Supertyphoon Haiyan: Getting the Hell Out of Ground Zero

People are leaving the storm-battered Philippine city of Tacloban with nothing of their former lives. They're the lucky ones

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Per Liljas

Maricel Maghalos, carrying her exhausted son Meshach, is overjoyed to land at Cebu air base after evacuation from Tacloban

In the middle of a colorless plain of wreckage that was once a barangay of Tacloban there stands a single battered but upright house. You could call the owners lucky because they have a roof over their heads, and a stash of tinned goods that should last them a while. Their neighbors lost everything when Supertyphoon Haiyan — called Yolanda in the Philippines — flattened this city of 200,000 souls on Nov. 7. But Suzy and Oggi Flores, and their children, don’t feel lucky. They feel intensely vulnerable.

With nothing left standing around it, the Flores house is horribly, hideously conspicuous. It could not be a more visible advertisement to the gangs that now freely roam the ruins of Tacloban, searching for anything of value. Come and pillage everything we have, it seems to say. Thus the Flores family can do nothing except maintain a state of hypervigilance.

“We can’t sleep because of all the gangs that move around at night,” Suzy says, sobbing, as men with picks and hammers prowl through the debris outside. “I’ve heard they enter houses, steal and rape. I’m really worried about my daughter.”

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Feelings of danger and anarchy have begun to hang heavy over Tacloban and its sodden suburbs. On Tuesday, eight people were crushed to death as over a thousand starving survivors looted a government rice warehouse about 17 km away. On Wednesday, there was a firefight between police and armed looters on the city outskirts. Because of the security situation, supplies of food and water are piling up at City Hall. Officials are too afraid to venture out and distribute.

Most people of consequence have left the city — some after receiving threats from criminal gangs who want to pick over the property that gets left behind. But in truth almost everyone wants to leave — even those who, like the Flores family, have a roof, food and water. Desperate crowds besiege Tacloban’s “airport” — and it deserves the quote marks, for it’s nothing more than a postapocalyptic simulacrum of what it was. It opened for commercial flights on Monday, but good luck trying to get a ticket. Many people don’t even bother. Instead, they throng a nearby gate, beseeching soldiers to let them onto one of the C-130 planes, bound for the sanctuaries of Manila or Cebu. The atmosphere is dire.

“We’re sick, we haven’t eaten for several days, still the military only lets in people who have some sort of connection to them,” cries a man on the wrong side of the wire.

Desperation forces some to improvise those connections. “I asked a soldier in the airport for his name, then I told the men by the gate that we were his acquaintances,” says Eduardo Maglahos, who, with his wife Maricel and two children, is now hurriedly crossing the tarmac to a C-130. Many of their fellow escapees are being carried or supported on the shoulders of others.

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As the plane takes off, the Maglahos family can barely believe their luck. They were living in Tacloban’s main shelter, the Astrodome sports complex, but felt far from safe. “We were five families locked into an office my dad’s church had there,” says Eduardo. “All the time, people were looking in, lingered outside, waiting to see if there was a spot for them too. I could see it becoming aggressive.”

As of Wednesday, the military had flown around 300 families out of Tacloban. Some people are hospitalized, others go to relatives. The rest stay at Cebu air base, where the Maglahos family eat their first bowl of rice in six days, washed down with juice. It tastes like ambrosia.

“There’s so much joy in being here,” says a stunned Maricel. At the same time, she says, it’s sad to think of the people left behind. And suddenly, I picture the Flores family, huddling in fear in their house as the gangs poke and dig around outside. But that’s the misery of Tacloban now. It’s better to leave it with nothing but the clothes on your back than to stay in your own home with food at your side.