Chris Weeks, from World Vision United Kingdom, describes his first experience of the devastated city of Tacloban in the Philippines. Now two weeks after the storm hit, relief efforts are well underway and reaching the survivors that need them while the people of Tacloban are finding the strength to begin rebuilding their city.
My sole memories of Tacloban are from the last 24 hours. Anyone who’s seen the city, two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan ferociously tore it to the ground, will never forget it.
Unlike most of my World Vision colleagues here in the Philippines, I never knew this vibrant and cultural place before the storm. One of my co-workers – fighting back tears – tells me she used to go ballroom dancing here. Nor did I ever see its backdrop of beautiful green hills.
The Tacloban I arrived at yesterday was an endless, jumbled wasteland dotted with ragged tents and piles of debris where homes once stood. Its unsightly mass emanates a putrid and unforgettable smell. And the once-lush hills that hugged the city are now barren and scarred.
Just minutes from the airport, I saw new body bags at the side of the road with a child’s doll placed on top. Bodies are still being discovered in the debris strewn along every street.
This detritus looks like broken palm trees and foliage. But when you get closer, you see it’s a flattened jumble of humanity itself. As well as rubble between the splintered branches, there are battered books, clothes, broken bits of furniture, smashed up motorbikes, and household appliances now compressed into the mush.
The stories we’ve been hearing as we walk from village to village are heartbreaking. But they also demonstrate the unbreakable spirit of Filipinos on Leyte Island.
As we edge along the outskirts of Tacloban, a 37-year-old man named Leo comes out to tell us that his mum and older sister were swept away by the 15-meter waves. Their bodies are in a large pile of debris right in front of us – but he can’t get to them. He shows us a picture of 39-year-old Irene, gesturing toward the pile and repeating to us: “My beautiful sister.”
Next door, in this village called Salvacion, my colleague meets four-year-old Hannah – the sole survivor of three children. Similar stories are heard from nearly every family along this coastal stretch.
The true number of victims is still unknown. In a neighboring settlement, we find a mass grave where nearly 400 people are being buried next to a smashed-up school. 300 people are still missing – under the debris across the road, we’re told.
As the media is reporting, aid is getting through and many survivors are starting to consider the future. While the devastation is still plain to see, scores of aid agencies are here and, along with World Vision, we’re coordinating the effort to transport food, water, and shelter to those who need it most. The task seems overwhelming, but trucks are rolling and supplies are reaching people.
My colleague Cecil Laguardia – a seasoned emergency specialist from the Philippines with 15 years of experience – was shocked to see, as she arrived in Tacloban 72 hours ago, that some people were standing motionless amid the debris looking dazed, somehow unable to process what had happened two weeks earlier.
Just days later – while acknowledging the untold scale of the devastation – the mood seems to have shifted slightly. Families we met, while still grieving, are mustering strength to rebuild their lives.
For many, that means staying put in the Tacloban they know and love, come what may, and playing their part in the collective effort to somehow resuscitate an entire city.
They know the task can be done – and that the city will become a symbol of the indomitable Filipino spirit that has been demonstrated to the world time and again.
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