Work begins on clear-up of Philippine typhoon devastation

Roads are being cleared, food and medical supplies being distributed

Filipinos carry boxes with aid from the US relief organisation US Aid in a remote village near the eastern Samar town of Guiuan yesterday.  Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Filipinos carry boxes with aid from the US relief organisation US Aid in a remote village near the eastern Samar town of Guiuan yesterday. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters


The scale of what has happened here is brought home very visually from the air. A journey from Cebu to the narrow peninsula on southeast Samar, on which sits the town of Guiuan, shows it all so clearly.

Most of the island of Cebu escaped the worst of what Typhoon Haiyan threw at the central Philippine islands over a week ago, save for the northern tip. But the neighbouring islands of Leyte and Samar were hammered.

Splintered matchsticks
The US Air Force Dornier 328 follows the coast of Cebu as it heads initially north. Looking down, the dense tropical vegetation that covers the landscape blankets it like a snug eiderdown of sphagnum moss. But passing over Leyte south of Tacloban, the landscape below looks almost naked.

Some vegetation has survived, but it is little more than splintered matchstick stumps of coconut palms, snapped by the storm.

It is the same looking down on southern Samar and when the Guiuan peninsula hoves into view, it’s the same again only much worse. As the aircraft drops onto the town’s tiny airstrip, it passes over shoreline communities that simply are no more. All that is left are the smashed remains of homes, a flotsam of debris.

The Dornier is rigged out to carry passengers at the front, with the rear reserved for cargo. However, instead of 18 passengers up front, there are only a few of us. . . and 828 bottles of water. The rear contains many more, but what our little plane is carrying is nothing to what is now passing through daily – in and out – of the tiny airstrip.

Relief supplies
On a raised bank at one side of the runway, a makeshift air traffic control has been set up by the Americans, red wind sock and all, as a steady stream of big lumbering C130 transporters bring in supplies – mostly food, water, medicine and tarpaulins, the means to create temporary shelter.

An equally steady flow of H60 helicopters and Ospreys – the strange-looking fixed wing vertical take-off transporters that are a sort of marriage between a plane and a chopper – ferry the aid around the peninsula and further north into Samar proper.

Despite the near-deafening noise from all the aircraft, a big crowd of local people hang around the airstrip, the greatest show in town . . . and certainly better to watch that what’s in town itself.

Sadly, it is the familiar battlefield landscape of smashed homes and wrecked communities, of people sitting hunkered down at the entrances to what once were their homes, of people seemingly wandering the streets not entirely knowing where to start.

But work is being done. Most roads have been cleared and work parties – civil defence, police, military and volunteers – are making steady progress. A street market selling locally caught fish, as well as fruit and tinned goods, is back in business.

Just near the market are the ruins of what is known locally as the Spanish church, the 18th century church of the Blessed Virgin The white stucco building had withstood all previous typhoons. But not this one.

It, too, is now nothing more than a pile of rubble. All that has survived is the bell tower, a separate structure on one side of the church, and the priest’s house, a stylish regency building on the other.

Clambering over the debris, one can still see along the walls of the nave the fresco paintings that told the story of the Stations of the Cross. Two big carved wooden doors led inside the building. In the doorway rubble, there’s a small religious statue staring out.

The road in front of the main police station and town hall is gradually succumbing to the efforts of a working party. Any space that is clear is speedily occupied by one of the numerous non-governmental organisations that have arrived since the storm – either that or media.

The NGOs include an organisation of French firefighters – three doctors, two nurses and 23 paramedics. They fan out each day to see what needs to be done and have found themselves treating mainly lacerations and infant gastric problems.

At the police station, police officer Rowena Tebrero watched colleagues line up for their afternoon’s detail instructions. The station normally has 34 police; but with this crisis, about 120 have been drafted in from elsewhere to help out. This has had a big effect.

“Now it’s normal,” says Ms Tebrero. She and I look out across a landscape of total destruction, the afternoon crew since joined by a military Swat team of eight, each of them armed with M16 assault rifles.

Over at the town hall, a repository for relief goods now as there’s nothing much to administer any more, the political values of the community are declaimed in a crest-like concrete relief.

“Sovereignty resides in the people. . .” it declares. Good job they didn’t proclaim that power resides in the people, for the people know now, if they did not already, that some powers – awesome powers of creativity and destruction – rest with nature.

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