Medics reach remote island communities which survived on guts and generosity
Islanders stoic, even cheerful, in the face of destruction of their idyllic home
An aerial view of the destroyed island of Homonhon in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Residents of the destroyed island of Homonhon, near Taclabon, offload the first batch of food aid from an army helicopter in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
You could see the sign clearly from the air as the chopper came in. On a square white sheet, perhaps 10ft by 10ft, the word HELP faced skyward.
The plea was on the beach, tied down by lumps of coral and toppled coconut palms. Behind it lay the reason: the remote shoreline village of Habag, idyllic in better times, now pulverised by the typhoon that blasted through the central Philippines on Friday, November 8th.
The choppers were the first to make contact with the villagers since that day 13 days ago. It was the first time anyone had come to see them, come to talk to them, to hear what they needed, to help them beyond the limited, but very welcome, boxes of US food aid dropped by American choppers hovering two to three hundred feet above the beach before disappearing out to sea.
Homonhon Island is in the Gulf of Leyte, south of devastated Guiuan, about two hours by ferry; 15 minutes by helicopter. Habag is on the north of the island, separated from the rest by mountains that are passable only by foot. The walk takes half a day.
First outside contact
Islanders elsewhere had enough to contend with in their own communities, so no one had been to Habag since the typhoon.
The entire community, sick and able-bodied, turned up. They came out of the torn-apart shanty homes that some were trying to rebuild. They came from under tarpaulins and propped-up sheets of corrugated iron, temporary places of refuge.
Some just emerged, ambling along the small tracks winding through the wreckage or along the half-washed-away concrete path that marked the junction between homes and the beach, the only route in this village that was even remotely like a road.
Despite the desperate nature of their situation, almost all were cheerful and all were grateful that their visitors had come. And for the children, the strangers were a wonderful source of fascination and entertainment.
A concrete house beside the community arts centre was taken over by the medics – American doctors Chris Summers and Tim Tan, and paramedics, Phil, Carl, Joe, Jake and Andrew, two local nurses, and a local midwife, Crisanta Gapape, whom everyone liked to call Santa.
With them also were Alex Ostasiewicz of AmeriCares, an organisation that helps the pharma industry supply charities and NGOs; Matt McDermott, a photographer working for her; and The Irish Times.
Three tables were set up beside the house. At the first, Santa took names, the basis of a register. By day’s end, she recorded 130 people being seen by the medics and a variety of complaints, none of them immediately life threatening but many fatal if untreated.