Dantesque horrors in Philippines

Disaster on this scale has a smell, as well as a pervasive sense of menace

Zosimo Moabando sits with his young grandson Kyle on the roof of their damaged house in the devastated town of Tanuan, south of Tacloban yesterday. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Zosimo Moabando sits with his young grandson Kyle on the roof of their damaged house in the devastated town of Tanuan, south of Tacloban yesterday. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

 

I sit on the back of an aid truck as it inches through the streets of Tacloban. Words are difficult to find.

This place is in the Dark Ages – literally, all power is gone; and metaphorically, the normal features of human existence, a home, a food supply, a broadly functioning society. . . they no longer exist in the normal sense.

Moving through Tacloban as the light fades is to enter a Dantesque horror show. Hundreds upon hundreds of homes and small shops have been smashed to pieces by the tornado. Filth and debris, the pulverised remains of the homes, of a society, are everywhere.

Disaster on this scale has a smell. It is not pleasant. There is no functioning infrastructure in Tacloban, let alone food shops or even people selling goods from the footpaths. The mayor’s office, where I will sleep on the floor, under a desk, and feel extremely lucky to be able to do so, has been given over to various non-governmental emergency aid workers. These include Irishman Conor Fyans and others from the World Food Programme, notably a WFP unit that sets up communications systems.


Menace
A curfew from 8pm to 5am is about to come into force and soldiers armed with assault rifles are taking up their positions as the light disappears with the sunset. Numerous  fires contribute to an even more heightened sense of menace.

The long, flat-back open truck moves at a snail’s pace, painstakingly navigating obstacles. Sitting on top of the load, we have to regularly duck under low-slung cables or broken trees, but the elevated position affords a good view. We pass a row of bodies. The dead are laid out in black plastic bags, all neat and in a line – progress from the day before when they were still being pulled from the wreckage and left to lie openly on the streets.

The very few wooden shanty-like properties that are still standing appear as hovels, dark Dickensian holes with, if the occupants are lucky, a candle inside. Many – most – are just pitch black. The truck was rented by Fyans, and it carried the wherewithal for him and his team to set up their own base camp for what will undoubtedly be a lengthy stay.

Aid is pouring in: experts, advance party assessors, first responders, civilian and military alike, have been on the ground since Saturday last, the day after the typhoon, and they have been growing in number daily.

Substantial quantities of food and water have been distributed throughout much of Leyte and Samar provinces in the past two to three days. The response to the disaster is not the issue: the scale of it is.

“This is the largest storm ever to have hit the Philippines and possibly the largest storm ever to have made landfall,” says Matthew Cochrane, a UN spokesman at a co-ordination centre – formally the city’s sports stadium. The central part of the stadium is where troops now sleep.

Around an inner perimeter, a blizzard of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations meet to coordinate their activities in the hope of maximising their impact on the situation.


Damage
Cochrane describes why so much damage was inflicted by the typhoon, saying that when it hit Leyte it “skipped over the island and hit it in four or five places and – you can see this from the air – with full storm force”.

“It was totally beyond anything previously experienced in a country well used to storms,” he says.

It was also the surge of water that was unexpected. Tacloban airport is bounded on two sides by the sea. When the typhoon struck, with it came a surge of water, a tsunami in effect.

Apart from destroying the airport, everything that lay behind the airport, all the homes, were washed away. But the wave, or waves (some locals speak of three, the first and highest cresting at at least four metres), carried on into Tacloban proper and the results, even in the fading half-light as we leave the airport, are clearly apparent.

It took emergency workers several days to grasp the significance of the disaster and the extent of the damage. It will take another week to work out exactly what is needed now, beyond the obvious, to help the people worst affected.

Most of the NGOs believe they will be here for many months if not years to come.

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