There’s a shudder as the ferry Sacred Star sets off from the pier in Cebu, and a shudder among its passengers too. They’re bound for Baybay, a port on the western coast of Leyte province, which bore the appalling assault of typhoon Haiyan when it made landfall early Friday and killed an estimated 10,000 people. Since then, Girlyn Antillon has not heard a word from her parents, her six siblings or other family members in the devastated provincial capital, Tacloban. The security situation in Tacloban — with its looting, escaped prisoners, tales of armed robbery and threat of disease — has unnerved her even further. But after a hopeless day begging for a precious seat on one of the army’s C-130 aircraft, she has decided to take the ferry.
On board Sacred Star, she and Karl Caudel, a colleague who’s come along as moral support, get talking to a stranger who offers to take them on the three-hour drive to Tacloban. She’s not sure about him (“Is he really going to Tacloban just to check on a Mitsubishi he left in a repair shop? And what do those tattoos mean?”). But she has no choice. When the ferry reaches port, she and Caudel have breakfast with the man. His name is Mario, and after coffee, bread and ham — a meal that just 90km away people would commit bloody atrocities for — they climb into his car. Mario packs a handgun and a machete, and picks up an off-duty police friend. They set off towards the east, agreeing not to stop along the way if people ask them to.
The further they go, the more the landscape deteriorates, forming sinister preludes to the devastation they all know is waiting. Just outside of Baybay, they see a group of men trying to raise a power line that’s merely sagged onto the road. But further along, the entire apparatus — power lines, and the concrete posts that support them — lies felled. Fallen trees become flattened trees and roofless houses completely razed. By the time they reach the east coast, almost nothing is standing, the road is a river of debris and the starving children have appeared. They stand mutely, with outstretched arms and handwritten signs pleading for help. The adults aren’t as passive. “Give us food” shouts a man, with an undertone of menace.
His desperation is understandable, for everything has broken down. Everyone in the car has seen the images of a devastated Tacloban on the news, and everyone has been bracing themselves for a night and day — but there is no preparation possible for the experience of entering the city of Tacloban now. “Jesus Christ,” says Antillon softly as we gaze at the hell outside the car window. There are unending lines of people waiting for handouts of food and water. There are the corpses, some in body-bags and some not. Many streets are still completely flooded, and everyone has a cloth tied around their face to ward off the terrible miasma of death.
Into this Hades, Antillon and Caudell disembark and do what they came to do. They write the names of Antillon’s parents on pieces of paper and hold up the signs. Most people mutely look on, but as Antillon approaches what remains of her parents’ home she has the best luck of her life. With a pre-typhoon population of 220,000, Tacloban is a small enough community for everyone to know everyone else, and survivors have seen her family. They are alive, all of them, and sheltering in the wreckage of a house Antillon owns just a few blocks away. We set off briskly — overjoyed, disbelieving and sidestepping the bodies of the dead in our eagerness to reach the living. A family reunion takes place amid shaking, laughter and wracking sobs.
“We knew the typhoon was coming,” says Antillon’s brother Erwin, when he has composed himself. “But we weren’t prepared for the storm surge. It was like a tsunami, water came as high as that building” he says, pointing at a two-storey house. “We had to get out of our home, and climb onto the top of a rubble heap, holding pieces of tin roof over our heads to protect us from flying debris. We ended up sitting there, all nine of us, for three hours.”
As we talk, it emerges that we are face to face with one of the supposedly anarchic looters of Tacloban. With everything he owned destroyed, and desperate for food and water, Erwin showed up at a supermarket the day after the typhoon, when he heard that the shutters had been peeled open like tin cans. “Everyone was doing it, we were easily a thousand,” he says.
Nobody blames them. “There was no food!” shrugs Bernardita Valenzuela, head of what remains of the city information office. And for many people, there still isn’t. Nor is there news of family. Nor is there hope. But for the family of Girlyn Antillon there is another chance. When she boarded the Sacred Star, Antillon probably had no idea what a lucky one she was born under.