FRIENDS REACH OUT TO HELP AMID DEATH AND CHAOS

Typhoon Haiyan aftermath: My journey of heartbreak and hope

When disaster struck, senior sub-editor Jomar Kho Indanan of The Straits Times went on a four-day mercy mission to stricken Tacloban. He tells his story to Cassandra Chew.

I spent the best three years of my life in Tacloban City.

It was where I met my two best friends in university in the 1980s. It is also where my closest cousin lives.

So when Typhoon Haiyan gutted the city on Nov 8 and I could not contact any of them from Manila, where I am based, I felt compelled to go over to help.

I knew the situation was bad when none of my fellow alumni from the University of the Philippines in Tacloban could contact their friends and relatives in Tacloban City either.

So the next day, three of my friends and I met to plan how we could get aid there most effectively.

We collected food and medicine through social media at my sons' school, Multiple Intelligence International School, and donations came in quickly. I have two boys, aged 13 and 15.

At the same time, I camped out at the Philippine Air Force's Villamor Air Base near Manila in the hope of getting a flight to Tacloban.

On Tuesday afternoon, I got on a C-130 flight along with 30 journalists from all over the world.

The first thing I saw when we arrived in Tacloban at 5.30pm was the devastation at the airport. It was completely swept clean. Everything had been peeled off the roofs. The trees had no leaves on them except for the coconut trees, which were bent to one side.

There were no standing structures aside from the control tower and the airport waiting room.

Pieces of wood from houses were strewn all over like matchsticks, as though giant hands had picked the houses up, crumpled them and dropped them onto the ground.

The idyllic city I had known was unrecognisable. It was now a wasteland.

A friend, whose sister's home was on higher ground and relatively unaffected, picked me up at about 8pm. As we drove, we passed corpses lining the roads. Some were covered with plywood and clothes, others were not. All were beginning to decay. The stench was so overpowering and thick it felt like it clung to your skin.

I was taken aback by how even the children seemed immune to the dead bodies. Something so horrible had become so ordinary to them; it was heartbreaking.

I was even more disturbed by reports of looting and one story of how a group of men armed with steel bars and crude weapons encircled a building where people were cooking inside. This behaviour is a far cry from the Tacloban people I know, who have always been friendly and proud of their heritage as the Waray-Waray people, known to be tough and brave.

Yet they seemed to have lost their humanity in the face of adversity, turning to intimidation and looting in a time of desperation. Still, can anyone really blame them?

Red tape had prevented crates and crates of aid sitting on the airport tarmac from getting to Tacloban City, much less to the outskirts and remote villages. Yet those who should be distributing these aid packages - officials, village chiefs - were nowhere to be found.

But this was why I went there - to get aid to people without red tape or bottlenecks.

With the help of my friend, Mr Rogelio Gula, a well-connected community leader, we set up four bases in the city and five smaller ones in villages to operate from.

Our strategy was to take care of those at the frontlines of this disaster: electricians restoring power lines; health workers; teachers supervising evacuees in schools.

If we could take care of them so they did not leave Tacloban, we had a chance of helping to get the city back on its feet that much quicker. We have helped 70 families so far.

Each day was a blur. We started out at 9am and had to return by 8pm, when there was a curfew. We spoke to victims and searched for our friends at the same time.

To my relief, I ran into my cousin by sheer chance at the airport on my second day while sending off an elderly woman to Manila.

In another encounter, an old friend staying in a tent outside his damaged house invited us for a drink.

As we sat down at his coffee table, he offered us a rare luxury - imported coffee that had floated his way. So there were moments of levity.

Then there were moments when I had to fight to hold back my tears, like when I listened to a survivor talk about her decision to remain in Tacloban even though she had the means to leave because she wanted to be part of relief and rebuilding efforts.

She displayed a sense of selflessness I kept seeing throughout my visit. One man offered to share his food supplies even though he soon might not have enough for his family; another family switched on their generator for an hour a day to allow neighbours to charge their cellphones - the only means of communication.

It was uplifting. It said a can-do spirit was creeping back into volunteers and victims alike.

I returned to Manila on Friday but my work is far from done. People still have no way to feed themselves. Power may not return for six months.

Yesterday, I sent off to Tacloban enough supplies to feed up to 300 families. Next, my friends and I want to encourage families in Manila to "adopt" villages and families in Tacloban to help rehabilitate them, and eventually expand this adoption drive beyond Manila.

This may seem ambitious for a small group of five friends from university, but for us, it is our way of giving back to a city that has given us so much.

Sometimes, you are given opportunities in life - as well as what may seem like setbacks - so that you will be positioned to help the right people, at the right place, and at just the right time.

And yet, I've only just scratched the surface.

casschew@sph.com.sg

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