On a stretch of road on the way into Tacloban city centre, just past a lone white coffin with gold-painted handles, lay a mass of dead, bloated bodies. Men, women, cats, dogs and pigs were piled in a heap against a stone house with a metal roof bent upwards like a question mark.
Its residents stared out at the chaos below like zombies.
"Those are dead people in front of our house and the smell is awful," called out a woman from the balcony, her face shrouded in cloth to protect her from the stench. "The sister of the dead man came to see her brother, but she couldn't take him away, she just cried.
"What else can she do," the woman asked. "There is nowhere to take him, nothing to do."
An upturned car had been slammed against the woman's house. Broken concrete pipes and pallets of wood had pummelled her front yard and now filled it, along with pieces of tyre, mattress, plastic and metal. The corpses, meanwhile, had bloated and burst in the heat, their entrails seeping out, tongues oozing from faces.
The woman on the balcony ran down the stairs to ask for help. Joan Madejas Opiniano, 40, who runs an orphanage in eastern Samar province, was breathless as she described the super storm that hit three days ago and obliterated her city. "I started filming the typhoon but within three minutes the water was so strong and so much, it was already up to my ankles," she said, shaking.
"So I tied my son to myself with rope and together we got into a plastic container to float through the waters. Thank God we all survived, but we have to get out of here now. Immediately. We have only three cans of water left to drink and people have started roaming the streets, going into houses to steal things. It has only been three days. Within two weeks it will be impossible for anyone to survive."
The force of the storm that has flattened much of Leyte island, where Tacloban serves as the provincial capital, is best seen by air. The emerald-coloured trees that used to cover the mountains between Tacloban and Ormoc city have been stripped of leaves and now resemble toothpicks stuck into the hillside. Houses and villages have been blown to bits, the debris of homes and farms strewn across the earth. As the land levels out into agricultural plains towards the sea, palm trees that once rose out of the landscape now lie scattered like sticks.
Random images emerge unscathed from the typhoon's chaos: a two-storey pink building next to a winding brown river, 12 miles inland from Tacloban's coastline; two lone motorcycles passing each other on an empty stretch of highway framed by fallen trees.
At Tacloban's decimated airport, where military planes were busy dropping off much-needed supplies of fuel, water, dried goods and generators, hundreds of survivors waited in queues to leave the chaos. There were sick grandmothers lying prone on benches; diabetics with intravenous drips in makeshift wheelchairs fashioned from plastic chairs and carried, not wheeled, by family members; pregnant women and women with toddlers with runny noses.
Among them were pallets of goods – dried food stuffs and supplies. As of Sunday night, over 100 tonnes of relief had arrived in Tacloban, along with 254 military staff, said Colonel Butch Guevara of the Philippine air force's second air division, which is overseeing search and rescue. More than 1,120 civilians had so far been evacuated to Manila and Cebu, with seemingly thousands more to follow in days to come.
Survivors staggered up and down Tacloban's streets on foot, by motorcycle, in vehicles with blown out windows and windshields, or by rickshaw, often carrying various goods like fuel, water or rice. Many of them beg for supplies. With no power and no communications available in the city, residents are desperate to get the word out to their loved ones that they are safe but in need of supplies.
"Pls. help Lola and Lolo ... We are safe. We really nid ur help...we nid food to survive..." read one note pressed into my hand by Michelle Salva, a young woman dressed in a yellow long-sleeved top with cloth around her face to lessen the smell of death permeating the streets. "Thank you for your help, we need you," she said, before turning away.
Everywhere, residents shared tales of survival, loss and humanity. "We were all sleeping when the storm hit, but our cat started meowing so loudly that we all woke up," said Quinn Capacio, 22, as he traipsed through the streets with bottles of water and an umbrella. "The water was already up to our ankles in the house and outside it was waist-high. My whole family huddled together in one room and then the roof blew off. We stayed like that for five hours, huddling and praying. Our cat was almost swept away but we saved her, just like she saved us."
An old woman looking for shoes and money approached and rubbed her stomach with hunger. Capacio reached into his plastic bag and handed her two flattened and oversized flip flops. "Money is useless for me," he said to her sadly. "It doesn't buy you anything because there's nothing to buy." As she wandered away, muttering to herself, more people approached, begging for supplies. "Ma'am, do you have any antibiotics?" asked one man as we passed the lone white-and-gold coffin on the roadside, protected by green netting. "We need food, any kind of food," said another. "What can you give us?"
With little to no relief having yet reached the vast majority of Tacloban's survivors, people have begun taking care of themselves – with a palpable anger at the little they think their government has provided. "There's nothing here – no food, no water, and they don't care," said Edison Tamparia, 30, in basketball shorts and a white slip top. "I had to break into a warehouse to find water but it won't last us two days. People aren't going to survive like this."
Still, among the scenes of devastation, people are trying to get their lives back in order. Families wash clothes and themselves on the side of the road, using water from boreholes, or cook pasta over open fires cobbled together from wooden debris. Men nail down roofs and women drag piles of mud and rubbish from out of their homes using buckets and rope. Children float on plastic bottles in lakes full of debris, salvaging anything they can use.
"Even though we have nothing – no food, no water, no money – we still make do," said Kennelyn Matobato, 34, as she washed the mud from her clothes and her husband butchered their sole remaining pig on a table by the side of the road. A coffin housing her dead grandmother stood nearby, waiting to be buried.
Still, a terror of further storms to come – exacerbated by a new system that reached the Philippines in the early hours of Monday morning – had thrown some into despair, worrying that their already vulnerable lives would be put even more at risk.
Roughly 44 metric tonnes of food aid are expected to arrive on Tuesday on American military planes on behalf of the World Food Programme, said regional emergencies officer Geoff Pinnock, who added that shipments of rice would soon follow. With blocked roads severely hampering relief efforts, it was necessary for routes to be cleared before aid could be more evenly distributed, he added. "This is on a scale of Katrina or the tsunami," he said. "Water is now our highest priority. We need water purification systems immediately as water here normally came from the river, but as the river is full of bodies that's not an option right now."
As the sun began to set in a glow of orange, purples and pinks, two commercial planes made their first landings in Tacloban, filled with passengers looking for loved ones. One man said he had come to find his brother and mother. Another younger looking man in his 30s said he wanted to find his wife. As they crossed the tarmac, a horde of Tacloban residents waited to board the last C-130 plane for Manila, many of them sick and injured. "This is a test from God," said Efren Amarga, 49, a weary man in a green rainjacket with blue-rimmed eyes. "There is nothing left of my house, nothing at all – no walls, no roof, no windows, just mud. My three daughters are missing and I have no idea if they're alive. I just need to get to Manila to get money and medicine for my wife – she has asthma – and then I can come back and start looking for my girls."
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Typhoon Haiyan: survival, loss and humanity in obliterated city of Tacloban
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