The destroyed pier area of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas
The damage begins 100km from Tacloban, rising in intensity with each passing kilometre until the true horror of Typhoon Yolanda reveals itself in a city reduced to rubble.
The storm spared nobody in this city of 200,000 people. Even the lucky few whose houses still stand have family or friends who lost their lives or their homes in what was the worst natural disaster in the Philippines’ history.
The streets of Tacloban are today a tangled web of rubble, fallen trees, downed electricity cables and the bodies of those who did not survive.
Driving through the city, I saw approximately 100 dead bodies at various locations. The tiny shapes inside some of the body bags and the children’s toys placed on top of makeshift coffins are a tragic reminder that some were simply too young to be able to escape.
Around the world ‘Tacloban’ has become a byword for human suffering. The horrific images from the city have shocked the world into action, prompting a relief effort which is seeing food, water, shelter and other essential items arriving each day onto the island.
What made the suffering in Tacloban worse than in many other affected regions was that as the winds approached the city they brought with them the sea. Speak to people here and they will all say the same thing: they had been warned about the winds but nobody expected the waves. The water gushed in, swallowing everything in its path and dragging homes and people into the ocean.
I spoke with one couple in their mid-70s who were swept from their home by three metre high waves and survived by clinging to the roof of a neighbouring house. Another man spoke of having to swim to the upstairs of his home, clutching his two small children.
A woman I met in a Caritas shelter just outside of Tacloban told how she survived the typhoon and now spends her days searching for her nephew, his wife, his mother-in-law and their nine-month old baby, none of whom have been seen since the storm struck. They lived on the seafront and like everybody else had prepared to batten the hatches to protect against the wind. Nobody expected the waves.
Horror stories such as this are all too common in this city. However, we must remember that across the Philippines there are many Taclobans; millions of lives destroyed, millions of people suffering.
The geographic spread of this disaster has made this an exceptionally complex humanitarian crisis. More than eleven million people across over a dozen major islands have been affected. Communication systems have been destroyed, as have transport routes. Even contacting some islands to assess the level of damage has been difficult.
Despite this, aid is getting in. Each day sees food, shelter and other aid arriving onto affected islands for distribution. Sadly, there is no magic wand for delivering aid. It has to be sourced, shipped and packaged before it can be distributed. But it is getting there, and as the days go by more and more aid will arrive.
The Caritas network, of which Trócaire is a member, has begun distributing food, shelter kits, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. On Sunday I saw the first batch of 6,500 shelters arriving into Cebu, from where they were shipped that evening to Leyte for distribution in Tacloban and other regions affected. Over the coming days and weeks, 38,000 shelters, hygiene kits and household accessories will be distributed.
The damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda is almost impossible to put into words. Entire villages no longer exist; rubble now marks spots where once homes and businesses stood. The clean-up operation alone is almost too big to fathom. In every village we passed we saw people repairing roofs and attempting to rebuild their homes.
The path towards rebuilding these shattered lives will not be easy, but we can at least see that the first steps are being taken.
The Irish Government’s Irish Aid programme has provided €400,000 to support Trócaire’s work in the Philippines.