Typhoon Haiyan survivors beg for help

ON THE GROUND::Families from flattened villages lined the road in northern Cebu, hoping that people passing in cars and trucks can give them food, water or cash

The Guardian, BOGO, Philippines

Thu, Nov 14, 2013 - Page 6

The children stand in clusters with wooden signs at the side of the highway, their palms outstretched. “Please help us,” reads one sign, scrawled in permanent ink on a broken board. “We need food & water,” reads another.

As our car weaves its way through the sugarcane-covered hills of northern Cebu — a region where Typhoon Haiyan made two devastating landfalls on Friday last week — we pass family after family begging for help from the buses and trucks that drive past. One boy, agitated at the lack of drivers who have slowed down or stopped, screams out: “We need help!”

In village after village, families line the road requesting help, with various signs, but all variations on the same theme.

We park the car on a hill at a smattering of obliterated thatch huts in Tagoban, a few miles outside Bogo — a city of 85,000 that officials estimate was 95 percent destroyed by Haiyan. A group of men are holding out buckets and empty water bottles, hoping for a passing vehicle to throw out cash or food.

“Maybe 10 cars will help us out a day, giving little packages, or 20 or 50 pesos,” says Dondon Toleng, 28, dressed in a black Adidas T-shirt and basketball shorts, as he stretches out a bucket into oncoming traffic.

Soon a van full of Filipinos drives by and chucks out three packages of crackers.

“Thank you,” he cries out, as a number of trucks seemingly full of dried foods and donated aid stream past, on their way, ostensibly, to Bogo.

Toleng explains the tricky situation of trying to get hold of aid in the aftermath of the strongest storm ever recorded.

“There is some aid being delivered, but we have to go all the way into Bogo City to get it,” he says, a return journey of about 40km. “We have no fuel, we have no money, our water pumps are broken, so everything costs.”

Water from the town costs 30 pesos (US$0.68), he says, but as he earns only 60 pesos a day as a cutter in the neighboring sugarcane plantation, neither he — nor his neighbors — have the funds to support his family in this time of crisis.

Heading north, the black ribbon of road extending through this agricultural region of Cebu is framed either side by destruction. Felled trees line the route, their palms crunching under tires, and in some places, whole roofs lie in the road, decorated with the black wires of fallen pylons. Every few kilometers there is another village and another group of families begging for supplies.

In Bogo, people are milling about listlessly. Girls dressed in yellow uniforms giggle behind empty glass cases in their food shops, but there is nothing to sell. The cashpoint machines are broken; without electricity, no one can get any money.

“There’s nothing to buy,” one girl manning her parents’ convenience shop says. “We are all out of stock.”

The buildings here make it look like a bomb went off in the center of town: Metal sheeting has torn huge gaping holes in shop fronts and flying debris has knocked statues off their pedestals. The flimsiest houses — those made of thatch and bamboo — have disintegrated organically into the hillside, the remnants of their insides scattered around like litter.

About 20 families have taken up refuge in the magnificent pink stone church at the top of the hill, where a statue of St Vincent Ferrer looks out over the caved-in city.

“I went back to see my house yesterday and it was totally destroyed. I just stood there and cried,” says Nilvic Ursal, 27, a mother of two who plans on staying in the church’s community hall — which had its own roof blown off during Haiyan —as long as she can. “There was nothing left but water and mud. We have no way to fix it.”

Not far from the church sits Bogo’s squat sports complex, a covered basketball court that doubled as the city’s evacuation center until its roof was blown off and water started pouring in everywhere. Now it serves as the main warehouse and distribution center for relief goods that arrive in on trucks from Cebu, 96.5km away.

The complex is also home to more than 520 people, almost all of whom are sleeping on the cold concrete floor with only a cardboard box as a bed.

Bogo Mayor Celestino Martinez Jr is sitting at a table underneath one of the tents in the basketball floor overseeing operations, where he complains that, without exact figures for how many families are in need, the aid his city really requires is still unknown.

“The aid only started coming in yesterday [Monday], because for two days we were unreachable,” he says, referring to impassable roads and downed telecommunications.

“As of right now, we don’t know how many homeless [there are], how many victims. The problem is if you give one [sack of rice to survivors], they want two. If you give two, they want three. So you tell them: ‘No, just come back tomorrow.’ The aid is coming in from the government, from NGOs, from private donors. It all has to be coordinated and divided at local level and then sent out.”

However, when questioned as to why hundreds of bags of rice were still in the warehouse and had not yet been delivered to hungry residents, he could only describe a “first wave” of aid and a “second wave” of aid.

“This is the second wave,” he said.