There was a disconcerting rattle and hum aboard the old C130 plane as it rumbled down the runway and took to the air. I was on a military flight coming from Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, listed among the many items on a manifest of mercy bound for the devastated city of Tacloban. I was on my second deployment to the provinces of Leyte and Samar as part of an organization called Bike Scouts Philippines.
Our work included the collection of data and the gathering of personal messages from evacuees that we sent to their relatives and friends. In the early days after the storm, this worked very well because most of the people who survived typhoon Yolanda had either lost their phones or the batteries were already drained of power. In addition to being displaced by the strong wind and waves, most of the evacuees had no way to get in touch with anyone.
I went to Tacloban barely a week after the strongest typhoon in recent history slammed onto the shores of Eastern Samar and cut a path of unimaginable destruction across the central islands of the Philippines. The storm and the tsunami-like waves that it brought from the Pacific Ocean reduced many parts of Tacloban City into a quagmire of floating debris and human bodies.
From the air, Tacloban and its surrounding areas looked like the scene of a massive explosion. Coconut trees stood broken in half, sticking out of the landscape like dry and prickly spines that scraped the sky. All around, broken concrete shells and crumpled sheets of tin lay in place where bustling towns used to be, the view from the airplane window as it made its approach into Tacloban was nothing short of apocalyptic.
On the ground, things were just as bad as it looked from the air. The road coming from the Tacloban airport was clogged with the wreckage of houses and upturned cars and trucks that had been carried by the storm surge. I rode my mountain bike over coils of high-voltage electrical cable entangled with steel bars and wood fragments as I made my way towards the city.’
The air didn’t seem so bad around the airport but it got progressively worse as I rode farther along the road to Tacloban. It soon got to a point where the foul stench of decomposition permeated the air, on the street and 3 floors above it in the building where I stayed. It was a building called “The Ritz,” it used to be a popular venue for wedding receptions because it stood just across the street from the Santo Niño church. The Ritz stood at the edge of the water overlooking San Pablo Bay and the historic Leyte Gulf beyond it. At its base lay a mountain of debris that spilled into the bay where half-submerged container trucks drifted freely like artificial islands.
The smell of death wafted in with every breeze that picked up, the mortuary odor stuck to my clothes and I could taste it in my mouth as I swallowed the contaminated air into my lungs. After a few days, everybody had learned to live with the smell and it started to become the new normal in terms of breathing.
At night, I was thankful for the bonfires that the military lit to illuminate their checkpoints. The acrid smoke made my eyes burn but worked wonders in keeping the flies away and provided respite from the constant scent of the deceased. This was life in post-Yolanda Tacloban, barely a week after it was struck by a horrific inundation.
Gathering messages for loved ones
The volunteers of Bike Scouts Philippines rode around Tacloban and Leyte during the day, gathering messages from evacuees and delivering supplies until the 10pm curfew that was enforced on the streets of the city. It was a daily race against time to do our work and beat the curfew. Fortunately, the police and military had gotten used to our presence and would just wave us off with a reminder about the time.
There were 3` teams of volunteer bike messengers that scoured the province of Leyte, visiting evacuation camps and seeking out individual people and families who were on a list we compiled of the missing and the unaccounted for. Many of them we found through a tedious process of piecing together sketchy information and by asking around among the displaced. Some of the people on the list, we discovered, had already managed to get on the C130 flights that transported evacuees to Cebu and Manila.
There was a woman though who had no way to get anywhere, she had hurt her back during the storm and could barely stand as a result. We met her on the road to a village called Burak in Tolosa, Leyte. Nina Perez held a tattered umbrella to shield her from the rain as her daughter pushed her along on a broken wheelchair.
They were on their way to look for medicine to stop the pain in her back. Nina had been hit by a coconut tree that fell on her at the height of the typhoon, this was after she ventured out into the storm to save her son Celso who had been knocked unconscious by a tree that had also fallen on top of him. She thought her son was dead because of the blood that was pouring from a wound on his head, she somehow managed to drag the boy back into their house and saved his life.
Woman in pain
Nina was crying when I met her, she was in pain and her husband had just left for Manila with their son to get medical help using borrowed money. She had a family to take care of and her back injury prevented her from going out to look for assistance. It was just by sheer coincidence that we met her along that particular road, of all the many roads in Leyte.
The Bike Scouts gave her their personal supply of medicine for her back pain and they rode out to contact a French medical team that provided the treatment she needed. Bike Scouts volunteers in Manila would also eventually organize a check-up for Nina’s son Celso with a specialist at the Philippine General Hospital. Celso is now recovering in Manila and Nina has recently received a special delivery of a transistor radio and additional medical supplies by a volunteer bike messenger who rode from Tacloban to deliver the package.
Nina Perez’s story was just one of the many positive things to come out of the Bike Scouts experience in Leyte. There would be many others, but for every good thing that the Bike Scouts volunteers accomplished there were also other cases where there was nothing that could be done to help.
One particular case was that of a man in Tanauan who said that I could tell his story but asked to preserve the privacy of his family’s tragedy. Following up on a tip about a village called Santa Cruz where there were uncollected bodies, I walked across dark pools of soft mud until I reached a solitary house that had been left standing by the storm surge that inundated the area.
Man in his 40s
There was a man in his 40s using his bare hands to clean out the sludge that had settled inside the residence. I learned from him that he had just carried the body of his mother and that of a young nephew to a temporary burial site, both had drowned when large waves engulfed the house.
His mother had difficulty walking on her own and was trapped in a room inside the house when the storm surge came. It was a dark and fast-moving wall of water and debris, said the man, a deadly series of waves that broke through the door and quickly filled up the house in a matter of seconds.
The man offered me coffee but his story had left me shaken, suddenly realizing that we were sitting in the same room where his mother had drowned. He pointed out the beam where he had to extricate his mother’s body after the water receded. He seemed ready to break down as he tried to tell the rest of the story and, at which point, he just stopped talking.
I looked at him and I knew that it was time for me to go and let him deal with his loss, there was absolutely nothing I could say that would have made him feel any better. We shook hands and he stood by the doorway of his house as I walked back in the direction of the highway to Tacloban.
I never did get to the village of Santa Cruz itself, the overwhelming sense of bereavement that I encountered in the flood waters of Tanauan was enough reason for me to let it go.
I met up with the other Bike Scouts who were waiting on the highway and we rode back to Tacloban together. We reached the outskirts of the city a couple of hours later under a deluge of rain and just as it was getting dark. People, both young and old, hurried along the streets carrying supplies and scraps of wood at the end of another day in post-Yolanda Tacloban.
It was definitely a hard life for those who have no choice but to be there, we only had a glimpse of the difficulties of not having access to clean water, electricity, and communications. There were no banks and the only way in and out of the city was through a lifeline of military flights that ferried people and supplies, for which there was a long line of people whose numbers never dwindled even after weeks of multiple daily flights.
People were scared and many just wanted to leave, and it was hard to tell them not to. A lot of people we encountered have developed a phobia for bad weather and a young boy we met was scared pale by the sound of waves crashing on the beach.
The effects of Yolanda go deeper than just the need for the primary necessities of food, water, and shelter. People will also need to deal with the fear that the typhoon have implanted into their psyche and, of course, their diminished optimism for the future.
Bike Scouts volunteers continue to ride in Leyte and Samar throughout the Christmas holidays, they are giving away toys, reconstruction materials, and have been organizing food kitchens and film screenings for the children to help get their minds off the realities of having to survive, even if indeed it’s just for a day.
In the long run, there is no expectation of a grand outcome for the work of helping storm survivors get in touch with their family and friends. It was just a service that volunteers provided for those who needed to reach out to the people who cared for them. I’m sure though that there was some measure of fulfillment to be had in being a volunteer bicycle messenger. Otherwise, nobody would have signed up for the work.
Perhaps, it’s in that long pause you get when you make a phone call to the family of a survivor and you tell them that you are a messenger from Tacloban. The anticipation of the news that you are about to give them, whether it’s good or bad, is often incredibly overwhelming. And then, there’s a sigh and a deep breath before the explosion of utter joy when they hear the news that a complete stranger on a bicycle has found their loved ones safe and sound. On one particular occasion, the people I called ended up completely losing themselves in their moment of happiness and forgot that they were on the phone with somebody.
It was the single most memorable experience of being a volunteer bicycle messenger, that moment when you suddenly realize that you’ve just seen the message home. – Rappler.com
Myles Delfin works mainly as a creative strategist but also as an adventure writer and photographer whose work has appeared in major adventure and travel publications in the Philippines. In addition to over 20 years of experience climbing the major summits of the Philippines, he has also competed in adventure races and endurance mountain bike events. He was part of the Bike Scouts Philippines, a group which volunteered to assist Rappler in taking photos of survivors which were later uploaded on Rappler, Google Person Finder and on Facebook.