A Family Journey to Tacloban and Leyte

My relatives in front of my auntie’s house (Maria)

The circumstances are of course extreme, but this story is a true measure of how extended families work in the Philippines, where a “cousin” is a first, second or third cousin. Maria and her husband have been flooded out of their own home several times. A few months ago the local government relocated them from the neighborhood of “informal settlers” (the politically correct term for squatters) where they had been living many years to a mass government housing project in Bulacan, a three-hour ride from Metro Manila.

In 2009 when my housemate and I were flooded out of our home during Ondoy (aka Ketsana), Maria and her husband worked tirelessly for five weeks cleaning up and moving us to another house—and that was only a matter of flood mud, not high winds. In 2011, when Typhoon Sendong (aka Washi) hit Cagayan De Oro, like other former flood victims, Maria and I knew what this meant. We went to the supermarket to buy boxes of relief goods—about enough to fill up the trunk of a taxi—and combed the house for other donations.

Yolanda hit on Friday, November 8th. Maria left Manila the following Monday and returned on the 17th. This interview took place on the 19th.

Maria’s story

The town of Tanauan is on the coast, about 18-20 kilometers south of Tacloban City. Catbalogan, Samar is the provincial capitol on the west coast about 102 kilometers from Tacloban.

When we first heard about Yolanda [Haiyan], my relatives here in Manila and I were really worried. We have family in the areas where the storm was the worst. I had an aunt and a sister in Tanauan, and my sister-in-law and nephews were in Tacloban. My brother was especially worried about his kids, a five-year-old and a three-month-old. His wife is about twenty-five. She’s a policewoman in Tacloban. They’re living apart because he has a job here in Manila, and he’d been unable to get in touch with her. From the news he said our town of Tanauan was all washed out. You couldn’t fly down because of the damage to the Tacloban airport. You could only go by bus. All communication was cut. In order to find out about your relatives you had to go to a government agency, stand in a long line and then ask about missing persons.

I decided to go down to help. At first there were four of us going, but my cousin’s high blood pressure flared up, so we used her ticket to pay for the freight we were bringing with us. A ticket was 1,200 pesos [$27.50] and our baggage was 1,100 pesos. Then there were three of us, my brother, my niece—who had come along to see her parents—and me.

At the supermarket in Manila, I bought canned sardines, local canned meat like Vienna sausages, instant noodles, instant coffee, crackers, soap, menstrual pads and toothpaste in little sachets. I forgot toothbrushes. I bought a box with 24 one-liter bottles of water. My cousin brought four five-gallon containers of water. I got rice in Pasay near the bus terminal. We had no trouble getting all the stuff on the bus because my brother arrived very early and repacked everything. The company couldn’t really complain since we paid for the freight. At the bus stopovers, we prepared the instant noodles with boiled water sold from thermoses.

The bus was crowded with people going down to see their relatives. People were frightened because of the news coverage, but we didn’t know how much was true and how much was exaggerated. In Catbalogan, West Samar, about a hundred kilometers from Tacloban, I bought rice because you couldn’t buy it in Tanauan. East Samar was destroyed, but the West was okay.

Welcome to Tacloban (Maria)

Tacloban was devastating. It had been flattened. When we opened the windows, we smelled the dead—it was a different kind of smell. I got nauseated. On the streets there were bodies in body bags and others that were not covered. I think they didn’t have enough bags to cover all of them. Some people had already been buried in a mass grave. There were dead bodies under big trees, including bodies of small children. I took pictures, but not of the dead. My cousin had told me to show my respect for the dead by not taking pictures of them. Just pray for them.

I saw the children, and I worried about my brother’s kids. I asked him where in Tacloban my sister-in-law lived because I knew the area near San Jose Airport was already washed out. He said his family was near Robinson’s Mall, far from the bus terminal.

In Tacloban we made a detour via the San Juanico Bridge to avoid the downtown area where there was a lot of looting. But I saw people ransacking a warehouse for frozen hot dogs and other meat. Then later, maybe a mile away, I saw a big area where the owner of a junk foods store had opened it up so people could come in and take food. One of the guys tossed a bag of chips to our bus driver. Later I heard that the supermarket at Robinson’s had opened so people could get food. But looters went up to the second floor and took television sets and i-phones. My sister-in-law’s niece said they went to the supermarket to get some milk for my nephew, and the shelves were empty. There were lots of people in the store but nothing to buy. Looted goods were being sold on the street for less than the regular price.

We had tickets for Tanauan, Leyte, which is near Tacloban City, but the driver said, “We’ll have to drop you at Tacloban City. There’s a bridge that’s been damaged.” We found out later that the bridge wasn’t damaged. He just wanted to go to Ormoc to see his own relatives.

We got into a big argument. I said, “But we’re going to Tanauan, and we have all this freight that we paid for. We don’t want to go to Tacloban because there are lots of looters and maybe they will grab our things.”

“No, our terminal is secure.”

Actually, it wasn’t. But by that time the military had arrived in Tacloban, so there was no problem about our stuff. We transferred to another bus, and the whole time we were on the bus we were really safe. There were people on the side of the road trying to stop the bus because there was no transportation, no jeepneys. So they were all on foot. But the driver kept driving in order to ensure the safety of the passengers and their belongings.

The bridge to our town hadn’t been damaged, but there was so much debris covering it that it was impassable, so we went on a long detour. At first we didn’t recognize my auntie’s house because so many buildings had been flattened, but a lot of my relatives were there already.

When I told the bus driver to stop, he said, “We can’t stop here because of all these people. They’ll grab your stuff.”

“Don’t worry, they’re my relatives and neighbors and friends.”

Inside my auntie’s house (Maria)

When we got off the bus, we saw my auntie and male cousins waiting for us because they’d heard we were coming. We have a cousin in Ormoc we had been able to communicate with, and there was a cousin who’d gone down a day earlier.

The town was also crowded because people had come to look at the damage. It was very flat. We’d left Metro Manila on Monday at noon, and we arrived in Tanauan on Tuesday afternoon about four o’clock. I said, “Help me pack up all these things. Make a list of our relatives and other people who are really in need.”

So we had 22 packages—each with canned goods, noodles, bread, crackers, rice, soap and toothpaste—to distribute to relatives and also friends and neighbors with small children. We had some relatives in the nearby provinces, but we couldn’t get there because there was no transportation. So I just put stuff in my auntie’s house, and I said if they came she should give it to them.

Otherwise, people had nothing at all and no fuel. The firewood was wet. The gas canisters were either rusty or maybe washed away. So there was no way to cook, but we’d brought sliced bread, pan de sal [rolls] and crackers.

We distributed the goods that night, but we afraid because there are lots of people hanging around the house. There wasn’t enough for everyone in the neighborhood. We had no fights. A cousin told me that a mayor in our province was giving out provisions. There was a long line, and a guy got stabbed for cutting in line. On other streets in our town there was a lot of fighting over food. People were just so desperate.

That night it rained. My auntie and I sat up and talked all night, crouched together because there were holes in the roof. My back hurt from sitting on the bus for over twenty-four hours. I didn’t get any sleep, just drank water and ate some noodles—after we got the water boiled with a little pile of dry firewood my cousin’s wife had collected. I wanted to get back to Manila, but my brother asked me to go with him to Tacloban and see that his kids were safe. My auntie didn’t want to come to Manila or to Cebu, where there are also relatives, because she was worried about fixing up her house. How could she do that? There were no nails and no wood that wasn’t damaged. We need government help to build houses, like maybe the ones we have in Bulacan [concrete slab row houses which are rent-to-own]. Probably they’ll build the government agencies first, like municipal buildings or the Department of Budget and Management. And schools. They’ve already put up some tents for the people.

The next morning when we were leaving Tanauan, my auntie was fixing the deep well, and my sister was cleaning the pump. The water was okay, but you had to boil it before you drank it because of the bacteria.

On the way to Tacloban

My brother had come with my niece and me down to Tanauan, but he hadn’t been able to sleep because of worrying about his kids. There was no transportation from Tanauan to Tacloban, at least 18 kilometers. At 6:30 on Wednesday morning, my brother and sister and I and one of my nieces set out for Tacloban. It was really hot, and sometimes we stopped because our feet hurt. I wasn’t wearing running shoes, just flats. I was glad my flip-flops had broken so I wasn’t wearing those. There were lots of people on the road to see their relatives in Tacloban. My brother had some water and some crackers in a small backpack. He was worried his kids would have nothing to eat, but he didn’t want to take much because someone might take it away from him. We’d brought other stuff for his kids, but we left it in Tanauan at my auntie’s house so they could get it later. I brought a small bottle of water, which wasn’t really enough. Near Tacloban I drank some water from a hose, and that might be why I got diarrhea later. Maybe the water was contaminated by all of the bodies. On the way we walked through areas that had been flooded, so we were walking through mud.

On the way to Tacloban

Near Tacloban I saw lots of people lining up to get food. It wasn’t being distributed by a government agency. I think the owner of a rice-polishing plant was handing out rice. I asked my brother if he wanted to get in line, but the line was so long it reached almost all the way back to Tanauan. So we thought we’d just leave it for the people who were waiting.

We had to check on his family. I was just praying that no one was hurt. When a stranger opened the door of the house, I asked, “Does this house belonging to the auntie of Antony’s wife? It was a two-story house with an attic, a good distance from the shore and right on the road. So other people had come there. The auntie said that as the water was rising they went upstairs. It was over five feet when they heard someone knocking and a voice: “Is anyone home? Can we come up?” Maybe ten families had come in.

My nephew, the five-year-old, said, “Auntie, I heard the glass go brooOM-brooOM, like that. And I heard the wind go ZZZZZZZ, like that.”

I thought maybe he was traumatized.

“He said, “So we went up there, and we just went to sleep.”

So I thought, Okay, they’re fine. We walked back to Tanauan.

There was no transportation because there were no gasoline stations. If you wanted to go somewhere you had to walk. My cousins have a motorcycle, but they didn’t have gas. There were times when we were going through Samar when I saw very long lines but no gasoline. I just heard on the news that they are putting in two gas stations and filling them with gas. The agencies are starting to clean up Tacloban. Maybe it has priority because it’s a city, but how about the other towns? I have some cousins who are government employees. How can they work? They don’t have an office. There’s no electricity. There’s no communication.

Even if you have money, there are no stores and nothing to buy. It’s a very big problem. People will starve. Relief was arriving, but it’s not nearly enough. On Thursday, so almost a week after the typhoon, I heard the first government relief goods had arrived. That was when my auntie was on the news being interviewed by a big network here in Manila, ABC 5, Aksyon Balita. Tanauan was almost a ghost town. Relatives from Manila were coming to Leyte and bringing them back to Manila.

I’m grateful for all the international help. In Tanauan there were lots of Americans, a medical mission treating the wounded and others that need medical attention. I think they said they’d be going to Manila for supplies, but they’d be back. I saw some other white guys, but I didn’t know their nationality or whether they were just permanent residents married to Filipinas.

Thursday I tried to get back to Manila. I had a niece, a nephew and a cousin coming with me. The bus came from southern Leyte, and you just had to stand on the highway and wave and yell “para, para, para” [stop]. Going south to Tacloban they weren’t stopping. But going north they would stop, not in Tacloban but in other towns. There were four people on the bus who didn’t have money for transportation, just a handwritten letter from the vice mayor, which they wanted to use in lieu of tickets. But the bus company was a private company, so wouldn’t accept it. They told the people they had to go back to the bus terminal in their province to negotiate with the company about free transportation. The woman cried and begged the conductor to accept the 2,000 pesos their neighbors had collected for them. The conductor said okay, the adults could pay 700 each—the regular fare was 900 pesos—and the teenager could ride for free. I overheard them worrying about what they would eat, and when they didn’t get off the bus at the stopover, I brought food back to them. A woman sitting next to me was muttering that the people were just lying about not having money for food. I said I didn’t care, I was giving them food anyway.

At the bus and ferry terminal in Bicol lot of people were stranded because relief goods had priority on the ferry to Samar. We arrived early Friday, but we had to wait in the terminal until Saturday. Now a small bottle of water cost 25 pesos [instead of 11 pesos]. A cup of instant noodles, which would cost 12 pesos here, was 40 pesos. So it’s very expensive. But I didn’t really want to eat because my stomach hurt with the diarrhea. And then at the stopover you had to pay 5 or 10 pesos to use the CR [comfort room or restroom].

There’s also a government C-130 airplane flying back here. It will take people for free, but the first priority is for families with small kids, the old or the sick. The flight is only 45 minutes. You can’t fly down because they’re only taking relief goods.

My cousins went to stay with other relatives. They’re helping where they can. We have other cousins who are going to the provinces. I’ll send things down with them—mosquito repellant, candles, salt, toothbrushes, matches. Because we’d forgotten matches. My sister-in-law is going to be coming up from Tacloban for three days or a week. She couldn’t come up now because the police department is on red alert. PNoy [President Aquino] is in Tacloban meeting with local officials, so she has to stay there to protect the president until he leaves.

I haven’t talked with my brother since I got back because there’s no cell signal yet. This week he’ll be bringing their two kids here, as well as a niece to help him with the kids. I said, “If I have time, I will look after your children, but I am working also. In Bulacan it would be hard for them because we don’t have running water. We fetch water in containers after it’s delivered, and we only have electricity in the evening [no electric fans during the day, no refrigerator]. But at least it’s cooler this time of year. It’s up to you.” I was also worried because of the dog [who barks and growls around everyone except his owners.]

They’ll just come to visit. We have a cousin here in Manila, in Taguig, who has a big house, so some relatives are already staying there.

A reader writes:

I thought Maria’s post was compelling.  The story sucked me in and moved me deeply.  I was particularly affected by the suffering of the people, their desperation and Maria’s compassion.  Please tell her I find that she has a lot of courage and a great spirit of kindness too.