Across the Leyte Gulf from the Filipino city of Tacloban, where Typhoon Haiyan killed upwards of 10,000 people, lies the island of Eastern Samar. It was once an under-the-radar tourist destination—its idyllic beaches lined with surf shacks. Today, the island and its largest city, Guiuan, are in shambles, having faced what was perhaps the largest storm in recorded history head on.
Haiyan's eye passed just miles south of Guiuan early last Friday morning, sending 200-mile winds and a 20-foot storm surge onto its coast. I drove from Tacloban to Guiuan this week to see how this remote community of fishernmen and banana farmers is coping with the catastrophe of a lifetime.
Guiuan is a city made up of 60 barangays, or sub-villages, where around 70,000 people live. According to Kitchy Bayan, secretary to the mayor, there have been 85 reported deaths, 24 missing, and 482 injured. These figures are much smaller than reported deaths in Tacloban, but the numbers don't include information from the island barangays that are now completely isolated because the storm destroyed the only means of transportation—boats. There is still no electricity across Samar and mobile phone service has yet to be restored. For those who are known to have perished, the end came quickly.
“Most of the dead were found inside their houses. It happened so early, most people were sleeping,” Aurora de los Reyes, the head of the Municipal Investment Environment and Tourism Office explained.
“In the morning I walked from my house to the municipal hall and I saw the destruction. I just cried the whole way,” she added.
Jaime Alsonso, a fisherman from a nearby island, couldn’t believe its strength. “When the wind got stronger I held my children and grandchildren and leaned against the wall so I could save them,” he said. His leg was pierced multiple times by broken glass but luckily he survived as his whole house collapsed around him.
“My boat is gone so there is no way to work or get food. I have three children in Tacloban and two in Manila. My children don’t know what happened. I can’t do anything anymore. My banana farm was completely destroyed. My house is completely destroyed, and I spend my days building my temporary shelter but it's hard to work because of my foot,” he lamented looking down at the puddles of clotted blood that had formed beneath his leg.
Edgar Gutierrez, a radar engineer at PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration) had a front seat view of the destruction.
“I saw it coming. I told my friends and family in Guiuan but people just shrugged it off because they didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was. Most people are very religious so they just said that god will save us.”
Gutierrez was stationed in the monitoring tower when Haiyan made landfall. “When it hit all I saw was smoke and evaporated water. We couldn’t breathe because the air was compressed in the room. They had to smash a small ventilation hole and then break the door down.”
A walk around the town revealed the extent of the devestation. The elementary school has become a refugee center for the homeless. With no school, children played freely among the debris, swinging from dangling pieces of exposed rebar and jumping onto fallen corrugated steel roofs. A cracked-open prison appeared to be in the process of being repaired by its former inmates.
The village's various historical monuments were not spared. The local airport, which was built in 1944 and was in process of expanding, lies in tatters as well as their famed Church of the Immaculate Conception. Tourism, which has been a source of considerable income for the city with 6,000 tourists on average visiting the island yearly will also take a big hit with not a single structure left to support it.
It’s been seven days since the typhoon nearly wiped Guiuan off the map and food and water have become scarce, manypeople are surviving by drinking coconut water. “We are going back to the deep well and we have enough water now but soon we can foresee disease,” said de los Reyes, the head of the tourism board.
Desperation has driven people to looting. There have been reports of people from neighboring villages coming in with weapons to loot and ransack local shops. One security guard has been killed and two more have died in stampedes as people have rushed to grab whatever they can in the shopping mall.
On Monday, the Philippine President Benigno Aquino, declared a state of emergency in Guiuan providing police presence, military aid, and a strict 8 PM curfew.
The city’s two petrol stations have been destroyed—ATM machines and banks are not working. “The hardest part of all this is rebuilding their houses. It’ll probably be a five to ten year recovery,” said de los Reyes.
Christopher Gonzalez, the mayor of Guiuan, looked weary when i visited him. His hand was wrapped in a bandage and his feet were covered in cuts and blisters. I found him on the second floor of the municipal hall with other council members. Between them was a plate of pancit, or noodles—a cheap and convenient staple in Filipino cuisine.
“We attempted preemptive evacuation but the problem was that no one was expecting the wind to be as strong as it was. All of our evacuation centers crumbled.” Christopher explained.
“What I’m trying to do now is give food to people, provide temporary shelter, and encourage their livelihoods,” he added.
When describing the situation, and his eyes swelled up. He took a moment to compose himself.
“Even for me, the morale is very low. Since the day of the typhoon we’ve been completely isolated from the rest of the world we have no idea what’s happening. Since I’m the mayor I couldn’t show my fear and I had to keep it all together, but I’m not Superman. I don’t eat because I feel like it will destroy my intensity to help,” he said gesturing towards the untouched pancit.
“We need to give food to the island barangays—they still haven’t received any aid. There are about five to 6,000 people in these barangays.”
Aid is slowly trickling in from the government's military C-130 cargo planes and supply trucks rumbling up newly cleared roads. The city receives regular deliveries of 260 food bags each day. “But that’s is not enough to feed 30,000 households,” said the mayor.