Cyclone Haiyan: Death, Desolation, Sheer Survival

The images that flashed on the television screen in the aftermath of cyclone Haiyan which hit the Philippines at the beginning of this week brought back memories of cyclones Alix and Carol that pounded our island in 1960.

They came within a month of each other in January and February respectively, and the gusts of wind in cyclone Carol peaked at about 256 km/hour, supposedly the strongest ever to have hit the southwest Indian Ocean region. The gusts of cyclone Haiyan reached 316 km/hour, the highest recorded so far for any cyclone in the world. One can only say ‘unimaginable’! But those of us who experienced Alix and Carol can mentally relive what the unfortunate Philippinos have gone through during the passage of cyclone Haiyan and the desperation that now faces them.

‘Not a single house, not a single tree’ has remained standing, commented the reporter who was surveying the bleak scene of the post-Haiyan landscape of a village about 30 km south of the main town of Tacloban in the Samar island of Phillipines. Everything lay flattened out, in total ruin.

Most of the reporting had been about Tacloban, itself all but wiped out, and its population of 220,000 now struggling for sheer survival. Although the initial estimate of 10,000 dead has now been scaled down to about 2500, that does not change anything on the ground for the survivors; each story is more heart-rending than the other.

Unlike after Carol, now we could see aerial photographs which panned out on practically the whole area of destruction, a view that made one shudder. Heaps of what were once buildings stretched as far as the eyes could see. That was bad enough, but worse were the scenes on the ground, and they reminded me of what I saw when I stood looking in disbelief at the ruins on the morning after Carol’s ‘eye’ had passed over the island.

I felt oppressed by a heavy silence, benumbed by what I can only describe as a quasi-revengeful stillness in the atmosphere. The rising damp as the sun’s rays were timidly piercing through the clouds compounded the weightiness. Our beloved la fourche tree around whose huge – to our eyes – trunk we kids used to play hide and seek lay fallen over. People walked slowly, speaking in hushed tones and not going too far from their houses, because it was practically the same scene everywhere.

I stay in the proximity of a building which was once the house of someone who has since shifted to a coastal area. One day several years ago when we met, he was telling me how he and his young family had together pushed against the wooden frame of the glass front of the verandah to hold it back when a cyclone (Gervaise if I remember correctly) was threatening to blow it down. It was exactly what we did when the renewed force of the winds had similarly threatened our varangue vitrée after the eye of cyclone Carol had passed. We survived, with most of our house still standing – although it had leaked like a basket. But others were not as lucky with their houses.

It is painful enough to merely to watch the post-Haiyan images on TV; how much worse it is for those who are going about trying to piece things together again. There are dead bodies lying on the streets and elsewhere, obviously in various stages of decomposition. Apart from the unbearable stench that those on the ground have reported, there is a real danger of disease as usually is the case in such catastrophic situations, from microbes not only in the putrefying human corpses, but also in the hundreds of thousands of other dead creatures from the smallest to the largest that must be lying scattered among the ruins.

I thought of this when I was at Trou-O-Cerfs this morning. It had rained rather heavily during the night, with thunder, and the few who had ventured out for their daily rounds made do with a drizzle and grey skies. On the ground were dozens of dead worms, as is usually seen after such rains, obviously flooded out of their underground burrows. One can picture a vastly more disturbing scene amidst the ruins out there in Tacloban.

One woman was shown whose house was the first to be hit when the cyclone struck the coast. She and her husband managed to escape with their six children, and they found shelter – so to speak – in a bus that had overturned and was standing on its side. When the cyclone had passed, she found herself alone – all six children and her husband were dead. But there is worse: three of the children are missing, and she was followed by the reporter as she went about, all alone poor soul, trying to search for their bodies. She had simply wrapped as best she could the bodies of her husband and the three children and left them where they were, until the authorities arranged for disposal. When she was asked where she was going to sleep that night, she just blandly replied, ‘I do not know, there, anywhere.’

Others had similar stories to tell. One family had put up some tattered pieces of tarpaulin on shaky poles by way of a roof, and were trying to cook even as the bodies of a few of their family members lay nearby wrapped in plastic. On whatever was left of the streets there were many bodies, some wrapped, others naked, with people passing by on their way to try and get water and food. ‘Food,’ repeated one woman, ‘food is what we need and want! No TV, no computer, no cell phones, nothing, just food!’

To add to the misery, eight more people died as they were trying to loot rice from a storage area and the roof crumbled on them. This only shows the desperate situation that prevails there. International aid has been mobilised to supplement local efforts, but a major challenge is access as all the roads have been as severely damaged.

Climate and weather experts have already warned that such catastrophic events are going to become commoner, and we must prepare for them. Let us hope that the Philippines will be better prepared in future.

* Published in print edition on 15 November 2013

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