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Mass escape from ‘hell’

Desperation triggers exodus from Tacloban

FEARFUL and weary residents of Tacloban have begun their exodus from the city, which was flattened Friday by super typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest storms to hit the planet.

Tacloban airport, which was damaged by the typhoon, was filled Tuesday with residents eager to leave the city, traumatized by the storm surges that washed away their homes and by the stench of death, a constant reminder of the tragedy that befell them.

“They are waiting for a flight out of the airport. They want to avoid the looting and the robberies. They are very afraid of the security situation,” said Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez.

Frustration. From top clockwise: A sign in the city says it all; a mother cries after her family fails to board a C-130 military plane out of Tacloban; a general view from the damaged control tower of the Tacloban airport shows a C-130 aircraft (left) taking part in evacuation operations. AFP and Edwin Sevidal
Local authorities said up to 3,000 people swarmed the airport since Monday night, fighting to get the chance to board an Air Force C-130 transport plane bound for Manila, their only chance of salvation. Only a few hundred would make it onboard.

One of the thousands who joined the exodus was 42-year-old Rusty Lacambra, who brought along his wife, two sons, and a niece. They hitched a ride on a passing Army truck which was on its way to the airport.

“Our house was destroyed. There is no food, no water, nothing, even if you have the money,” he said.

Tacloban City councilor Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez, who survived Yolanda’s fury Friday, said nobody could have been prepared for the magnitude of disaster that the super typhoon wrought.

Cristina, one of only two city councilors that have been accounted for, recounted how she and her two daughters, aged 10 and 14, and her husband, Tacloban City Mayor Alfredo Romualdez survived “a near-death experience.”

The Romualdez house, located near the coast of Pacific Ocean, was destroyed by the storm surge that accompanied Yolanda’s strong rains and wind. Cristina said even the city hall was in shambles.

“The water receded maybe about two to three kilometers out (from the shoreline) one hour before. It was probably caused by the storm, but we didn’t expect it,” Cristina said, adding that the wall of water was as high as the 30-foot airport control tower.

She recounted that they survived by clinging to whatever they could hold on to in their submerged two-story home.

The Tacloban airport, or what remained of it, is being guarded only by a handful of policemen and soldiers, preventing refugees from overwhelming the airport’s iron fence.

Councilor Romualdez said there were endless lines of people coming in, many wounded, pleading for food and medicine.

Police on Tuesday said they were still verifying military reports that an undetermined number of inmates of the Leyte provincial jail, which holds about 600, escaped in the chaos following Yolanda’s onslaught.

“It’s a no-man’s land in Tacloban now,” said Manila Standard correspondent Ronald Reyes who was forced to evacuate to Cebu after losing his home in Tacloban. “Everything is about death, destruction and debris everywhere.”

Reyes said the stench of death pervaded the city.

“It smells really bad because people who have been dead for five days have not been buried. Rescuers have to attend to the survivors first,” he said. “If people know that you have food in your house, you will be burgled at night.”

“Because of the slow distribution of food and the fear that diseases will spread due to uncollected cadavers, there is a sense of desperation among our kababayan. Everything -- relief, medicine, and other goods -- are being sent to Tacloban but distribution has been slow,” he said.

Romualdez said the local government has been decimated, with several barangay captains and kagawad among the casualties of the super typhoon.

“You turn to the national government for help. Things have been very slow. Our appeal to the national government is to speed up the relief efforts even further because people are getting desperate,” he said.

“This can easily become a health issue,” Romualdez added, noting that even the Philippine National Red Cross has urged a more organized relief effort to quickly address immediate needs, like potable water.

Red Cross Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang said water purification plants will be set up near water sources, but it will also take some time.

“These (water purification plants) will take three to four days to build and they must be near a source of water,” Pang said, adding that the plants will need a space of about 500 square meters.

Pang said the PRC will work with the Department of Health , which will also be providing its own water purification systems. She did not say how many such purification plants were to be set up.

At present, the Red Cross is supplying survivors with bottled water and cooked meals, meals which do not require much water to cook, and meals that do not need cooking at all.

“We continue to ship bottled water until we can find a (source of water) for now it is very chaotic in the area,” Pang said.

Pang said the PRC was discouraging the donation of powdered milk to children because there wasn’t enough clean water—and using unclean water would put the children in even greater danger.

She encouraged pregnant or lactating mothers to breastfeed their babies as it was the best way to feed them.

The PRC also continues to send food packs such as “rice in a can” that are easy to open and come with different viands such as corned beef, tuna flakes and kaldereta.

The government tally on Tuesday put the official casualty count at 1,774, with 82 missing and 2,487 injured.

In Tacloban City, villagers set up a make-shift wooden sign which read: “Please retrieve the cadavers as 30 of them are rotting now.”

Tacloban City administrator Tecson Juan Lim earlier said the death toll in Tacloban City alone could go up to 10,000, an estimate that the Palace says is premature.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda fended off observations that the government was “too slow” in its relief operations in Tacloban, even as he admitted that several roads still need to be cleared for the smooth delivery of the goods.

“We are not going to leave one living person behind, no matter how difficult, no matter how inaccessible. In areas that are inaccessible, we will do helicopter drops,” he added.

In Coron, Palawan, at least four barangays were wiped out, with not a single house standing, Mayor Clara Reyes said.

“Our agriculture and aquaculture products, 100 percent of them were destroyed. Of our 1,000 pump boats, only 10 remain. And 90 percent of our hotels were either damaged or destroyed,” Reyes said.

Around 80 percent of the power lines in Coron remained down, and Reyes said it could take two months before services can be fully restored.

The crippled Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport in Tacloban City began to accommodate more flights to ferry both relief and passengers Tuesday, chalking up 43 flights, mostly by propeller-driven aircraft such as the Air Force C-130.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said the top priority was fixed wing aircraft carrying relief and allowed only scheduled commercial flights using propeller-driven aircraft.

Capt. John C. Andrews, CAAP deputy director general, flew with his team to Tacloban in a single-engine turboprop aircraft to inspect a secondary airstrip that might be used as an alternate landing site for small aircraft carrying relief to Leyte.

Andrews said that they are also allowing helicopters to land at any open area in the disaster zone to bring in relief, except near the Tacloban airport runway.

Cristina Romualdez said the presence of more armed policemen and soldiers had improved the peace and order situation.

“We heard there were US marines there and policemen and soldiers, so there appeared some semblance of normalcy in the city compared to over the weekend,” said the councilor, who was in Manila to coordinate relief efforts.

Cristina’s brother-in-law, Leyte 1st District Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, said Yolanda spared no one.

“When it hit Tacloban, no one was spared, not even the mayor of Tacloban and members of the city council. All power and communication lines were down and until this time, all city councilors, except for two, remain unaccounted for. Everyone was overwhelmed. It was a total breakdown,” the lawmaker said.

He added his brother, the mayor, barely survived and lost everything but the clothes he was wearing. Other key officials were also victims and could not report for work.

“We relied on satellite phones, which most of the time, were not working. We cannot contact the nearby towns and villages so rescue and relief efforts are difficult,” Romualdez added.

He said the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force has finally arrived in the city to restore peace and order and prevent further looting.

Romualdez said the number of fatalities could be “in the thousands,” including those from other towns of Leyte, Eastern Samar, Cebu, Capiz, Masbate, and Palawan.

The city administrator, Lim, said the presence of soldiers and policemen has stopped the rampant looting, which targeted grocery stores, shopping malls and even gasoline stations.

Lim said a curfew was in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but this was later pushed earlier to 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. – With Ferdinand Fabella and Eric B. Apolonio

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