Relief rolls into devastated towns in Leyte after Typhoon Haiyan

By Patrick Fuller, IFRC in Tanuan

A huge cheer goes up as the Philippine Red Cross relief truck slowly rounds the corner of the main street of Tanuan. Over a thousand people have been queuing patiently for over an hour, waiting for food packets that will sustain them through the next few days.

This is amongst the first relief to arrive in the town of 50,000, a positive sign that the situation for survivors of typhoon Haiyan is beginning to improve. No house escaped the effects of the combined tidal surge and extreme winds that came with Typhoon Haiyan. The waves smashed everything in their path and the debris of broken homes, vehicles and possessions clogs every street. Shops remain closed and local people rely on a few hand pumps scattered around the town for drinking water.

Across the road from the distribution, a Philippine Red Cross first aid post has been set up for the day. A stream of walking wounded has been coming to have their injuries treated. Two Red Cross volunteers carefully clean a wound on the arm of a teenager wounded by a flying metal roof that was torn from a nearby house. “Most of the wounds are lacerations,” explains Rudelly Cabutin, who has arrived from the Philippine Red Cross Chapter in Laguna. “The worry is that without proper treatment many will become infected, local medical services in the town have collapsed.”

At the town hall, 23-year-old Golda May has joined a team of five midwives to set up a delivery room in a tiny office with a desk covered by a towel which serves as a bed. With half of the roof missing, a leaking tarpaulin provides them with some shelter from the elements. The floor is awash with muddy water. “Some of the mothers went into labour prematurely because of shock following the disaster,” says Golda. “We have no anaesthesia, no pain relief and no antibiotics.”

Despite the crude set up, the team have managed 13 deliveries in the past week. Golda shares her own tragic story. The day the storm hit she was working, but her four-year-old daughter was at home in the path of the storm surge. “My daughter is still missing; people say they are burying all the children in a mass grave. I just have to keep busy so that I don’t think about what happened,” she says. She has no other children.

In the backstreets of Tanuan, Juan Coleas is picking through the debris of his home. All that remains is a pile of splintered wood littered with clothes and the family’s possessions. His son Joey is already hammering together a rudimentary frame that that they will cover in a tarpaulin to provide some temporary shelter. “There were 12 of us living here in three houses. We have lost everything,” Coleas says. Outside his wife is washing clothes in a basin of dirty water, surrounded by debris and mud. The air is thick with the smell of decomposing bodies. It’s not known how many people remain buried under the debris. Juan Coleas is staying with his neighbour Felicisisimo Pica, a retired civil engineer, who owns the only house in the street still standing.

“I am housing about 50 people,” Pica says. “We share what food we have and cook together. As Filipinos, this is the way that we can get through this disaster, as a community. Without hope, what do we have left?”

Since the Typhoon struck, the Philippine Red Cross has been doing an extraordinary job under extremely difficult circumstances. The staff in their Tacloban chapter took a direct hit themselves, as the sea came inland. 17 members of the chapter managed to escape the waves and spent four hours on the roof waiting to be rescued.

Now the Red Cross has set up an operations base in the grounds of the partially destroyed Leyte Park Hotel. 136 volunteers have been drafted in from chapters across the country including Luzon and Mindanao.

Every day three Red Cross water tankers roll out, delivering water to bladders which have been set up next to the only functional hospital in Tacloban. Two more bladders have been set up in other areas of the town to serve the local population as water supply remains intermittent in the town. One team of volunteers has the grisly task of retrieving the bodies, while others help with clearing debris from the streets.

The relief distribution today in Tanuan signals a scaling up of their operation. “It took five days for the convoy of 12 trucks to reach Tacloban,” says Ryan Jopia, the Philippine Red Cross operations manager. “This gives you an idea how difficult it is to get supplies here in large quantities. There has been a lot of attention on Tacloban but the priority now is to get out to other towns and villages that have yet to be reached.”