bureaucracy was among the things to blame for the slow government response. Officials seemed to be held hostage by it, unable to adjust to the urgent needs of the people.
While the local government hierarchy is an effective system in reaching the people, it clearly was not useful in the aftermath of Yolanda.
If you could not find the barangay heads who could help identify the residents, who could step in? There appeared to be no plan in place.
I recognize that local officials were victims themselves and the national leaders had said there was no functioning system.
But three days after the storm, they should have gotten a grip already. That’s precisely why they are called leaders. They should be the first to get up when everyone has fallen down.
Needed: a leader
Someone quipped that the situation in Leyte province needed not an intelligent leader but a brave one who could crack the whip.
But being on the ground as well, I believe the leader who should rise from this rubble is the one who is brave and intelligent.
The place needed a leader with a strategic mind, someone who can quickly adapt to the situation, think on his feet and not allow himself to be boxed in by the bureaucracy.
The leader should be someone who will quickly acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses on the ground, and would not hesitate to share these with the people so he can easily rally them for support, instead of inviting criticism.
I spent two nights at the airport in makeshift officers’ barracks, a bungalow behind the CAAP tower, with one fourth of the roof peeled away by Yolanda. We slept on plywood boards and wooden doors.
Military officials, including Lt. Col. Paul Barta, the Australian defense attache to the Philippines, slept on these.
I did not have a decent bath for three days and I was wearing the same set of civilian clothes. I could smell myself. But we all joked that we all stank anyway.
I had blisters on my feet. They were painful that I took to wearing mismatched huge slippers. My rain boots were muddied and had holes in them.
But this was nothing compared to what the storm’s victims went through.
On Tuesday night, a downpour forced a number of evacuees to seek shelter inside the officers’ barracks. Many of them were children. A number of officers, including Barta, got up to accommodate the new evacuees.
I gave my bed to a young woman carrying an 11-month-old baby and another little boy in tow. I learned the boy was the young woman’s nephew, whose parents had drowned.
“Now, I will be his mom. I will take care of him,” the woman said.
She said her father, who was with them at the airport, tried to hang on to his sister and her husband as the waves reached the roof of their house. But the strong current washed the couple away.
The little boy laughed as he played with his baby cousin. Obviously, he still did not comprehend the permanency of death.
Cycle of life
You start to fear for all of them. How many would make it out alive?
A few hours before, Maj. Marvin de Jesus, a military medic, informed Navy Capt. Roy Trinidad, the commander of the airport operations, that a man had died at the airport. We could hear faint wailing from afar.
The man had arrived at the airport already looking weak, said De Jesus.
“How strange,” Trinidad told me after arrangements had been made where to place the body.
“Just yesterday morning, someone gave birth here. Right here, we see the cycle of life,” he said.
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