Food, water and medical support is critical in a city shattered by Haiyan

Published: 12 November 2013 7:40 CET

By Nichola Jones, IFRC in Cebu

As the boat neared the dock at the port town of Ormoc in southern Leyte, the damage became clear. The market, port terminal, houses and shops along the waterline have been wrecked by the winds that lashed the area, crumpling roofs and toppling power lines.

The owner of a local hotel – damaged but not destroyed – was kind enough to let our team of three take a room for the night before we headed to north to Tacloban this morning. The hotel has become a lifeline for many people; those whose homes were destroyed. Although there is no power, there is a freshwater spring, which is vital in this kind of crisis.

The boat from Cebu to Leyte was crowded, people sharing space with emergency supplies of food and fuel. Many were travelling to search for friends and family on Leyte they have been unable to contact since the storm. Dozens of people were preparing to walk the 110km from Ormoc to the Tacloban.

The area, which has so far been the focus of the media, is 100 per cent destroyed and the scene is catastrophic. But it is not the only place affected to such an extent. As the Red Cross and other agencies continue to carry out assessments in the coming days and weeks, the scale of the disaster will become more clear.

This morning, myself and International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) assessment team members took the road to Tacloban. The highway has only just become passable to cars – before Monday only the bravest motorcyclists were making it through – and every village and town along that stretch of road is affected.

Thousands of coconut trees have either been uprooted and catapulted across the land, or they have been snapped in two like toothpicks. While passable, the road is strewn with debris, and we are driving against a tide of thousands fleeing the city – some walking barefoot, others loaded onto scooters with everything they had rescued from the storm. Their destination is not clear, but it is apparent that a huge number of people have been displaced.

The destruction intensified as we neared Tacloban. Palo, a town just outside, was badly hit and the Philippine Red Cross here says there is an urgent need for medical supplies to help doctors cope with the injuries and illnesses associated with such a disaster.

Many people have serious cuts or broken bones and diarrhea cases are already appearing due to the lack of safe drinking water.

What is striking on the road to Tacloban was the way local people are coping. Communities are trying to clear up and using the debris to build shelters that might at least protect them from the rain.

Tacloban city itself is utterly destroyed. Flood water swirls around a carpet in twisted metal, mangled cars, piles of wood, and the stuff of peoples’ lives. It was the sudden and gigantic wall of water thundering through the city that caused much of the devastation.

One man I spoke to today described the moment the storm surge swept in. Three separate three-metre high waves pounded the area, he said. During the first wave, he picked up his elderly mother and ran from the house. Although they both made it to safety, they have not been able to contact other relatives living nearby. This is, inevitably, the case for many others in the area. The Philippine Red Cross is working to try to register the missing and reunite survivors – a vital task that could take weeks or months.

The evidence of the storm’s power is unmistakable in Tacloban. A police boat lies marooned on top of a heap of building debris close to the centre of the city where it was carried in by the wave. Trees hang from the tangle of phone cables and power lines that came down across the road.

Food and water relief is critical here, as it is in all the other areas battered by the storm. Aid agencies and the government are working together to get relief and support to affected areas as quickly as possible. They are also working to reach those people who have not made it to evacuation centres but are instead bedding down in the shells of semi-destroyed buildings.

Health and hygiene supplies are also desperately needed and, ultimately, shelter for the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods have been shattered by Haiyan.

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