Typhoon Haiyan and the agony of aftermath

Authorities thought they had prepared for the worst

As typhoon Haiyan barrelled toward the Philippines—the eye of its storm a near-perfect circle—800,000 people fled their coastal homes for sturdier shelter. They hunkered down in schools, churches and government offices, brick-and-mortar buildings that had survived nature’s wrath so many times before. But in a country that endures up to a dozen typhoons every year, something especially ruthless was brewing. This time, concrete walls would be no match.

Haiyan smacked into the eastern shores in the early-morning hours of Nov. 8, packing sustained winds of up to 314 km/h (periodic gusts reached 375 km/h). Although scientists can’t say for certain yet, they may have been the strongest cyclone winds ever recorded. Hurricane Katrina, which pounded New Orleans in the summer of 2005, didn’t come close; it peaked at 205 km/h.

The devastation left behind is almost impossible to describe. Even the photographs, as chilling as they are, don’t capture all the agony. Tacloban, the provincial capital of Leyte Island, was utterly decimated. (One reporter flying over the scene described it as a “garbage dump.”) Entire neighbourhoods were completely flattened, wiped out by gigantic waves that came more than a kilometre inland. “I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way—every single building, every single house,” said Brig.-Gen. Paul Kennedy, a U.S. Marine who flew to Tacloban as part of the growing international relief effort. (The Canadian Forces’ Disaster Assistance Relief Team has also been deployed to the Philippines, providing fresh water and supplies to increasingly desperate citizens.)

The rubble piles where houses once stood were littered with bodies. Young children. Babies. Some corpses hung from palm trees, left there for days. At last count, the confirmed death toll was close to 2,000, but that’s expected to surge as officials reach more remote parts of the country. “We hope it doesn’t get any higher,” said John Ging, who is coordinating the United Nations’ relief efforts. “But we have to be prepared for the worst.”

Local authorities thought they had prepared for the worst, issuing evacuation orders as the storm approached. But massive waves overwhelmed even the strongest buildings, filling them like swimming pools. Nestor Librando, 31, took refuge in a military compound with his young sons, aged two and three. As the water levels rose, sweeping them outside, Librando couldn’t grip his youngest boy any longer. He found him hours later, sunken in mud. “This is my son,” he said, tearfully showing the body to one journalist. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life, the worst thing I could imagine.”

Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver, said the water was as high as a coconut tree. “I was swept away by the rampaging water with logs, trees and our house, which was ripped off from its mooring,” he said. “When we were being swept by the water, many people were floating and raising their hands and yelling for help. But what can we do? We also needed to be helped.”

The focus now is trying to help the millions of people displaced from their homes and desperate for food and water. Although charitable donations are already pouring in and international aid workers continue to arrive, reaching the neediest has proven a daunting task. Many major roadways are still littered with debris, while entire bridges have been washed away. Looters have also targeted what few supplies have gotten through. “There is a huge amount that we need to do,” admitted U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos. “Even in Tacloban, because of the debris and the difficulties with logistics and so on, we have not been able to get in the level of supply that we would want to. We are going to do as much as we can to bring in more.”

On Monday, three days after the storm passed through, some residents found one small reason to celebrate. Emily Ortega—a 21-year-old woman who survived the typhoon by clinging to a post—gave birth to a healthy baby girl at Tacloban’s ravaged airport. Military medics helped with the delivery, triggering cheers from fellow survivors.

The baby’s name is Bea Joy Sagales. Like her mother, and countless others in the  Philippines, her future now depends on how well the rest of the world responds.

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