Yolanda Dispatches

  • Embedded with the UN and on assignment for Rappler, I landed in Tacloban four days after the typhoon hit. These are the images and stories from the aftermath.



    It is a long trip for a woman of 74, particularly a woman who has very little to eat or drink beyond the bottle of water she fills from the family’s sputtering pump. At dawn, she says goodbye to her husband, 78-year-old Cirilo who would weep and worry at her leaving.

    She walks, sometimes alone, sometimes with her daughter. In the first few days, she walked with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face, picking her way around bodies tangled in debris, over old typewriters and grimy teddy bears, and past the occasional overturned boat. She would walk 4 hours each way, from the house along Imelda Avenue all the way to the police station in Diit. She walked on cold days. She walked on rainy days. She walked on days when the heat broiled the corpses and choked the backhoe drivers in spite of their masks.

    Today is Nieves’ twelfth day. This time, the walk is short, from where the motorcycle dropped off Nieves and two children at the bottom of the road. She makes her way up the asphalt road, the red umbrella a cane, purple knitted cap pulled over her head, bags slung over bony shoulders. She pays no attention to the fire trucks, walks past the government tents and tripods manned by foreign correspondents.

    The long line of white body bags stretch down the cemetery road. Nieves keeps her head down, her eyes on the ground. She is looking for Oscar. She knows he is here.

    OSCAR'S MOTHER. Nieves Nerja waits for the identification of her son Oscar at Basper public cemetery. 

    The morning after

    Oscar Nerja was 44 when he died, a house caretaker killed in the surge of water that swept homes into the sea along the coastal village of Diit.

    His mother found out the next morning. A man from Diit who had survived the storm brought the family the news.

    Nieves left home with her daughter, walked for hours through flood and mud and rain, all the way to the police station, leaving behind a husband whose legs refused to carry him. They found Oscar along the highway. He was bloated, rigid, wounds on his neck. Someone had wrapped his body in a sheet. Nieves had brought another from home, and wrapped him again in white.

    They cried, mother and daughter. They asked the police to cover Oscar’s body with a sheet of tin. They prayed over him, talked to him. They asked a friend to stay with the body, to make sure Oscar would be left on the road when the government truck came by to pick up the bodies. Then they left, looking for men to carry Oscar and dig Oscar’s grave and lay Oscar down deep in the ground.

    They found no one. They would have paid any price, what little they had.

    Everyone is fighting to survive, says Nieves. Everyone has problems. Burying Oscar is hers.

    So Nieves walked, every day, from the little house along Imelda Avenue to the highway in Diit where her son Oscar lay under a roof of tin. She came to keep him company, to talk to him, to pray for him, to promise that his mother wouldn’t leave him.

    Nieves wants him buried. She knows he is waiting. He visits at night, she says, touches his nieces’ faces, sits beside his sister, comes in dreams to remind them he is waiting.

    REMINDERS. When it rains, survivors recall their moments during the typhoon.

    A candle on a trench

    Twelve days after Oscar Nerja died, his mother follows the truck of corpses in white body bags. She has given up on burying Oscar in his own grave. She has asked the policemen, the firemen, the women in vests of the Department of Health. They tell her there are too many bodies to attempt to bury each separately. Two trenches have been dug, one for the hundreds of unidentified bodies, the other for men like Oscar Nerja.

    UNCLAIMED. An unidentified body lies among other corpses at the Basper Public Cemetery one week after Typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban City.

    Oscar was a good boy, says his mother, a kind boy – he sent money home when they were desperate and put his sister’s children to school. His wife Ursula is in Manila attending a wake. They do not know if she was told her husband is dead.

    Oscar’s little sister wrote his name on a sheet of paper. They asked the police to slip it inside the body bag. Other bags have been labeled in marking pens, the lumps inside ranging from the very large to the pitifully small. Nieves is waiting for the experts with their identification kits to work their way to Oscar. They will tell her when they find his name. The trench may be filled with hundreds of unknown, but Oscar will be remembered.

    Nieves will wait until the men in gloves carry him up the green swath of grass to the trench behind the cemetery wall. She will mark where they lay him with a candle and a prayer, so she will know where her Oscar rests, so Oscar will know his mother is here. 

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)



    SURVIVING. Zenaida Royo gets water from a deep well days after the typhoon hit Tacloban City.

    Zenaida Royo knows people are fleeing her city. She's seen neighbors packing up their things after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged the Visayas. They left via commercial flights, private cars, and buses.

    She knows it isn't safe for her or her 6 children, but she says she doesn't have a choice. If they leave, where will they go?

    It's a question many of the poor survivors of Yolanda have no answers to.

    "Pag pumunta kami sa Manila ano naman hanap buhay namin? Ano kakainin namin? Yung mga anak ko, dito nag-aaral. Kung sakaling babalik sa normal ang Tacloban, babalik sila sa skwelahan," Royo said.

    (If we go to Manila, how will we earn? What will we eat? My children study here. Once Tacloban goes back to normal, they'll go back to school.)

    Royo is a housewife while her husband is a pedicab driver. Tacloban is the only place the Royo family ever called home – even if home means never letting your guard down at night, for fear of looters and thieves.

    When and how "normal" will happen, Royo isn't sure.

    HELP IS ON THE WAY. Filipino soldiers load some relief supplies to a truck at the Tacloban Airport.

    Slow relief

    It took more than 24 hours before the first C130 cargo plane arrived in Tacloban to bring relief to Yolanda survivors.

    It took even longer before police and military forces were deployed in different parts of the city, restoring order in a community that had been rip to shreds by Yolanda's strong winds and its after effects – hunger, fear, and uncertainty.

    The local government unit – which, according to the national government's disaster plans, should be the first responder, was incapable of dealing with Yolanda's destruction.

    Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez says they were victims themselves. At least 694 died in the Leyte capital, while 15 are still missing.

    AFTERMATH. Residents of V&G subdivision walk through debris days after the typhoon hit Tacloban City.

    Subdivision scares

    V and G subdivision, where Royo lives, was spared from the deadly storm surge and houses were intact, albeit roofless. The military earlier warned residents about possible looting in the area.

    Male residents in V and G subdivision took it upon themselves to guard the women, children, and elderly. Street-mates set up checkpoints on the streets, making sure the vehicles that were coming in and out of the village were harmless.

    Euno Aerola, a V and G resident since birth and grandson of the subdivision's founding stockholders, said the days following Yolanda were nerve-wracking. He had never held a gun before, but once fired a warning shot the Saturday after Yolanda because someone was trying to enter their house.

    He expressed the wish that government did more to protect them. Three or 4 days after they were briefed about thieves targeting the subdivision, the military stopped roving. One night, men in motorcycles were going around, asking people directions to their ancestral home. When his cousin reported it to the military, they only shot back: "Bakit, mayaman ka ba?"

    "We're not saying that mas privileged kami or we're asking more from government, pero sana ensure our security man lang," said Areola.

    NO PLACE BUT HERE. A child of Zenaida Royo takes a bath at their damaged home in Tacloban City.

    Goodbye, Tacloban

    The security scare and the lack of clean water prompted Areola to send his wife, 3-year-old son, and 79-year-old grandmother to Manila. His son had gotten diarrhea while his grandmother, who had just recovered from a stroke, was running out of medicine.

    His wife, son, and grandmother are only 3 of the many Tacloban locals who fled the city following Yolanda. From Marabot in Eastern Samar to Tanauan in Leyte, Yolanda survivors make the tough decision of leaving home, or what used to be their home.

    But for Royo, the more she thinks about it, the more she's sure that she won't leave the city. The only thing that will compel her? "Kung maubos ang pagkain. Pero hindi naman mangyayari yun," she adds. (If foods runs out, but I don't think that will happen.)

    The little that Royo and the many that other residents have, they share. Royo lets neighbors fetch water from their makeshift well, while Areola's aunt gives extra food to their neighbors.

    Areola said it doesn't mean they're saying goodbye to the city forever.

    Once it's safer, once there's water, and once they manage to fix their homes, he said they will come back to the only place they've ever called home.

    (Bea Cupin / Rappler)



    JOY WAITING. Eight-months-pregnant Joy Marabot sits in the devastation of Sto. Nino, Tanauan, Leyte.

    Joy Marabot said goodbye at a little past eight in the morning of Friday, November 8, 2013.

    It was an odd way to say goodbye. She was alone, in the dark, soaked and pregnant and confused, pinned by surging waves against the outside wall of a building in Barangay Sto. Niño in Tanauan town, a thick wooden log pressing hard against her belly.

    Her goodbye ended with this. Lord, she said, Lord, I place my faith in you.

    A family of five

    On Thursday evening, November 7, Joy and Michael had three daughters. Mikaela Joy, 9, Michelle Ivory, 4, and Miley Faith, two.

    They were with her on a bridge in Sto. Niño along with a crowd of others, standing where they always stood whenever a storm swept over the coast. It was a safe place, a strong place, a looming bridge built of stone and cement.

    At six in the morning of Friday, the rain began to fall. At 8 am, the water rose.

    Get ready, said Michael.

    The water rose, higher and higher. The crowd moved up the bridge, as high as they could go. Then the waves came. Twice the height of a man, lashing against the bridge, punching against the pillars, sweeping Joy out into the water.

    Joy hung on to a log, Miley Faith in her arms. Twice, there were waves, twice Joy resurfaced, snatching log after log. The water raged. It would have been all right, she said, until an electric post slammed against the back of her neck.

    And so Joy fell. Sucked into the water, into the dark, an eight-months-pregnant woman who couldn’t swim clutching a two-year-old baby who couldn’t cry.

    When Joy resurfaced, Miley Faith was gone, and Joy had one less daughter.

    RIVER MOUTH. Residents around the area experienced huge storm surges during the typhoon.

    'I'm sorry I lost her'

    Joy was certain she would die. It did not concern her.

    And so when the log pinning her was swept away, she let herself be swept along, further upstream, across a broken post stretching over the river. Clinging to the post was her nine-year-old daughter, between her brothers-in-law.

    Joy decided to live. She forced her way to the post, slapped a hand on the shifting wood, and caught her daughter by the jacket sleeve just as another wave flung Mikaela Joy into the water. Joy hung on, holding her oldest girl.

    The post jerked in the water, and they decided to let go, afraid to be thrown into another whirlpool. They headed to the bridge, thrashing against the current, shimmying up a pillar, all four—brothers-in-law Mickey and Mark, Joy, tiny Mikaela Joy—holding on to pocked cement for more than an hour.

    The waves stopped, and the current slowed. There was shouting. Joy, Joy, from the rooftop of a building across the bridge. Joy, shouted Michael.

    They made their painful way up. Michael thought his wife and daughters were dead. He had held on to 4-year-old Michelle Ivory, the little girl whom he had lost twice and found twice while swimming with a bleeding foot from rooftop to rooftop.

    Joy, said Michael.

    I’m sorry, said Joy. I’m sorry. I lost her.

    Michael held her. It was all right, he said. He was glad she was alive. There was nothing she could have done.

    LOST. A teddy bear floats among other debris in Tanauan, Leyte days after the typhoon hit this coastal town.

    Finding Miley Faith

    When the water receded, the family headed to one of the few standing structures left, a squat white building beside a gasoline station. In the backyard there were piles of debris—broken bed frames, pieces of chairs, a refrigerator.

    Leaning on the refrigerator was a dead girl, maybe fourteen, maybe fifteen years old. Inside the house, shoved behind a pile of wood, they found another corpse, this time a woman in her thirties. They took out the bodies, wrapped them in soiled bed sheets, laid them along what was left of the street beside the tumbled pieces of what used to be their neighbors.

    They found Miley Faith near the bridge, close to where Joy lost her in the water. They took the small dead body to the church for a blessing, then buried her, along with many others who found father and brother and sister and son on the shores of Tanauan.

    SAVED. Four-year-old Michelle Ivory survived in her father's arms. Photo by Jake Verzosa

    Joy spent the day on a makeshift bed. Counting the minutes. Cradling her stomach. Waiting for the baby to move. She waited a long time, barely sleeping, exhausted. Joy had an ultrasound months ago. The baby in her stomach was a girl, and she was frightened she would lose one more daughter.

    It took eight hours. And then the baby kicked.

    SAVED. Four-year old Michelle Ivory, daughter of Joy, survived in her father's arms.

    The last little girl

    Joy is not sure how she will give birth, but it is too far off to worry. Her daughters are hungry. Her husband is jobless. Relief goods are slow to come. The teaching license she hoped to get in December is now an impossible thing, all her papers and diplomas swept away the same morning she lost Miley Faith.

    She waddles across the bridge, a heavily pregnant young woman wearing an Angry Birds T-shirt and a borrowed cardigan, small Michelle Ivory bouncing on the road beside her.

    Joy says she used to weep every night. She missed her youngest, the funniest, sweetest baby who set the family laughing.

    Her husband told Joy to be strong. He said there were two daughters left who needed their mother. He said there was one more on the way. He said the new baby would take the place of Miley Faith.

    Joy is happier now. It may be God’s will. It may be the only way she can cope. She will name the baby Megan Faith, after her dead daughter.

    Before Yolanda, Joy and Michael had three daughters. Now they have two. Come the second week of December, Joy hopes to have her Faith back.

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)



    HIDEOUT. Typhoon survivor Lynn Rose Logarte shows where she and her neighbors took shelter when the typhoon hit Tanauan.

    SECOND FLOOR. View from Logarte's house where water from the storm surge reached 20 feet.

    Lynn Rose Logarte survived Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) with her elderly father after staying inside a closet in their family home in Sto. Nino, Tanauan in Leyte.

    Over 50 neighbors crowded into the second floor of the house at the height of the storm. Adults smashed a hole through the ceiling and pushed the children through to keep them out of the rising water.

    “Importante hindi na bilangin ang patay, unahin muna ang buhay. Kami may mga tiyan, nagugutom at maraming mga sugatan. Kailangan namin ang suporta, tulong. Kami mga Pilipino. ‘Di ba mahal niyo kami? Kung mahal niyo kami, tulungan niyo kami, ‘wag ninyo silang pabayaan.”

    (Stop counting the dead, look first at the living. We have stomachs, we starve, many of us are wounded. We need support, help. We are Filipino. Isn't it that you love us? If you love us, help us. Don't let them down.)

    Logarte says many corpses are still scattered across the municipality, buried under debris. Relief is not sufficient, and families are desperate for food, light, batteries and vitamins.

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)



    ALIVE. Luzviminda Abuyot and her fifth son Rodolfo, one of ten, survived Typhoon Yolanda.

    There are ten children in the Abuyot family: Petrito Abuyot, Michael Abuyot, Joey Abuyot, Mark Anthony Abuyot, Rodolfo Abuyot, Aiza Abuyot, Luisa Abuyot, Rocky Abuyot Aileen Abuyot and Maribel Abuyot. Their father died three years ago. Their mother Luzviminda is alive, and so are all 9 children who survived Yolanda in Sto. Nino, Tanauan, Leyte.

    The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Mitigation Council reported at least 597 died from Tanauan alone. Food is scarce, houses were shattered, and there is little way to communicate from Tanauan to the outside.

    Rodolfo has a message, to his sister in Riyadh.

    Little sister, he says, little sister, don't worry about us. All of us are here. All of us are alive. We lost the house. We don't have food. Don't worry, little sister. We will survive this. We can do this.

    Keep working. Mother is here. Your siblings are here. Your big brothers are all here, and we are all alive. We thank the Lord he kept us alive.

    It's true we have no home, and that finding food is hard. It doesn't matter, don't worry little sister, don't let it affect you. Keep doing what you're doing. We are alive.

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)



    DEVASTATION. The municipality of Tanauan in ruins after Typhoon Yolanda hit central Philippines.

    It is difficult to find the right sentence. JR is traveling home to his wife and son. JR is trying to travel home to his wife and son. Or perhaps, more accurately, JR is traveling, to discover if he still has a home, or a wife, or a son.

    It is the last sentence that makes him afraid.

    JR squints against the sun. He stands at the side of the road, lanky and sunburned, smoking a shared cigarette. A grey duffel is slung over one thin shoulder. He hails a United Nations SUV, a tricycle, a Red Cross van, a bus.

    It is the last leg of a long journey to the village of Dulag. He was in Metro Manila when Yolanda ripped through his hometown. He was born in Leyte, grew up in Leyte, and lived in Leyte until 5 months ago when he went to work at a Bulacan chicken farm.

    He called his wife when he saw the news about a storm that would level his province. He told his wife to evacuate. His wife said there was no need. Her brothers said Yolanda would pass them by.

    It was JR who was afraid. He talked to his wife at 7 in the evening of Thursday night. It was the last time.

    The next morning he watched the news, saw the wind and the water slamming against the shoreline.

    He called his wife. He called her brothers. He called everyone he knew in Dulag. H.e couldn't get through

    The journey

    JR decided to go home. Went to every ticketing office, tried to book a seat, was told it would be days before the planes could fly. He found out there were still buses, and started packing his bags. He heard he couldn’t bring much, that people would hijack buses for food. He bought a few packets of biscuits and not much else. He didn't really care. He couldn't eat.

    He has been on the road for 3 days, sometimes traveling alone, sometimes with other men worried about wives and mothers and children. They would buy tickets when they could, hitchhike when they couldn’t. They would stop to sleep at police checkpoints or anywhere with a military presence. On the night before he stood beneath a Tanauan waiting shed, JR slept at a gas station in Tacloban City beside a pile of corpses.

    He bore it for one night because he had to, but he couldn’t understand how the others who had chosen to pitch their blankets beside him could live there everyday. It was where they ate, where they slept, where they washed their clothes and nursed their babies and huddled in the rain, occasionally covering the dead with more sheets of plastic or mats too tattered to use.

    Waiting to know

    Now he stands under a waiting shed in Sto Niño, Tanauan, Leyte. He has been standing all morning at corners and under sheds, but the buses don’t stop. He understands why they don’t. There have been looters wandering the streets, and perhaps the drivers think he is one of them.

    JR is tired. He hasn't showered in three days, and he knows that going home means finding out why his wife has sent no word. He hopes she is alive. He hopes his child is alive. He doesn't say what he is afraid of, he only talks about what he hopes for. But he knows it, and he knew it the moment he bought a ticket in a Cubao bus station.

    He crosses to the other side of the road, across the waiting shed, hailing every car and truck and bus.

    When he raises an arm, a bus stops. When it moves again, JR is gone.

    JR Pahulas is traveling home, to find out if his family is dead.

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)



    PREPARING. A backhoe digs a trench at Basper public cemetery for the biggest mass grave in Leyte.

    The trench is 10 feet deep, almost a hundred meters across, running the length of the Basper Public Cemetery.

    It has taken more than a day to dig the grave. At the far end of the cemetery boundary, the backhoe is still spitting out earth and rock.

    There are corpses along the road, and on the lawn just inside the fence. The bodies have been prepared by civilians, who found the cadavers in the streets outside their houses, or in the debris of their own backyards. It is a motley assortment. A grimy white coffin, edged in painted gold. A wooden box, freshly built. A plastic bag, the body inside a jumble of tangled limbs. Most of the cadavers are laid on pieces of crumpled tin and wrapped in printed sheets—checkered purple, rainbow stripes, fat cabbage roses, Mickey Mouse.

    PALLBEARERS. Members of the Bureau of Fire Protection carry unidentified cadavers to the city's first mass grave. 

    A truck drives in, bringing with it the stench of 6-day-old dead. The mayor says it was the only available vehicle, the single truck in the whole of Tacloban City he could find that could ferry the hundreds of cadavers. He has tried to ask the national government for help. He does not know why the help is not here.

    The 34 bodies in the truck are in black zippered body bags printed with the logo of the Department of Health. The firemen lift the bags off the truck, and down a metal ladder. One bag spills open, brown fluid spatters down the back of the truck and on the firemen.

    CHIEF. Senior Fire Officer Arnulfo Henares stands in front of a truckload of corpses in Basper public cemetery.


    The man the firemen call chief is from Biliran province. His name is Arnulfo Horares, Senior Fire Officer 2 of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), who came to Tacloban with a team from Region 8.

    Arnulfo is proud to be a fireman, has always wanted to be a fireman and has been in the deaprtment for more than two decades. Firefighting, he says, is a noble profession. Men run away from burning buildings, his men run in.

    Today, their job is to carry the dead for the first of Tacloban City's mass burials. It is a difficult duty, demanding careful handling. The firemen had expected the police and military to assist. Arnulfo has discovered the job has been left to them. He had hoped for proper equipment, but the gloves they are given are latex, and they tear with every cadaver.

    Arnulfo and his men have been here three days. Every night Arnulfo and his men return to their base to sleep on cartons spread over the top of a fire truck. They are well-fed – pork, chicken, rice – but it is difficult to eat. The meat reminds them of corpses. He and his men smell of corpses. Their fire truck smells of corpses. The stench claws its way under their skin, sticks to the backs of their throats, clings to shirt and socks and the bottoms of boots.

    Today, on the 6th day, they carry the first hundred for burial. The bodies are nameless, faceless, the unidentified victims of a storm called Yolanda.

    ROUNDUP. Dead bodies lie near Tacloban City Hall before being traported to a mass grave.

    'There are many more'

    The National Bureau of Investigation says most of the victims appear to have died from drowning. They say there is a long process required for investigation and identification – DNA collection, fingerprinting, forensic photography, a whole range of procedures. There is no time for all of this now, but it is still possible to identify bodies in the future.

    It rains in the afternoon. The burial stops. The cadavers are soaked again. It is not the first time.

    More bodies arrive as the firemen wait. The rain slows to a trickle, and it begins again. Stop and go, the whole afternoon, until more than a hundred bodies line the bottom of a trench in Tacloban City.

    Arnulfo says he is proud of his men, and of the work they do. Their vocation is to serve the people. He and his men may be carrying body bags, but they remain in service of what is inside. 

    (Patricia Evangelista / Rappler)