TACLOBAN CITY--Taxi driver Chicoy showed up two minutes late, all apologetic but eager to work. I'd found him the day before near the ports, waiting for passengers but not having much luck until I knocked on his window and asked if he could drive me to the airport the next day. After several days in the field as a volunteer "Bike Scout" for NGOs and medical teams in the area, it was time to head home and I needed a ride. The distance from the hospital where I was based, to the DZR airport couldn't be much more than 10km, but we settled on a flat rate of P500. This might seem steep by Manila standards, but I wasn't in the mood to haggle. I just needed a ride--any ride--and frankly he looked like he needed every peso he could earn.
As we chatted during the drive, I learned a few more things about this city supposedly "out of the ICU" (far from it!). There are less than four working gas stations in the city, so queuing can take up to an hour. Even at P65/liter, the locals don't complain much because, well, at least they have fuel to buy. At the height of post-Yolanda crisis, it had even reached P300/liter. Or at least, that price from the few brave station owners who opened for business even with looters about.
When I asked how he was doing, Chicoy said that his family was fine and his house only slightly damaged since they live some distance from the shoreline. Business was harder than usual even for a simple cab driver. His Toyota Avanza was one of only two units left out of a fleet of 30 before the storm; all the rest had suffered significant damage. Another driver I encountered, Norman, had an Avanza with a cracked windshield, but continued looking for passengers at the airport. I spotted a Mitsubishi Adventure whose left rear panels and part of the roof had caved in as if punched by the Hulk, but as long as it was operable then the driver could still use it to earn some money. The airport is the cabbie's and rental car owner's only significant source of income these days. Once the last plane has arrived for the day, they might as well go home. I counted less than a dozen vans for hire on the airport lot--mute testament to how many else had been destroyed.
Even three weeks after the storm had hit, it's hard to tell that Tacloban was once a bustling, provincial city. "Cash-for-work" programs by the DPWH and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation have made the roads passable once more, but piles of debris are everywhere. Then there's the stench: It's the dank odor of rotting garbage mixed with the peculiar stench of decomposing bodies buried somewhere in all that rubble. The smell of Death is ever-present, and even as I write this I still remember how it's like a blend of rotting fish, cheese and road kill. Amid the noise of traffic, a particular wail stands out: When the fire truck siren gets louder and louder, you know it's the retrieval team doing the rounds. The dead aren't lying around in plain sight anymore, but there are still many waiting to be found. When they are, it's not a sight for the squeamish.
In the short time I visited, I felt profound sadness as I tried to find a single structure undamaged by Yolanda, but there was none. The Andok's restaurant in Palo, open again after two weeks of frenzied repairs, was like an oasis in the middle of a wasteland straight out of Mordor. Never mind that you couldn't buy an ice-cold can of soda even if you offered a thousand bucks, or that you had to wait half an hour to place your order. You'd just be thankful you wouldn't have to eat canned tuna for a change.
Over several weeks, our volunteer group of "Bike Scouts Philippines" came to Tacloban to reach places that cars could not. Or even if there were passable roads, the challenge then was to have a working vehicle. The crisis unit manning the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center lamented that they had so many doctors and supplies, but only one vehicle to get them to places that needed help. We learned that to keep ourselves from breaking down, the trick was to keep moving and to focus on the mission at hand--working with the doctors, distributing the supplies that we had, visiting communities, and thinking of how we could do a better job the next time we came back.
Before I arrived, we had sent out two earlier teams while the rest handled the logistics and fundraising back home. Roads then were literally impassable by car, and they suffered many flat tires from all the glass shards, nails and splinters. Working with Rappler, they set out to look for missing people aside from distributing medicines and "cheer packs" of coffee, candies and shampoo. They did find more than a few people, relaying word to their relatives in Manila. I've never been so proud to be part of something meaningful as I have these past few weeks.
On my last day here, I decided to just ride around and take pictures to show how things are going. There's destruction everywhere, but also signs of hope and strength: men starting to rebuild their homes, vendors plying their trade, businesses boldly stating when they will reopen, and a general attitude of patience and cooperation you wouldn't find in the rat race of Manila. "We're all here needing help or trying to help, so let's all cooperate, shall we?" is the prevailing mood.
I was relieved to get on a plane bound for home, but the truth is that the work is far from over. Volunteers from all over the world continue to pour into the city, but they could always use more.
Photos by Andy Leuterio
Lining up for relief goods just outside the DZR airport
A Mitsubishi Montero Sport from out of town surveying the damage in Palo, Leyte.
One of the locals wasn't so lucky with his SUV. Or house, for that matter.
The Mitsubishi Motors showroom.
The Isuzu showroom, ready for business.
A man starts rebuilding his shanty behind a Honda City that had been
tossed aside in the storm surge and looted for tires several days after.
What was once a service station.
An elderly man supervises the salvaging of his wrecked Toyota Avanza.
A work crew trying to put up an electrical post. Also, Philippine flags were everywhere in the city.
Lining up for precious fuel.
The police were everywhere in the city, but most especially in the
market area where commerce had slowly come back to life.
This boat had already become famous in earlier post-Yolanda photos,
being surrounded by debris. By the time I got there, the DPWH had cleared
enough of the area to reveal that there was actually a road just beside it.
Earth movers from DPWH had to be shipped in to clear all the debris.
Container vans and large vehicles were tossed about like toys.
This Ford Expedition was lying portside for repairs, but typhoon Yolanda got to it first.
By typhoon standards, this Hyundai Tucson got off pretty easy with just cosmetic damage.
The Toyota showroom faces away from the ocean and is
several kilometers away, so damage wasn’t as extensive.
The Bureau of Fire Protection Retrieval Team doing its grisly work.
A jeepney crammed with passengers drives away from Tacloban on the San Juanico Bridge.
From the San Juanico Bridge, the air above Tacloban
is full of smoke from all the debris being burned.
The Foton showroom.
There was one single operating vulcanizing shop.
Reassurance for vehicle owners.
The Robinson’s mall.
A retrieval crew.
A smashed Ford Fiesta just inside the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center.
They may not look it, but this is a team of doctors and nurses who have been
working round-the-clock since they arrived. They're among the crisis units
that the Department of Health taps whenever the need arises.
A CH-47 Chinook from Japan.
Even though "Oplan Hatid" had already ceased ferrying evacuees to Manila,
PAF C-130s continued to arrive in Tacloban to offload personnel and supplies.