Futuristic-looking Ospreys touch down beside bulky C-130 cargo planes and quickly offload their supplies. The roar of their engines is so familiar that it’s become part of the local vernacular— as in, “When the wave came, it sounded like a C-130.”
Two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan’s ferocious winds and 23-foot storm surge killed over 5,200 people and displaced another 4 million, the residents of this city of 200,000 are now facing difficult decisions about how and where to rebuild their lives.
The area around Tacloban's airport is a tent city, where pet rescue volunteers and Filipino Boy Scouts camp out in ankle-deep mud next to troops in fatigues.The camp is also home to local families who arrived on foot or crammed on a single moped with their salvaged belongings. Some 20,000 residents have already evacuated the city, for the capital Manila and beyond, any place they might be fortunate enough to have family and to live for a while, until electricity is restored, at least— which the government promises will be by Christmas — or to make a new start altogether.
Those that survived usually bear the signature wound of the storm: sizable scabs on forearms and feet, from clinging to trees and floating debris in the 190-mile-per-hour winds as the waves rushed in.
A bright, clear morning
“It was like you could fly,” says Khey Cobacha. That’s what it felt like just before she was nearly washed out to sea, in the quick minutes as the water cascaded into her family’s home. Five successive waves, she says, surged into the city, then sucked its residents and their homes towards the sea.
She had been eating breakfast with her parents just moments before the storm hit. The day before was beautiful, bright and clear. The morning was, too, until the winds began to churn, the water came, and Ms. Cobacha lost sight of her parents. As she clung to a table, and then to a floating sofa, a young child caught hold of her leg.
“He was reaching up to me, asking me to hold him,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Big sister, please.’ But I couldn’t. If I let go with even one hand, we would both die.” She urged him to keep holding on to her leg. He couldn't, and he slipped into the whirlpool.
She considered letting go. It was then, she says, that she heard her mother calling her name, urging her to swim to her. She was too scared, though. By that time, she had been swept towards a palm tree, and grabbed it. She hung on until the waters subsided.
Now she sits in the house of a neighbor, in what used to also double as a small corner convenience store with a walk-up window. In it, Leo Beloy Quejada, Jr., and his brother have rebuilt some semblance of a home. There is a small bed and a table with candlesticks and matches. On the windowsill, some salvaged household items.
Beyond that, their yard is rubble. Across the street, a dozen motorcycles are parked under a tarp, in what has become a makeshift auto repair shop.
Families pulled apart
Mr. Quejada has just been to one of the markets that are gradually opening up around the city, and has come back with apples, candles, matches, a broom, and a shovel.
A statue of a saint stands in the windowsill; his mother was holding it the last time he saw her. His mother and sister are still missing, and he is convinced that they are both somewhere in the mass of debris around the house. He will use the shovel to continue looking for them.
Cobacha has other priorities. She wants to earn money to help her parents – fish vendors who would wake before daybreak to go to the markets - put their lives back together.
“They built our home with sweat and sacrifice,” she says. “They gave me everything.”
She is contemplating going to Manila, where she can earn money working as a maid, she says, and where there are more employment opportunities than in Tacloban.
In Manila, she would have prospects. But what is the point of rebuilding the family home, she wonders, if it would mean breaking up the family?
She wonders what will become of her hometown. The American and Filipino troops have brought food and order. The media has brought attention to their plight. But she’s concerned about when the troops leave and the attention on her town recedes, when the airport is no longer the bustling epicenter of an international aid effort.
What happens in a town haunted by tragic memories? "There are so many things that you see in your head," she says.
For now, she is volunteering, making beds in a local shelter to help remind herself of how fortunate she is to have a father and a mother, and to focus on others, many of whom have lost the people they love most.