Mission: Palo, Leyte

First-hand account by Philippine Science High School System executive director Josette Biyo about their mission to reach hard-hit Palo, Leyte

SHATTERED. What remains of the PSHS Eastern Visayas Campus after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). The campus now serves as temporary shelter for hundreds of people in Palo, Leyte. Image courtesy AghamRoad.ph

MANILA, Philippines – A few kilometers south of Tacloban City is Palo. The town, which lies along the coast facing Leyte Gulf, is also decimated after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit the region Friday, November 8.

Palo is home to one of the campuses of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) System, a government institution where some of the country’s best young minds study as government scholars.

After Yolanda/Haiyan hit, the PSHS community immediately mobilized to aid the PSHS Eastern Visayas Campus (PSHS-EVC). Hundreds of people are currently taking shelter in what used to be one of the country’s most advanced high schools, now reduced to ruin.

Here is a first-hand account of Dr Josette Biyo, the PSHS System executive director, who led a small team of PSHS staff to visit the campus and the town of Palo after the disaster struck. 

Rappler obtained permission to publish this email, sent to school officials and alumni Tuesday, November 12, to give an idea of how difficult it is to reach some of the hardest-hit communities. 

Dear Friends,

Here’s an update:

Mission 1: To reach PSHS Eastern Visayas Campus in Palo, Leyte at all cost.

November 11 (Monday) 7 am: I appealed to PSHS Main Campus during the flag-raising ceremony for financial support to help our faculty, staff, students at PSHS Eastern Visayas. Was able to raise P50,000.00+ in an hour.

8:30 am: Went to [the Department of Science and Technology [in] Bicutan to inform Secretary Mario Montejo of plan to bring support to PSHS EVC. Spoke during the DOST [Management Committee] meeting to relay plans, re: Mission Palo. ASTI [Advance Science and Technology Institute] director Dennis Villorente sent 6 units of BGAN Satellite phones but we decided to bring only 3 units, because we are not sure of route to take, and we prioritized to bring food. We only brought backpacks as we were ready to take the motorcycle, or “habal-habal” ride in case we cannot take a van or bus to Palo, Leyte, where our campus is located.

10 am: Purchased boxes of over-the-counter drugs – paracetamol and anti-diarrhea.

2 pm: Took a flight from Manila to Cebu with director Lilia Habacon of PSHS Central Luzon Campus (CLC). We arrived Cebu by 3:30 pm and were met by 3 teachers from PSHS Central Visayas Campus (CVisC), Riza Aguilar, Alco Kenneth Tolentino, and Julius Albina. The 5 of us planned our “Mission: Palo, Leyte.”

4 pm: We contacted General Caringal of Philippine Marines. He introduced us to Commodore Yoma of the Philippine Navy. Our PSHS Team-Mission Palo proceeded to the Navy Headquarters in Lapu-Lapu City and held a meeting with the officers of Commodore Yoma. The Philippine Navy offered to take us to Tacloban City but their ship was still scheduled to leave on Wednesday (November 13). We cannot wait. We discussed possible routes, the pros and cons. Our team decided that the Cebu–Baybay, Leyte–Palo route is the most feasible. The Navy informed us that there is no update on security, re: route we have chosen.

As of [Wednesday, November 13], it is still too dangerous to travel to Tacloban City. There is restlessness and disorder.

5:30 pm: Our team proceeded to SM City Cebu to buy food items that will fit into our backpacks. We were informed by the Navy that there is looting and were advised not to be visible that we are bringing much food. Besides, we were ready to take the “habal-habal” and to walk, in the event that we cannot get a van or a bus ride.

8 pm: We took a boat from Cebu Pier to Baybay, Leyte. From the plane ride from Manila to Cebu, to the boat from Cebu to Baybay, Leyte, I can’t help my tears from falling. Each time I eat, I cry… I think of the people who have not eaten for four days…

On the boat, we made contingency plans: Plan A: to rent a van, and as soon as we can get a van, to buy as much supplies in Baybay, Leyte for PSHS-EVC. Plan B: If we cannot get a van, to ride a motorcycle, each one of us, with our backpacks, and also to be ready to walk.

3 am: We reached Baybay, Leyte. It was raining hard. We waited until about 5 am and the two teachers from our team went downtown and looked for a van. We were able to get a van at about 6 am. However, 6 other men pleaded to ride our van as they are also en route to Palo, Leyte to look for their families. We agreed. We felt safer with additional males in the group. However we did not have enough space to buy more supplies. So, we just bought all the bread we can get from Baybay, Leyte and hid these in the available spaces in the floor of the van for fear that we will be looted, or stopped by hungry people.

6:30 am: We left Baybay, Leyte. Along the way, we were shocked by the gravity of the devastation. Trees, houses, schools, buildings, schools, churches – no standing tree nor infrastructure was spared. The distance between Baybay to Palo was about 120 kilometers. We could only smile to think of the “habal-habal” or the motorcycle ride for 120 km that we were ready to take, or the walk that we planned. We were the only group who was able to get a van to bring us to Palo because diesel or gasoline was rationed. There were women crying, asking to ride with us, but there was no more space.

From Baybay, Mahaplag, Abuyog, Mac Arthur, Mayorga, Dulag, Tolosa, Tanawan, and Palo, we saw:

  • All forms of livelihood disappeared; trees fallen or uprooted, all houses without roofs or have crumbled
  • Entire villages swallowed by the Pacific Ocean as evidenced by some remnants, e.g. posts standing, or half of the houses already in water, damaged concrete fences
  • Dead bodies along the road
  • Wrecked cars
  • Piles and piles of garbage, etc…
  • People like zombies, children without clothes
  • A lot more devastation, I can’t describe all of them, but there was wreckage everywhere…

From what I saw, I personally believe that over 50,000 people died from the tragedy. Storm surges have wiped out villages. Villages swallowed by Pacific Ocean. Where will they hide, which place is safe?

10 am: We reached Palo, Leyte. Site devastating. Crumbled buildings, people waiting for relief goods, etc. But it seems relief goods are only focused in Tacloban City. We have not seen distribution of relief goods in the 120 km that we have travelled – from Baybay to Palo.

We met with PSHS EVC teachers and staff, and some students. Crying, they said, “your arrival gave us some sense of hope…”

The site of PSHS- Eastern Visayas also crumbled our hearts:

  • All buildings without roofs
  • Gym, massive destruction
  • All equipment and facilities destroyed
  • About 2,000 people occupying the 1st and 3rd floors of our buildings
  • PSHS EVC and DOST families are housed in the 2nd and 1st floor of the PSHS Girls and Boys Dormitory
  • Personnel count are as follows: as of date, the following are confirmed dead – one student, one teacher, school driver. Many still unaccounted for including 5 security guards
  • Campus director Dr Rey Garnace has been walking everyday, trying to locate our students and their families
  • We were not able to get news of our PSHS Central Visayas Campus staff who lives in Tacloban. It is too dangerous to go to Tacloban, by foot, more so by car.
  • Mass burning of dead bodies near our campus

11 am: Met with Governor Dominique Petilla of Leyte. Navy is willing to bring the 50 sacks of rice that we initially want to take to Palo. However, the ship will dock in Tacloban. We inquired from Gov Petilla if he can arrange for a truck to bring the sacks of rice from Tacloban to PSHS EVC. Gov Petilla said that if the goods will dock in Tacloban, for sure, these could not reach Palo. We then asked for boxes of medicines from Gov Petilla. One box of medicine was brought by military men to EVC.

People came to me for medicines. Old people with injuries – a very pitiful sight. I started giving pain relievers and antibiotics, until I realized I am not a medical doctor, and had to force myself to stop.

11:30 am: Medical doctors from the CARAGA Volunteer team came to PSHS EVC. I felt relieved.

12:30 am: Our team decided to go back to Baybay, Leyte with two security guards from EVC to purchase more goods, as we were already sure of a safe route to take.

3:30 pm: We arrived Baybay, and panic-buying set in. We purchased all the basic items, most especially canned goods, and sacks of rice that will fit in the van. We arranged them in such a way that these will not be visible from the outside.

4:30 pm: All of us ate our first meal in a carinderia in front of the store where be bought 5 sacks of rice. Food tasted “super delicious.”

5 pm: Van with two security guards departed for Palo. My instruction was, “Don’t risk your lives. If you will be stopped, distribute the goods. Everyone is hungry.”

6 pm: Our team proceeded to the ship in Baybay Pier which was expected to depart for Cebu by 8 pm. It was raining heavily. There was storm signal number 1 [Editor’s Note: This was due to the PAGASA warning for Tropical Depression Zoraida]

8 pm: Ship departed for Cebu.

8:30 pm: I received a call from Dr Rey Garnace (thanks to the satellite phone from DOST) that our van of goods has arrived PSHS EVC safely!

10:30 pm: I woke up from the strong waves and rain. Looked at my companions and they were snoring heavily! Prayed hard that we could reach Cebu safely.

2:30 am (Tuesday, November 12): Our ship docked in Cebu pier. Mission 1 accomplished!

9 am: I called DOST Secretary Montejo and informed him of our accomplishments. Also told him of the safest route to take to reach Palo, and how we did it.

Sec Montejo and our PSHS Team has planned Mission 2: Help for Palo and nearby areas.

This afternoon, I, Director Habacon, and a team from PSHS Central Visayas, together with DOST 7, will start preparing for Mission 2. Financial support is still coming from all PSHS campuses. The P50,000 collected from PSHS Main Campus and Office of the executive director last Monday was used to buy goods for mission 1. The P100,000 sent by PSHS Cagayan Valley Campus, and the P69,000 sent by Main Campus today, will be used for Mission 2, together with the support from DOST Secretary. For Mission 2, the PSHS CVisC INNOVA, DOST van, and another van will bring goods to Palo and nearby areas.

Director Gene Andres also called up today to inform that a group of PSHS alumni doctors are organizing a team to do medical mission in Leyte, with the center at PSHS EVC. I also called PSHS alumni president, Dr Jondi Flavier to send antibiotics and tetanus vaccines. Currently, we are calling parents and medical doctors here in Cebu to donate medicines. We are doing it our way, and it seems, this is more effective.

This is all for now.

Thank you for your continued support to PSHS.

Josette T. Biyo

The letter has been edited only for style purposes. As of Thursday, November 14, Biyo is in the PSHS Central Visayas Campus in Argao, Cebu, which is being used as the team’s base of operations. Rappler.com