Monday, November 18, 2013

A look at Haiyan

By Father Benjamin Alforque, MSC

At the height of the typhoon/hurricane “Yolanda” (international codename: Haiyan) Nov. 9, a daughter, carried away by the torrents and with debris on her body, said, while clasping the hand of her mother, “Ma, just let go. Save yourself.” This happened in Tacloban, Leyte, near the beach where Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise “I shall return”. Tacloban is now in the world news, pictured as the worst hit by the fury of the storm Yolanda.

My nieces and nephews in Cebu, when I visited with them two days after the typhoon, told me of the sound of the howling winds: it was like a roaring engine of a jet plane passing by so closely. They described the heavy rains carried by the wind as falling in a slanted position. And central and south Cebu was not even in the direct path of the hurricane. Northern Cebu was heavily devastated: homes destroyed, poultry gone, plants and trees uprooted.

Friends of mine from Cebu organized themselves to search for their loved ones in Tacloban. They boarded a navy boat to get there. Upon arrival, they were not allowed to disembark. They were told it was too dangerous. Only rescue teams were allowed into the city. I got calls from the US, Hong Kong and from Manila, requesting help to find their loved ones in the city.

Three days prior to Yolanda’s arrival, the Philippine government’s weather and disaster advisory already talked of a storm that packed strength of 320 mph winds with heavy rains. It talked of forced evacuation of the people in the path of the typhoon, together with safety and food provisions, for nothing could possibly withstand the wind of that magnitude. The people complied. But nobody knew that a water surge from the sea was going to happen. Waters from 15 to 30 meters high surged and engulfed the city of Tacloban, so sudden and so swift, carrying anything with it when it went back into the ocean.

For a day, nothing was known of the terrible impact of the typhoon, save from the videos and snapshots taken by “netizens” that went on Facebook and carried by the news agencies. This was short-lived. Communication networks soon went down. As of this writing, Nov. 14, our network of non-government organizations continue to reach out to areas and communities whose fate remain unknown to the world.

Millions of help has come from all over the world, including the U.S. military and its naval ships. Yes, the government here has ships and helicopters too, but they have been rare in coming. Instead, the Philippine government has sent three C-130s to take people out of the city. Indeed, there have been many initiatives of heroic and epic proportions by the people themselves to help each other, with civic groups and private companies.