Filipinos Return to Leyte, Afraid of What They Will Find

With communications down, many have only one way of finding out if loved ones are safe in the wake of Haiyan, and that's to physically return to the hardest-hit areas and look for them

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NOEL CELIS / AFP / Getty Images

Residents pray at the Santo Domingo Church in Tacloban, on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte, on Nov. 12, 2013

It’s quite likely that the ticket office of Roble Shipping in Cebu has always been a gloomy sort of place. Fluorescent lights, inefficient air conditioners, lines that never move. In one corner, a bored girl declaims queue numbers into a mike with the reverb turned up full, as though she were in a netherworld karaoke bar.

These days, however, the room isn’t merely gloomy. It’s suffused in gutting, personal tragedy.

A courier in a brown UPS uniform, his eyes all red from crying, leans over the backrest of the chair in front of him, and joins his hands in prayer.

Another man with a tale of survival gesticulates wildly, showing how the water rose and gushed around him.

Everyone here is trying to buy a ferry ticket to Leyte, where Supertyphoon Haiyan — known in the Philippines as Yolanda — did its worst.

(MORE: For Filipinos Overseas, a Desperate Wait for News of Typhoon’s Wrath)

They are going home to look for their loved ones — to trek the near impassable, corpse-lined roads to the flattened barangays, and wander the wastelands of rubble, in the hopes of finding a clue, or a survivor who knows something, or an official who miraculously looks at the photo on a proffered phone, recognizes a face and says, “Ah, yes, they’re safe, they made it to the shelter.”

In the absence of communications, and with sat phones only in the hands of a few aid agencies and government officials, the search for loved ones has taken on desperate dimensions. So have the efforts of survivors to tell the outside world that they are not among the 10,000 feared dead — or that some family members are gone, swept away by the black, churning storm surges.

Journalists visiting the hardest-hit areas come back pockets stuffed with handwritten messages. Survivors talk straight into the lenses of news cameras.

“I’m letting you know that [Josie?] is no longer here. We were separated by the power of the waves. Even my child, I wasn’t able to hold on to my child,” says one survivor on a news broadcast, addressing the friend or relative they hope is watching.

(MORE: ‘They’re Walking Because There’s Nothing Else’: Dazed Survivors Struggle in Haiyan’s Wake)

“Our house was destroyed, my father is dead,” says another. “Please send us food. We have nothing to eat.”

Saturation coverage of stories like this has affected everyone who has a loved one in Leyte, and in the offices of Roble Shipping, where people are making the mercy dash of their lives, the tension has become unbearable.

A phone starts ringing. A secretary sits down right next to it but doesn’t even give it a glance. A cell phone on the other side of her starts up as well, but she ignores that too. And it’s somewhere around this time that a woman throws a fit. Screaming about getting money back for a ticket that was never used. It doesn’t matter.

Another secretary shrugs. “I’ve never been as yelled at like I have today,” she says to me.

There are just too many people who want to go home. And too many people who know, deep down, that there will be no home waiting for them when they get there.

20 comments
shapiro.len
shapiro.len

is there a filipino george w bush? a demagogue and his phony beauracrats?

is there a new orleans in the making, with abandoned survivors, lies and photo ops?

is someone going to say "great job,brownie" with his arm around a clueless man?

how familiar are these pictures of wiped out places and traumatized human beings. while gw BUSH said global warming was a hoax, a left wing communist conspiracy, like stem cells and evolution.

where is OBAMA and his rotten pipeline? where is the Tea Party and their across the board cuts? we will all drown in the lies of politicians,demagogues and war mongers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Raymond Montero
Raymond Montero

Dear Global Citizens/Community. Thank you for all the prayers and sympathies to our nation. But the Philippines needs is an immediate help in "action" not just nice words of comfort and concern. The storm in the Philippines unfold on a scale so staggering that we can't help but be shaken from our indifference to most tragedies. Is our usual behavior shameful? Is it fortunate that we're typically able to be indifferent in a world so full of suffering that feeling its scope everyday would destroy us? The philosophical question isn't one I've answered. But the aftermath of these disasters often prompts me to reflect with fresh eyes on humanity's questionable priorities. Just simply try to put yourself on the victims position and see what it is like. "When I read a rundown of military assets being sent to rescue survivors and deliver supplies, I feel grateful for the logistics officers marshaling their expertise, but also struck by the fact that the tools we're using were designed to fight wars and are being temporarily repurposed. I wonder what a fleet as well-funded as the U.S. military's would look like if it were optimized for natural disaster response. How many victims would have been reached already? The stories about inaccessible areas of the Philippines, where authorities haven't yet seen the damage—let alone helped the survivors—makes me reflect on the global drone fleet, and imagine an alternative world where it was optimized and expanded to spot victims rather than insurgents, delivering drinking water rather than Hellfire missiles. I don't mean to go all John Lennon on you. This isn't a naive call to eliminate the U.S. military and spend its entire budget augmenting the International Red Cross. But given how predictable it is that there will be deadly storms, catastrophic earthquakes, and other natural disasters besides, you'd think we'd spend more on preemptive measures that would help lower the death toll and speed help to survivors. Alas, our psychology as individuals and nations is to dig into our pockets only after the fact, when the descriptions of mass graves and hunger reach us." http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/11/is-this-the-best-humanity-can-do-for-the-philippines/281332/.

Frank Lamberd
Frank Lamberd

URGENT | One of the students: thugs set fire to the security room on campus b # Mansoura egypt

Frank Lamberd
Frank Lamberd

Urgent Coup forces fired gas and cartouche, Mansoura University, with the help of students and exchange thugs now thugs and coup forces the roles both of them the attack on the students alone has already opened the doors of the university attack by the forces of the coup of thugs

Gary Vandiver
Gary Vandiver

We Americans will do our part that i promise you..me myself are like most in Tennessee love the beautiful people of the Phillippines

Atomos Relucio
Atomos Relucio

some are staying in tents brought by relief operations but some are still staying in their demolished homes because they have no choice...

Arnee Potter
Arnee Potter

What happened was much more horrible than what had happened in Japan. They must be so strong to endure all of these. Nothing but time and no one but God can heal their wounds. God help my fellow Filipinos. #BangonPilipinas

Myra Foutris
Myra Foutris

I just want to know where will those people stay or live in if they lost homes

shapiro.len
shapiro.len

@Raymond Montero 

dear sir,

you are right. it's a choice between war and  survival. human beings cannot live without war,history tells us.

so it is inevitable,as the storms like this one and like the one that destroyed new orleans become commonplace, the new norm, we will die a watery death,all over the globe, and drown in our own stupidity,ignorance and barbarism.

DJS
DJS

@Myra Foutris  The same can be said of Hurricane Sandy Survivors, of which I am one.  One year later, countless Hurricane Sandy Survivors remain homeless.many of whom lived in my City of Long Beach, N.Y.prior to Hurricane Sandy’s destroying their homes,along with our hospital, library and pretty much everything here.There was looting.The National Guard was brought in and we were put under 6 p.m to 6 a.m curfew We had no power, no phone or cell service, and no running water as sewage spilled into the water supply.The entire City was virtually obliterated. Many people ended up with 7+ feet of water, or even worse, SEWAGE, in their homes.Lesser known, is that  Homes went up in flames  water hit the electrical systems.Firefighters could not get fire trucks.through  the streets as the water was 6 -7 feet deep in the streets so the homes burned to the ground.Insurnance companies refused to pay out claims in many cases.Some Sandy Survivors-people who were homeowners the day before Sandy Hit. and who are still paying mortgages on shells of homes they can’t live in,a re winding up in homeless shelters at this point, as funding has run out. While my heart goes out to those in the Phillipines who have endured devastating losses and  trauma , I hope that our government will not take it solely upon itself  to take care of those in the Phlilipines who lost their homes.even asSandy victims remain homeless.I hope I do not sound cold or heartless.I am not.I am grateful to be back in my home, mold and all, but so many of my friends and neighbors remain homeless and I am frankly surprised that there havenot been more suicides.There have been a few, which have not made it into mainstream media.