When the waves started crashing during the early hours of 8 November 2013, Sammy Quino witnessed his beloved City of Tacloban being engulfed by the storm surges that wrought havoc to thousands of lives and properties.
This was four years ago, and the trauma still lingers.
Sammy is the Assistant Team Leader of the Tacloban City Rescue Unit (TACRU). His team was stationed at the Astrodome, one of the many evacuation centers in Tacloban City. They were armed and prepared even before Typhoon Yolanda (International name: Haiyan) struck – from the equipment, response protocol, and information dissemination.
“Before the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda, all the members of TACRU were in the evacuation center. We were waiting and preparing for what will happen,” Sammy recalled in Filipino.
A day before the landfall, there were already about 5,000 evacuees in the evacuation centers. Sammy recalled the faces of these people from all walks of life. He remembered that everybody looked desperate and afraid. Some were calm, while some were restless. The children cried and played, while their mothers fed them and prayed.
All 5,000 of them were seeking shelter and protection from what was dubbed as the “strongest storm to make landfall and the fourth strongest storm ever recorded.”
For Sammy, everything happened fast. Typhoon Yolanda barreled into the city. The waters rose. The panic ran high. The wails of the children matched that of the sea. Debris was flying around the Astrodome.
In a blink of an eye, Tacloban became nothing but a vast ocean. People were being washed away by the storm surges. Sammy personally saw people drown, or get hit by branches. Some were swallowed up by the monstrous currents. Yet, he could not show fear, since he had a duty to fulfill.
“Even outside the evacuation centers, people are being washed away by the storm surges. We rescued these people and treated their injuries,” Sammy said.
The city he knew disappeared right before his eyes. However, Sammy and the rest of his crew needed to be strong for the people they have vowed to help. Even if that meant that they were away from their families.
“During Yolanda, we didn’t think about our families. We didn’t think about our homes. We focused on what we were doing at the evacuation centers,” he explained, while breaking into tears.
When the situation slightly became under control and all the civilians were treated, TACRU members went home. Sammy’s family was safe. His house might have sustained the most wreckage, but at least his family was still complete.
According to government data, 6,340 lives were claimed by Typhoon Yolanda. The provincial government of Leyte and a local priest placed the deaths at about 15,000. The discrepancies in the numbers are vastly different. Furthermore, thousands remain missing.
Sammy immediately returned to duty a day after checking his family. He saw the bodies piled up along the road, while some were just floating in the waters. He lead the bodies to the side of the road and covered them with whatever cloth they had on. He did this so that he could do something to give them dignity even in death.
Then the official retrieval of the bodies began. He recalled that dead bodies were all that they could see, and the cadavers’ stench was all that they could smell. The bodies steadily piled up. These were bodies of people they grew up with, friends, family, and neighbors. These were the people of Tacloban, who made the city it was before the storm.
Managing the dead and the missing is not an easy task, and it remains to be one of the persisting challenges. Every now and then, body parts would wash up along the shore. Hundreds of families continue to ask for the whereabouts of their loved ones.
In November 2014, wooden crosses were used to mark the gravesites where more than 3,000 bodies were laid to rest. The city government placed the wooden crosses during the evening. Only to see them in the morning with written names of individuals. It was perhaps written by their families who needed to mourn the passing of their loved ones. For the families, it didn’t matter whose body was buried, all that mattered was closure for their loved ones.
Four years after the tragedy, 1,005 people remain missing.
Through its works in the Management of the Dead and Missing (MDM), the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS), in partnership with Humanitarian Leadership Academy, seeks to bring a better understanding to an often overlooked component of Disaster Response; and shed light to the intricacies of MDM in a high casualty incidence, like Typhoon Yolanda. Through a series of sensitization and orientation forum, they intend to impart learnings to duty bearers so that families left behind are not retraumatized by lack of proper handling of their dead and missing.
Unlike in Sammy’s situation, thousands of families remain in limbo. Four years after, they remain waiting for someone, something, anything to return to their land.