Monday 25th Nov
We head off at 0645. No trouble waking, between the bells from the church on the hill where people are living; to the roosters all night; to the dogs fighting; to the military guarding us out the front smoking and chatting. Not sure what the guns are, but they are big, automatic and have lots of magazines.
The team: Garry – team leader, Sandy – ICP, Virginia – RN, Duncan – MD and me. We head to the wharf, or rather what’s left of it, it’s about a 200m walk. There are nine soldiers. All shorter than me. All perfectly presented and keeping us in sight at all times. They take the first boat to the island to ensure our safety. We can see them arrive in the distance. Next to a big white flag, the international signal for “HELP”. The boat returns for us and we board. It’s about 4 meters long, 1 & 1/2 foot wide with bamboo outriggers. The crew push us back. They crank the old diesel engine into action and we putt off. We travel across where the fish farms used to be. We discover later that they ended up on the island, the opposite direction to the typhoon and the initial surge. The locals think they were washed toward Basey and returned with the reverse surge, about 4-6km round trip.
We approach the island and it looks like a classical tropical island, except it looks as though it has been hit by an invading force of bombs, napalm and I don’t know what. The people say they thought there was an earthquake. It was “THE WAVE” coming. The storm surge is estimated between 3-4 m. I think it has been underestimated.
We land on the beach as the concrete wharf is broken. We all have Thomas packs, fully loaded with fluids, drugs and you name it. We land and jump onto the sand. The military have positioned themselves to protect us. They are inconspicuous, however their presence is known by the locals and appreciated by us. There are about 20-30 people waiting to greet us. We walk toward the church via a concrete path about 3m wide. It is fairly clear, the sides are littered with debris and what is a common site, downed power lines. The island only got power two years ago, which is evident by the new looking cable. Concrete poles are snapped. They won’t have power again any time soon.
On the walk from the wharf to the church there is a broken concrete structure. It has 8 concrete pillars about 18inches round. They are still standing. It had a solid concrete roof about 3m x’s 6m and 18″ thick. The wave picked up the roof and lifted it off the slab. It lies on the ground some distance from the pillars. We think there may be bodies under it. We will never know. In Australia it would be difficult to lift, here it is impossible. They don’t have a wheelbarrow, let alone lifting equipment.
The white flag flaps in the breeze and totally looks like the flag scene in the famous 9/11 photos.
We have radio contact and we do hourly radio checks to let the people back at the clinic know we are safe. it’s about 2kms line of sight from the island to mainland.
I can smell the death, I don’t want to look in case I see.
We set up in the church, the only thing standing. These people have erected housing from what they could find. If there is another typhoon they will be in big trouble – as if they’re not now.
We do the usual URTI’s, lacerations etc. and lots of BP’s. Sandy does wounds +++.
Community leaders bring in a man about 43 yr old who lost his mother in the storm. He has not eaten since – 17 days. He is withdrawn and reports are that he will not talk. They are worried about his mental health. With an interpreter we talk for a while. He lets me put an IVC in to give him some fluids and maxalon. Time passes and he points out a large laceration on his L) lower leg. It should have been sutured but it hasn’t been. He lets Sandy clean it up and dress it. We establish that he has good family support. John, our interpreter, asks if I think he will suicide. I say I don’t think so, but he has every reason to. He starts to talk through the interpreter and says “Salamat” – thank you.
We work +++, the day’s tally of people treated is rising.
An old lady comes to ask if we can see a man with a “big tummy”. She explains he is too sick to come down to the clinic. The trek to this man takes us to the other side of the island. Over a big hill, down into a valley and up another hill. We are flanked by the military for the whole trek. No-one else notices them but Garry. En route Duncan says to me “did you smell that?” (code 4). We have to climb over lots of fallen palm trees. They have used some of these cover the bodies with palm fronds.
In a tiny shack that must have been over 40 degrees C inside was a very unwell man. He had the worse ascites any of us had ever seen. Duncan estimated a possible 40L of fluid in his abdo. There was nothing we could do for this man. If we drain the ascites he will probably die. He is going to die. It was just about making him comfortable. We gave him some analgesia to ease his pain and trekked back.
We get back to the church (clinic) and they have made us lunch. HOOLEY DOOLEY. These beautiful people have been smashed, have lost everything, and they make us lunch. Fresh bread, fish flavoured noodles and rice. I feel bad to eat it but don’t want to insult them. We eat a little bit and then all the helpers dig in. They need it.
We need to pee. We decide the best place is out the wall of the priest’s room through a hole. Pissing in a church is bad!! But no choice. The floor is covered with mud anyway. The girls decide to hold on. All the statues are smashed. During the storm surge people were hanging on to the ceiling fans, about 4m high. Fark!
I’m sitting opposite a young man, about late 30’s, who just wants his blood pressure checked. He looks seriously fit. BP is ok. He seems to be waiting for something. John the interpreter asks him “is there anything else?” He answers in Filipino and John’s face drops. John is military and to date has just been stoic. He tells me this his man lost his wife, she was 42, and his daughter aged 16yrs and his son, 2 yrs. I stare at him. He stares at me. We both cry. I can’t move. There are about 15 people around us. Our guard has dropped with onlookers so there are people everywhere in the church. I have a packet of Nurofen I am to trying to give this man for his headaches. I can’t move to pass him the Nurofen. I’m not sure how long passes, maybe 10 minutes, feels like 10 years. He stands up, shakes my hand and says “salamat”. He thanks me! I walk away, past the altar into the little priest’s room on the side (where we weed) and full on bawl my eyes out. Ten minutes later and i’m back into the clinic and working.
A very fit looking man, about 50yrs old I think, comes in to get some lacerations dressed. He was washed from Salvacion to Tacloban! A young boy was washed the other way, from Tacloban past Salvacion and on to Basey. Incredible stories.
an amazing story of survival (click on the link to read it!)
We are making a difference. We have made a difference to over 130 people today. It’s time to pack up and leave. We have seen all the people we can. We pack up everything. The Thomas packs are much lighter due to all the water we drank. The people line the way to the beach, about 300-400m, to thank us. We are the first medical team to come here after Yolanda. Interestingly, while we’re there three govt medics arrived with lots of medications. They came and went without appearing to do much medicine. They handed out medications and what was left over they gave to us. The local Captain told us they were shamed into coming to Salvacion because we were here.
We wait for the boat on a very clean wharf (they’d been working while we were). There is the white flag, still signifying that they are still in need of help. The look on their faces is one of gratitude, sorrow and fear. The boat is late – island time. The barangay captain can’t see us off as he is too upset. He is a proud man and I had some good conversations with him. He is a man carrying the weight of his community. He has to keep them going when all their means of income have been destroyed. Fish farms, rice crops – all gone. The irony is the fish farms are washed up onto the island and rice paddys are in the ocean. What a cruel twist.
As we return on the boat some people are walking through the bay, the water only waist deep in places. The water spans about 2kms and is negotiable by these skilled seamen. The boat navigates us back to a different wharf. We have to walk back through the newly built shanties. I spot an Aussie flag in the middle of the damage. This will be handy later as it turns out to be the brother of an ex-pat who has lots of contacts.
We walk back to our home base in Basey, passing some very desperate faces. We walk through the back streets for the first time. It has not been cleaned up yet. Where did all this rubbish come from?! It is 2-3m high on either side of the street. The street is still covered in mud. The people have no power and are attempting to light fires with whatever flammable items they can find. We walk into our street which is one of the main ones, and appreciate how much it’s been cleared.
What a day. We have the usual daily debrief. For one of the few times in my life I can’t talk. It is my turn to say how my day went and I can’t complete a sentence. I can only picture the man who lost his wife, his daughter and his son. He was totally vacant, emptied. His daughter, he said, passed school with honours. In other words she had a chance to make it. He now has less than nothing if that is possible.
I just want to cry. I do.
I just want to put some reason into this. I can’t as there is no reason, it is just a mess.
I try to eat some dinner. I can’t.
I try to sleep. How do you go on? You do. If that poor man can, I can.
Their faith keeps them going. I make no comment about that.
Half our group has gone to the island of Salvacion today. We run the clinic, it’s business as usual in here. The other group radio in that they’re ok every hour. It’s the first time our group has been apart. I’m a little worried for them. I’m not worried about their safety, I’ve never felt the Filipino people to be in any way threatening, although I understand the need for situational awareness and vigilance. In situations with desperate people nothing should be assumed and I’m appreciative of Garry’s constant concern for our safety and the calming presence of the military. I’m worried about the emotional weight of today. After their reccy yesterday Garry and Darryl were quite disturbed by the state of the island and the people. They described a rawness that was palpable and a desperation that we’ve not witnessed till now.
We stay and run the clinic until it’s time to pack up. We have a record number of people through. Word must be spreading that we’re here, more people keep coming each day.
After the clinic is all packed away and locked up we head down to the wharf area to wait for the other crew to return. We walk through the rubble of the what was once a beautiful foreshore. The smoke is dreadful this afternoon. We pull our buffs up over our mouths and noses but our eyes still burn. No wonder we see so many respiratory illnesses each day. The burning of rubbish and debris is definitely a health hazard, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way of getting rid of it.
We hang down on the foreshore and watch the locals as they construct shanties out of what building materials they can salvage and recycle. A HUGE Globemaster plane flies directly over Basey and then gracefully lands at Tacloban airport. The sun sets and the scene is breathtakingly beautiful, as long as you squint your eyes and look further than the devastation right in front of you. It’s such a juxtaposition of idyll vs holocaust.