The children stand in clusters with wooden signs at the side of the highway, their palms outstretched. “Please help us,” reads one sign, scrawled in permanent ink on a broken board. “We need food & water,” reads another.
As our car weaves its way through the sugarcane-covered hills of northern Cebu – a region where typhoon Haiyan made two devastating landfalls last Friday – we pass family after family begging for help from the buses and trucks that drive past. One boy, agitated at the lack of drivers who have slowed down or stopped, screams out: “We need help!”
In village after village, families line the road requesting help, with various signs – but all variations on the same theme. We park the car on a hill at a smattering of obliterated thatch huts in Tagoban, a few miles outside Bogo – a city of 85,000 that officials estimate was 95% destroyed by Haiyan. A group of men are holding out buckets and empty water bottles, hoping for a passing vehicle to throw out cash or food.
“Maybe 10 cars will help us out a day, giving little packages, or 20 or 50 pesos,” says Dondon Toleng, 28, dressed in a black Adidas T-shirt and basketball shorts, as he stretches out a bucket into oncoming traffic. Soon a van full of Filipinos drives by and chucks out three packages of crackers. “Thank you,” he cries out, as a number of trucks seemingly full of dried foods and donated aid stream past, on their way, ostensibly, to Bogo.
Toleng explains the tricky situation of trying to get hold of aid in the aftermath of the strongest storm ever recorded. “There is some aid being delivered, but we have to go all the way into Bogo City to get it,” he says, a return journey of some 25 miles (40km) . “We have no fuel, we have no money, our water pumps are broken, so everything costs.” Water from the town costs 30 pesos, he explains, but as he earns only 60 pesos a day as a cutter in the neighbouring sugarcane plantation, neither he – nor his neighbours – have the funds to support his family in this time of crisis.
Heading north, the black ribbon of road extending through this agricultural region of Cebu is framed either side by destruction. Felled trees line the route, their palms crunching under tyres, and in some places, whole roofs lie in the road, decorated with the black wires of fallen pylons.
Every few miles there is another village and another group of families begging for supplies. One hut, its thatch roof still partially intact, has a sign that pleads simply: “Have mercy.”
A man takes a break from salvaging reusable woods from his damaged house in Tagoban.
In Bogo, people are milling about listlessly. Girls dressed in yellow uniforms giggle behind empty glass cases in their food shops, but there is nothing to sell. The cashpoint machines are broken; without electricity, no one can get any money. “There’s nothing to buy,” says one girl manning her parents’ convenience shop. “We are all out of stock.”
The buildings here make it look like a bomb went off in the centre of town: metal sheeting has torn huge gaping holes in shopfronts and flying debris has knocked statues off their pedestals. The flimsiest houses – those made of thatch and bamboo – have disintegrated organically into the hillside, the remnants of their insides scattered around like litter.
Around 20 families have taken up refuge in the magnificent pink stone church at the top of the hill, where a statue of St Vincent Ferrer looks out over the caved-in city. “I went back to see my house yesterday and it was totally destroyed. I just stood there and cried,” says Nilvic Ursal, 27, a mother of two who plans on staying in the church’s community hall – which had its roof blown off during Haiyan – as long as she can. “There was nothing left but water and mud. We have no way to fix it.”
At least in the church there is some food, explains Father Dave Jurcales, who says it may take two months for the city’s electricity lines to be replaced.
“A trickle of aid has come into Bogo in the last day – we’re co-ordinating with our own agencies and the city is distributing its own aid. The government is giving out rice, noodles and dry goods, and we’re providing water, shelter and electricity from a generator.”
Not far from the church sits Bogo’s squat sports complex, a covered basketball court that doubled as the city’s evacuation centre until its roof was blown off and water started pouring in everywhere. Now it serves as the main warehouse and distribution centre for relief goods that arrive in on trucks from Cebu, 60 miles away.
Images of typhoon Haiyan from the International Space Station.
The complex is also home to over 520 people, almost all of whom are sleeping on the cold concrete floor with only a cardboard box as a bed. “There are four families sharing this space with me,” says Ruchelle Minincilio, 39, as she cradles her baby, pointing to a space no larger than six feet by 12. “My house is gone. There is nowhere else to go.”
Inside, the wooden basketball court is covered in water. Tents have been erected to protect the stacks of rice from damage and a gaggle of police hang around in the stands, chatting. Bogo’s mayor, Celestino Martinez Jr, is sitting at a table underneath one of the tents overseeing operations, where he complains that, without exact figures for how many families are in need, the aid his city really requires is still unknown.
“The aid only started coming in yesterday, because for two days we were unreachable,” he says, referring to impassable roads and downed telecommunications.
“As of right now, we don’t know how many homeless, how many victims. The problem is if you give one [sack of rice to survivors], they want two. If you give two, they want three. So you tell them: ‘No, just come back tomorrow.’ The aid is coming in from the government, from NGOs, from private donors. It all has to be co-ordinated and divided at local level and then sent out.”
Martinez makes it sound as though the operation is complex. But when questioned as to why hundreds of bags of rice were still in the warehouse and hadn’t yet been delivered to hungry residents, he could only describe a “first wave” of aid and a “second wave” of aid. “This is the second wave,” he said simply.
The road north from Bogo towards Cebu’s northernmost tip, Daanbantayen, is surrounded by the debris of people’s homes, and while there are no official death tolls here yet – in Bogo, the mayor said, the number was just 11, thanks to an efficient evacuation procedure – the scale of devastation in this agricultural belt will take years to reverse.
Many residents live tucked away in small villages along the coast or in the mountains, where aid has not yet reached and the numbers of dead and injured are still unknown.
Local and international aid workers know as much, and have tried to send out teams to assess the situation. But blocked roads and faulty communications have prevented much of the news from the truly remote areas – such as Bantayen island, just north of here – from being known. It also means that aid, when it is delivered, only goes to the few who know it is coming.
“Unless someone had come up into the mountains to tell me this aid delivery was going on, I wouldn’t have known about it,” said Jean Rowsen, 37, as she picks up a bag of privately donated goods in Calape town hall. “This is the only aid I’ve received and it might be the last – unless someone comes up to help us in the mountains,” she added.
People remove an electric post from the road in Daanbantayen, on the northernmost tip of Cebu in the central Philippines.
Kenneth Lim of the philanthropic Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, which was providing toiletries, sardines, rice, noodles, milk and sugar to roughly 2,000 families across north Cebu on Tuesday alone, said the aid task was formidable.
“We’ve been driving through the north of the island all morning, handing out these bags,” he explained. “We can’t get everywhere, but it’s obvious the people are desperate.”
As night falls on the island and the roads become slick with a new rain that many fear is yet another storm looming, families wait out the long evening with candles and their dwindling supplies. In the shadows, you can just about make out lone villagers traipsing along with water containers, and the children still standing with their palms out, begging in the dark.