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Day Twenty-Three – Typhoon Yolanda

Submitted by on December 1, 2013 – 3:26 pm
A 92-year-old man survived typhoon Yolanda by climbing up the hill behind his house

It’s hard to believe that it has been 24 days since super typhoon Yolanda struck. The streets outside my pension house are still a mess, filled with debris and garbage. All the vehicles dumped there by the floodwaters are still there blocking the roads. I guess these streets are not a priority, as they don’t lead anywhere in particular or connect anything important.

I don’t think I have much to say about my experiences yesterday. I set out fairly early from the pension house with my usual tools – camera, lenses, extra battery, crackers, and an umbrella. I walked first up to the Leyte Park Hotel just to see what is going on up there. I had had a slim chance of staying there long ago. The free room they offered me turned out not to exist, and I’m very glad of that. It has been far more interesting and convenient to stay where I am. And I imagine that the free status of my room at the Leyte Park Hotel would not have lasted long. I’m surprised now that I even made the attempt to move there. The atmosphere was different back then, though. It felt like the city was sinking and sliding into utter violent chaos. At least that is what everyone was telling me, and I was in this pension house by myself with no way to safeguard myself or my belongings.

The fancy hotel looked quite different yesterday. The presence of the Philippine Red Cross had grown much larger. It seemed like a Red Cross convention. A tent village had sprung up on the grass around the front of the hotel. And there were some small generators operating here and there, so some people at least had power. A café had even reopened, though in a very small way, serving only bottled drinks and coffee. I’m so addicted to sitting down at a table and drinking coffee that I almost took a seat and indulged. There were a few foreigners around doing important things on fancy laptops, and I was intensely curious about them all – which organizations they were with and what they were doing. However, there was no opportunity to approach any of them.

From there, I made my way back to the shoreline past the hotel and near the hospital complex. This street, too, was completely transformed. Its entire length on both sides now consisted of tiny sari-sari stores and little shops selling purified water and hot coffee. The shoreline was still just a mass of tumbled down concrete and debris. I walked along it until I came across one older man sitting on a chair outside a little tent home. His actual home had been right where his tent now sat. This has become something of a common experience for me. I’ll come across someone sitting or standing somewhere, and I’ll ask them where their home used to be. And they’ll point right at the ground at the pile of debris under our feet and say, “Right here. This was my house.”

This man’s name was Arnold. He pointed to the hospital building behind us – a four-story structure – and he said, “That building saved my life.” He and his family took refuge in it when the storm surge hit. I assume that the fence was still standing at that time, and I wondered how they made it over the fence. From what he said, it sounded like the water had already risen to such an extent that they pretty much floated over the fence and then found a way into the building and up out of the water. Arnold was a musician, a keyboard player, and he said that all his instruments were washed away in the flood. He listed his keyboard, guitar, and saxophone among others. He didn’t manage to find them among the debris after the storm.

I found Seawall and Anibong looking very different as well. Many more homes and other rough structures had been completed since my last visit two or three days ago. It was beginning to look almost like its old self, and I had to walk down a narrow cement path with wooden walls on both sides. People were busy hammering and sawing all around me using whatever material they could scavenge. They’d all spent a long time hammering old nails out of boards and had big bags of rusty, bent nails of assorted sizes and were using these to hammer together their new homes. From an urban planning point of view, the ideal thing to do would be to not rebuild Seawall and Anibong at all and simply relocate all the people. But that is an impossibility given the lack of resources. The people were simply being allowed to rebuild their squatter dwellings exactly where they had been before the typhoon. Everyone knew where everyone’s house had been, even when they were just built on stilts over open water.

People were friendly, as always, and I snapped a few pictures to the cries of “One shot! One shot!” I was often too far away for the pictures to be of any use, but it always made them happy. Perhaps they thought I had a super-telephoto lens on my camera.

There has, however, been a shift in the tone of the overall population – one away from normal adults and towards unruly teenagers. I think a high percentage of the adults have left Tacloban. These poorer teenagers had no option to do that and they were left behind. A newcomer to Tacloban might be forgiven for thinking that Tacloban was made up of dozens of street gangs. These teenagers dress in a very strange and colorful fashion with cheap plastic sunglasses and earrings and elaborate hairdos. They walk and stand and move in that slouching aggressive teenager way and the effect is somewhat hostile. Of course, I could be reading the signals completely wrong. They could be wholesome kids straight out of Happy Days, but I don’t think so. Many of them have managed to come up with bottles of glue despite the typhoon and were clearly a bit out of their heads. They were babbling and shouting and acting strangely with their noses deep into these glue bottles. I saw many using nostril inhalers – the kind you use for cold remedies. They filled them with glue and then stuck them straight up into their noses and sniffed hard. I don’t know what it feels like to sniff glue, but I imagine it takes you out of your reality just a little bit, and they probably like that.

I heard the same complaints about the lack of relief and aid from almost everyone. I’m not entirely sure, however, how to take those complaints. Since the typhoon, I’ve become more accustomed to a Filipino habit of exaggeration – a seeming desire for excitement and extremes. They eagerly embraced every bit of bad news and added to it and passed it on until the rumours of unbelievable horrors were flying everywhere. I hear all these claims of no food and no water, and yet I do see food and water almost everywhere – the same pots of rice are cooking over the same wood fires that I’ve always seen. One group of men bent my ears for about fifteen minutes about their horrible corrupt government and how no one was doing anything to help them and how they had no food and nothing to drink. Yet, they were sitting underneath a tent shelter with several cases of large 1-liter bottles of Red Horse beer and were well into their fifth or six bottle. That isn’t to say that anyone is living the good life in Anibong. They are still people crowded into small wooden shacks over disgusting stagnant muddy lagoons with no electricity, no running water, no bathroom facilities, and on and on. I would go crazy in that situation – eaten alive by mosquitoes and tormented by flies, having to go to the bathroom in exposed little platforms over the ocean, sleeping on the hard wooden floor, bathing outside, having to get all your water in buckets, etc. But there’s a fluidity to life here that an outsider can’t really understand. You can’t take things at face value.

I walked as far as the large ships that had been washed up onto land. And there I was told that there were even more ships up the coast. I had no idea how far up the coast, but I found that the road there was cleared and I kept walking. In a short time, I found myself in a brand new area of destruction with three more ocean-sized ships washed up on land. I had had no idea they were there until then. No one else had mentioned them. I walked around them and took some more pictures and chatted with various people, including a 92-year-old man. He spoke English to me, but we didn’t manage to get a conversation going. I learned later that he was completely deaf. I took his picture as probably the oldest typhoon survivor. To survive, he had had to flee his home along with his family and climb up the steep hills directly behind his house. That must have been a struggle.

I walked all the way back into town along the main road – now almost completely cleared. There was much more activity in Tacloban as more and more stores are partially opened and more people are selling things on the street. I found myself frustrated in my attempts to cross many of the streets as there was never a break in the flow of traffic. I made my way to Mark’s house to drop off one of my camera batteries for recharging. Mark wasn’t home, but his brother the engineer was there, and I left my battery there intending to pick it up later or the next day (today). I also stopped at Hayward. Manny wasn’t there, but I was invited inside and I sat down and had a warm can of beer and a bottle of warm orange soda. Then it was off to the pension house. I reviewed some of my pictures from the day and found them quite boring. I was focusing on the rebuilding effort and so I took lots of pictures of men hammering together new houses. But without the context of the typhoon, they are just pictures of people building houses. I also took more pictures of the destruction, but they just struck me as pictures of piles of rubble. Not very interesting. It got me thinking that it was time to leave Tacloban. I just have to get my bicycle roadworthy first.

I haven’t managed to touch base with Dan, and as far as I know, the Bohol bicycle shop still wasn’t open. I had seen some people passing bent wheels through a narrow gap in the steel shutters, but I thought they were just doing favors for friends. But Mark’s brother said that they were open. They just didn’t want to open their doors wide. So in order to get service you had to stand in line at that narrow gap. It was too late to go back, though, and since today is Sunday, I’ll have to go back on Monday and see if I can get the repairs started.

Today will be something of a housekeeping day. I don’t feel like doing any photography, and I have to wash my very disgusting sheets and pillowcases.


Day Nineteen - Super Typhoon Yolanda
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