Typhoon Yolanda – First trip into disaster zone
Bruce’s raw experience and comments as he wrote them on his phone as he journeyed back to the north of Manila to preach on 24 November.
Jo and I set off with Andrew and a ton of supplies in the heavily weighted down minibus. We were about 30 miles north of the bridge onto Leyte Island when we started to see damaged banana and coconut palms.
Five miles further on and the countryside looked devastated. It reminded me of the photographs of the flattened trees caused by the huge Siberian meteorite, and the pictures of Kent after the storm of 1987.
Nothing prepared us for what we saw as we turned onto the Tacloban bypass. Immediately we saw drastic damage to trees, roofs, windows, buildings. There was debris in the road and broken trees (big trees not branches, snapped like proverbial matchsticks or thrown roots and all as missiles into buildings) all along the roadside.
A fishing vessel was stranded up from the shore on land. Corrugated tin roofs were wrapped around tops of palm trees. Glass and cables everywhere. Reinforced concrete telegraph poles snapped or broken at right angles. People living in makeshift shelter or with tarps on their roofs. Big aid names in evidence – WHO on tarps, Red Cross white land cruisers, big trucks with “Aid – do not delay” blue-tacked onto inside of their windscreen. Army, police in large numbers.
As we progressed slowly towards Tacloban I felt numb, over-awed by the professional aid resources, overwhelmed by the need. Factories, government buildings, shops, malls all destroyed. We had to turn back as the first route we tried to the centre was blocked by uncleared debris. I felt sick, alienated, and out of my depth. We were told by the police at a checkpoint that there were organisations with tents by the side of the road who would tell us where to go with our aid, but if they were there we never saw any of them. The Lord had His hand on that!
The water had only stayed high for an hour or so and people were now using it as a refuge. There were tents along the waterfront as well. We stopped, took photos and went and prayed with people and heard bits of their stories – but we were upset and their English was not so good. Basically we had not yet become attuned to the situation. We met a Voice of America camera team who told us how the US military had been ferrying them around. We were grateful on their behalf, but it also heightened our sense of inadequacy.
The contact we were expecting from Andrew (our host in country, local expert and translator) in Palo, a town south of Tacloban, had not got on touch, so we felt frustrated, exhausted, let down, and a bit scared. We had a conference and decided to drive south to Palo anyway. We drove through miles of continuous devastation, not really being able to take it in, engage, plan or cope.
The road turned inland, still in a war zone, and stopped at a check point where the police told us we had already passed through Palo. We decided we did not fancy turning back yet and drove on inland and came to a smaller town called Alangalang. It seemed destroyed by wind damage but not the storm surge so seemed as if we might possibly be able to help. (24 hours ago we would have described what we saw as a war zone and considered it terrible – we were so innocent back then).
Outside a badly damaged senior school, Jo ended up chatting to a deputy head by the gate that had come from a meeting saying the head was going to open the school on Monday regardless of how many children turned up, or of whether they needed to teach classes in tents. This was typical of the fighting spirit we saw in so many of the Filipinos. We were then directed us to an AoG. church, whose young pastor was at home and on the roof effecting temporary repairs to enable Sunday services to go ahead. He was very pleased to see us and another pastor who had travelled from a couple of hours away by motorcycle to bring someone to help repair the roof.
Just as we have experienced on trips to Romania, we were all fed before Andrew and the Pastor went off a good chat, the boys went up to help in the roof, and Jo and I went off for a walk. Many of the houses in the vicinity had been flattened with little trace. A minority looked as though a new roof was the only major structural work needed. People were trying to clear up as best they could; children were playing and being nosy all around us. It felt like walking around a gypsy convention!
We stopped and talked or prayed with a number of people and heard their sobering tales of escapes, and of their losses.The side streets of the town were littered with piles of debris and some large tree trunks. The main street had been cleared by the government but nothing had been done for the residential side streets. They were drinking well water and getting basic food from aid suppliers for which they had to queue; the amounts served were very small.
Immediately before the storm, the mayor had fled to Manila by helicopter with his family, and had not returned. The people felt abandoned but were amazed a couple from the UK had arrived and wanted to come into what was left of their homes and chat and pray and encourage them. We visited a badly damaged house, where the lady of the house and her sister invited us to pray for her husband, who was in bed in the house having suffered a severe stroke a few weeks ago and was now very frightened. I held his hand firmly and prayed for healing and restoration. There were immediate signs of recovery which made his wife very happy.
People were generally hopeful, or at least pretended to be. Many had taken refuge in the larger and better built houses when the typhoon hit. They related the incredible noise of the wind, and of being terrified when roofs started to be ripped off and trees uprooted. Many reported great anxiety that their coconut palms (which are an agricultural stable and source of income) have been destroyed. It can apparently take up to 20 years for a coconut tree to become productive…
A significant number of people had died – some reporting five or more deaths in their extended family. Most people had lost a relative or close friend and some had lost many. As we talked, a fuller picture emerged.
Lack of power was a concern and people wondered why nothing was being done about it. Many of the power lines and telegraph poles had damaged properties as they fell. Some shops had been “looted”.
But for the first three days no one came along the road from Tacloban. The shops stopped selling food and water, or inflated the prices massively, so people took matters into their own hands. Cash machines did not work due to the lack of power.
By day three the dead bodies were smelling badly. Locals cleared a path to the main street, and the community leaders suggested that people carried their dead to the corners on the main street. They saw helicopters flying over low but no one stopped or dropped any food. There was no power, and no mobile phones. “We wondered if the whole of the region had been wiped out and whether we would ever get any help”.
By the morning of the fourth day heavy lifting gear and army and aid groups arrived shoving trees aside with large diggers and setting up a new medical clinic in school. Kind doctors from France went door to door – possibly from the excellent Medecins sans Frontieres). Many who had been injured in the first three days had died by now. Severe glass lacerations, and injuries from being hit by flying debits, or being tossed by wind. Some “just became quieter and died.” The French set up a basic clinic, but many continued to die there in the corridors as there was no surgical unit to take the injured to. There were no ambulances and the language barrier proved an additional problem.
Most aid is being directed to Tacloban rather than the outlying regions. Some is starting to come sporadically from Australian and US army personnel, but the lorries only stop briefly before moving on, bringing only a small quantity of sardines and rice for each family. No water is arriving, and the local well water now tastes strange.
The people were actually better off here, however, than in Palo and Tanuan, where we went on the following day, in that they were at least dry with at a bit of a roof over their heads. The dead had been taken away and the injured had at least been seen by a medic, and were either now dead or recovering.
And at least the debris was that caused by the typhoon rather than the black mud from the storm surge. There was no feeling of imminent plague or impending doom. People will have to rebuild from scratch, but they were at least complaining – and that is probably a good sign!
We were drained and exhausted by then but the pastor then took us to the mother church in Palo. where we were welcomed like lost friends. Pastor Cito and his dear wife are experienced, strong, gifted, highly competent, and thrilled to see us. It turned into an international gathering as the missions pastor and his deputy from a 10,000 strong US mega church had just flown into Cebu, and then driven to Palo on a recce trip and another American who was based in the Philippines had driven to Palo with aid. All three teams (including supporting Filipinos) had arrived “by chance” at the same time. We were also joined the principal of the AoG Bible College just across the road.
We heard their stories over supper. Pastor Cito’s own roof had blown off and he decided to form a human chain and make for the church with his extended family. This was a terrifying journey as objects were flying through the air. Then the church roof was blown off and everyone sheltered against one wall. The noise was terrible. When everything eventually calmed down a bit, more people started to make their way to the church..
Pastor and Mrs Cito and their helpers looked after and fed up to 200 people, most of them sleeping in the church building. Many have lost relatives. Still living at the church were two young boys who had been orphaned and a lady who had lost her son and husband. The internationals explained their background and I sent emails to UK and US navy contacts to try to procure lumber and tools and workers from the ships in the bay.
We also promised to seek help from the UK and USA for the devastated college. Closer to the shore, the storm surge had caused much devastation
We chatted to a bunch of young teenage girls sitting in front of the broken MacArthur memorial whose home and possessions have totally disappeared. They are sleeping either in a badly damaged school. One of them eventually asked a burning question: “Why is it that our brave friends are gone, and us scared ones who stayed indoors in the shelter are alright? It’s not fair – they were braver, stronger, prettier and had more friends than us.” They were keen to pray and they did so movingly and touchingly. One, in tears, prayed for Jeline, “who Mum says has gone to sea on a long trip and won’t be coming back”.
I suggested we mentioned out loud all the names of those they knew who had died. A large number of names spilled out of their young mouths, including one girl who simply said “my Dad, and my brother and sisters,” at which anyone who still had dry eyes started crying. I closed with a prayer and suggested that everyone hug each other.
One of them bravely stood up and came closer to me and asked why I spoke about dying when the adults don’t speak to them about it. I told her she had no need to fear death and that if she looked for Jesus now on earth she would see Him when she died. She said she wasn’t good and wouldn’t go to Heaven. I told her to read Mark in the Bible and to go to see Pastor Cito at the building down that street with the huge poster. We prayed the simplest, gentlest prayer of faith together.
I then went to talk to the US Marine who was overseeing the desalination plant and heard his story of emergency deployment from Okinawa with trucks pre-loaded into C130s.They had helicoptered in engineers with kit to do a first sweep of the runway but he had volunteered to be on the “first transport in – ie: the one most likely to hit debris. He was part of a squad of six with a Major who had driven straight to the park from the airport. They had “blown up” a few huge coconut trunks rather than cutting them up.
We deployed the bladders and water cleansing kit we had brought with us, surrounded by a crowd of people, including the local MP. The Mayor turned up with the head of public health for the city, who drank the first cup of water so that everyone could see it was OK. The kit has been running at full capacity ever since.
Pastor Cito then suggested that we drove south to Tanuan where the storm surge had had maximum impact and where little aid had so far reached. The further south we went, the worse it got. I can’t begin to describe it. The fact that it was raining merely made everything worse.It was more hellish than any medieval painting. We stopped a number of times to talk, encourage and pray with people – sometimes Jo and I together, sometimes separately. We listened intently to their stories, soaked our clothes under their leaking roofs, prayed for the injured, loved them and tried to be positive. I often looked up at the crooked and broken roof above me and thought this could all come down on my head any moment!
One lady in particular I will never forget. She showed me her daughter aged 23 lying on a soaking wet bed. Her one room which had not collapsed had six separate streams of water falling into the room. She told me her son-in-law and two grandchildren were washed away by the waves. A few moments later she had grabbed the metal pole outside her back window and her daughter held onto her other hand but a car hit the corner of the building and the roof came down and hit her daughter hard – and then suddenly both of them were stuck beside the bed so tightly that the water just kept washing over them, and it was so cold and bitter. She put her daughter on the bed and they talked and slept and talked. Her daughter was hurt in her chest but she couldn’t carry her to the clinic. She asked people walking past for help but I was the only one who had come in. But I was too late, and her daughter stopped breathing.
The mother went outside and told a policeman who said he was very sorry and took her name and said a truck would come for her daughter soon. She wanted a photo taken of her being strong so people could see that what was happening in Yolanda. I closed her daughter’s eyes and as I did so noticed water was falling on her cheek from the roof. I prayed, then asked mum what she was going to do now. Once the truck had come she said she would go outside and see if she could help her friends – there was nothing left for her.
We stopped again at a point of unbelievable devastation. The sickly sweet smell hit us as we got out of the car. We walked down a side road towards the sea. A little way down between the last two houses left standing lay an incomprehensible amount of debris about five feet deep and perhaps 500 feet long by 1500 feet wide fronting the sea. A handful of men were standing on top of it, searching through the rubble. It was raining really hard, and I was invited to go into the house where I met a couple in their 50’s. They showed me the damage to their house. Half the roof was off, and muddy water five feet high had swept through the ground floor. They had fled to their neighbour’s house as the wind raged but before the water surged in. It had been a very dangerous walk because of objects flying through the air, and the water being so cold and slippery.
Clinging to each other, when they got upstairs next door they could see water up to their roof, outside (perhaps 20 feet deep) but 5 feet inside. The man had shut the door and locked it against what was then perhaps six inches of sluggish water. They spoke excellent English. They reported an earthquake followed by rising water then a series of perhaps five big incredibly strong waves, the first of which nearly caught them out. There was loads of airborne debris, spray, and howling crashing noises.
We were impressed by their resilience. We agreed with them that a tree just outside the concrete high wall between their property and the large area of debris had saved them. The tree was smashed hard against the wall and had become enmeshed with the reinforcements of the partially split wall. They were very worried about disease and wanted the municipality to clear the debris fast. The lady told Jo that when it was silent at night they could hear people crying for help from under the huge debris pile. We gave them what we could as a gesture.
It was still raining really hard, so I went across to a neighbour’s house. The man was working with a crew to release his car from some rubble. He had already told Jo his story, and wanted us to meet his family and to repeat it for me. He told me he was certain (because of the smell) that there were bodies buried in the huge field of debris. It turned out he was head of electricity distribution for the town, and related closely both to the mayor and to the head of the local army group. We talked about the electrical short term needs and promised to put him in touch with an electrical engineer working in the same field.
We met his family including his daughter who was dressed in pyjamas – of whom more later. Their escape: they had a number of family members sheltering with them. As the waters started to rise they realised there were trapped so the dad smashed a small window above the kitchen worktop and got everyone out. They carefully waded in a chain (or carried) people to the bottom of the steps. Grannie at the top, farthest from the water but sheltered from the gusts, then the next weakest and finally the fit big men at the bottom, all holding hands. Despite the surging waves and debris they all survived the waves rushing in, and the suction going out.
The daughter told us she had an aunt in Amersham and we promised to make contact. Then she told us her story: she and her husband evacuated to a gymnasium because their house was poor and near the sea and her dad had heard the warnings at work and on the news so he insisted.
She was one of the first there but eventually about 100 people congregated there. As the wind howled, she became concerned about the state of roof, especially when she heard roof studs popping.
She is a natural leader and moved everyone close to the office which provided more shelter than the open floor. She put as many of the more vulnerable people into the office and shut the door, before making the others squeeze together in a cluster around the two outer walls of the office. The roof did in fact blow off, showering all below with debris. Almost simultaneously the glass doors exploded inwards and water rushed in like a plug hole going round and round. She shouted for everyone to grab hands before they were all swept up in the swirling water. They went round and round higher and higher, forced upwards and round and round by the current of oily filthy smelling black water. (It turned out that the food factory next door had been inundated).
Then the water reversed and they were swirled round and round the other way until finally dumped on the ground in the mud and muck, as the water swept back out to sea, Remarkably, they were all fine apart from minor cuts, bruises and shock. People trapped in the office were rescued by breaking down the door. Only a few inches of seeping water had seeped onto the floor! Tragically, as they were leaving the gym, an old lady slipped and fell and died.
Meanwhile, the boys started working on clearing part of the side road so that the dad would be able to get his car out. Before that Andrew clambered up the side of the debris field and walked across to the men digging and sorting through it. They admitted they were searching for money. He asked about them finding a dead body. They hoped they wouldn’t but said that if they did they would call someone else to deal with it. The stench was very bad.
Back at the house, because of her connection with Amersham, I mentioned that we had met the Mayor of Watford at Soul Survivor, and that he had specifically asked to be connected to the Mayor of a town that needed help. We set off to find the local mayor immediately, walking in what was now a light drizzle, with this young lady clad only in her pyjamas. No one noticed or thought this odd, apart from me. This is a war zone.
It was quite a walk. We discovered that the mayor and his helpers, including the local military, had taken control in the face of everyone standing around dazed and shocked and weeping. The word was put out that the wounded would be cared for at the Municipality, “if you can get them here”.
Utterly overwhelmed, he ordered two soldiers to prepare the only dry area in the building as a field hospital by binning all the paperwork, chucking desks out of windows and putting plastic sheets all over the floor. Engineers arrived to rig lights for when some generators turned up. Decisions were made as to who was going to be taken to the dry medical area for treatment and who was to be left in the damp corridor or big hall to die. Women in labour were laid flat and given a big slug of whisky to slow things down. All relatives remained downstairs in the wet; only those for whom something could be done were allowed by the nurse into the prepared area. Many died within the first twenty four hours. Doctors from California arrived in the evening of day 3, and helped to prioritise cases quickly.There was no money available to buy petrol on the black market for a generator, so there was only power for five hours a day. Promises of supplies from Tacloban were not forthcoming. So I immediately commited to pay £3000 for this so that care could continue for one week on a 24/7 basis. Cash for receipt (on official headed paper) was signed by the Treasurer and photographed. The mayor himself was charming and easy to do rapid business with. He defines priority quickly and efficiently.
I made this pledge by faith!
We returned to the church to check that water was flowing properly through the purifiers. I was tearful after the morning’s events, but discussions led to change of plans. Jo remained in Palo for church on Sunday and to help prepare for large scale medical clinic and aid event from Monday to Wednesday, while I would to go north with Andrew and the boys. We had taken about a ton of aid down with us, so the minibus was much lighter going back and ran better. ETA was midnight Saturday and then to prepare materials for SSW, SLIC and local church (9am) and to speak at the conference.. I would also buy a chainsaw for the church) and a generator (for the mayor) in Cebu on Thursday when he flew down. I am to be met by local pastor, go shopping, be taken to ferry and then meet someone from the church in Tanuan.