x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

‘The waves threatened the world’s end’: Typhoon Haiyan survivor recounts terror

Resident of Easter Samar says he can’t sleep after the typhoon that dashed the dreams of countless Filipinos into the boiling ocean. Aya Lowe reports

Few buildings remain in East Samar after Typhoon Haiyan. Aya Lowe for The National
Few buildings remain in East Samar after Typhoon Haiyan. Aya Lowe for The National

HERNANI, PHILIPPINES // When Floro Barciel saw the walls of water roaring towards his home, he thought the world was going to end.

His two-storey house in Eastern Samar province normally offers a tranquil view of waves lapping gently onto a pristine, white sand beach.

But when he looked out his first-floor window last Friday at 6:00 am, what he saw instead filled him with terror: mountains of water of up to 15 metres high thundering his way, whipped to a frenzy by sustained winds of 235 kph.

“I ran up the stairs as far as I could,” he recalled this week. For the next two hours, he watched as the seething waters of Typhoon Haiyan uprooted whole houses and swept them out to sea.

Five days later, the surf is again rolling up serenely on the shore - a picture postcard of a tropical paradise. Still, Mr Barciel, 50, finds no peace. “I can’t sleep anymore. Every time I close my eyes, I see the waves. Now when I hear the waves, it makes me scared,” he said.

Leyte province and its capital, Tacloban, bore the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan when it rumbled in from the east and the Philippine Sea. So far, the toll in lives and property damage beyond Tacloban, in the remote towns and villages of Eastern Samar, is not known.

Downed telephone lines and and wrecked mobile phone towers have largely severed these communities from the outside world, and reports by local officials are only now starting to trickle in to the provincial capitals.

A visit by car to the coastal villages of Eastern Samar, navigating over pot-holed, debris-strewn roads, reveals a portrait of widespread devastation.

Few buildings remain standing. Electricity poles lean haphazardly across the streets, held up only by a tangle of power lines. Jeepneys and tricycles lay tangled around tree stumps. The shorn tops of tombstones jut from piles of concrete rubble, shredded clothing and sand.

The village of Hernani, 135 kilometres by road from Tacloban, is unrecognisable. Of the 192 homes in one of its neighbourhoods, Batong, only six resemble human habitation. All others have been flattened.

“The houses were built very close to each other so when the wind and water came, they all fell like dominos,” said Sonia Bagwang, a resident.

Survivors in Batong have counted eight people dead and 35 missing, out of a total population in the district of 784.

“This place now has no life,” Zokia Pangilinane said. She went on: “The first moment I saw what had happened to our village I burst into tears because I never expected I would see something like this. Now three days later I have accepted it. I count myself lucky that I survived.”

Elsewhere along the coast of Eastern Samar, Melchor Margal has given up trying to account for all the people of Salcedo, where he serves as mayor.

“I’ve just counted the missing as dead now, as it’s already been four days,” he said.

Salcedo had a population of 20,358, living in nearly 5,000 houses. Typhoon Haiyan destroyed all of the homes, and two of the village’s neighbourhoods have disappeared entirely under tons of sand. The result is a mad scramble for survival.

“It’s hard keeping peace and order under control. Our staff are also victims. The chief of police is still missing his father. Looting has started to happen. People are trying now to loot building materials such as galvanized iron,” Mr Margal said.

He added: “At times like this it is hard to keep your head. I do small things like wash my clothes to keep my mind sane,” he added.

Clarence Cherreguine, a lawyer in in the town of Balangkayan, a three-hour drive from Hernani, has money to buy food, but no location nearby to obtain either.

“The nearest place to buy food is about 3km away, but even if you had money in a bank you can’t withdraw because the ATMs are down,” he said.

Mr Cherreguine and other residents of the area do not expect power or mobile phone signals to be restored any time soon, prolonging the agony of relatives anxious to learn the whereabouts of their loved ones.

“We’ll be fortunate if they return in three months,” he said.

Despite warnings from authorities about the approaching storm, Mr Cherreguine said the typhoon caught a lot of people - including himself - off guard.

“We didn’t evacuate because we thought it would just be the wind. We’ve experienced typhoons before but this time it was completely different. It wasn’t just the wind and the rain, it was the waves as well,” he said.

Elisa Rameris said preparations for the storm did not extend beyond warnings broadcast on radio and television. There was no attempt to stockpile food and water supplies, said the 48-year-old resident of Hernani.

Until yesterday, roads blocked by mud and fallen trees have made the delivery of relief supplies to Eastern Samar’s coastal towns and villages all but impossible. Fresh water is starting to be transported to some sites, but due to crippled infrastructure, aid agencies have been slow to get aid to the needy.

Relief assistance sent by the International Committee for the Red Cross remained stuck in the port of Matonog yesterday. Saying they can wait for the help no longer, local volunteers are attempting to pick up the slack.

“We’ve been bringing used clothing and food, which we’ve solicited from the nearby villages, and have bought food from our own expenses,” said John Ang from Borongay.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae