You could see the sign clearly from the air as the chopper came in. On a square white sheet, perhaps 10ft by 10ft, the word HELP faced skyward.
The plea was on the beach, tied down by lumps of coral and toppled coconut palms. Behind it lay the reason: the remote shoreline village of Habag, idyllic in better times, now pulverised by the typhoon that blasted through the central Philippines on Friday, November 8th.
The choppers were the first to make contact with the villagers since that day 13 days ago. It was the first time anyone had come to see them, come to talk to them, to hear what they needed, to help them beyond the limited, but very welcome, boxes of US food aid dropped by American choppers hovering two to three hundred feet above the beach before disappearing out to sea.
Homonhon Island is in the Gulf of Leyte, south of devastated Guiuan, about two hours by ferry; 15 minutes by helicopter. Habag is on the north of the island, separated from the rest by mountains that are passable only by foot. The walk takes half a day.
First outside contact
Islanders elsewhere had enough to contend with in their own communities, so no one had been to Habag since the typhoon.
The entire community, sick and able-bodied, turned up. They came out of the torn-apart shanty homes that some were trying to rebuild. They came from under tarpaulins and propped-up sheets of corrugated iron, temporary places of refuge.
Some just emerged, ambling along the small tracks winding through the wreckage or along the half-washed-away concrete path that marked the junction between homes and the beach, the only route in this village that was even remotely like a road.
Despite the desperate nature of their situation, almost all were cheerful and all were grateful that their visitors had come. And for the children, the strangers were a wonderful source of fascination and entertainment.
A concrete house beside the community arts centre was taken over by the medics – American doctors Chris Summers and Tim Tan, and paramedics, Phil, Carl, Joe, Jake and Andrew, two local nurses, and a local midwife, Crisanta Gapape, whom everyone liked to call Santa.
With them also were Alex Ostasiewicz of AmeriCares, an organisation that helps the pharma industry supply charities and NGOs; Matt McDermott, a photographer working for her; and The Irish Times.
Three tables were set up beside the house. At the first, Santa took names, the basis of a register. By day’s end, she recorded 130 people being seen by the medics and a variety of complaints, none of them immediately life threatening but many fatal if untreated.
At the next table, paramedics carried out triage, an initial examination for assessment of further needs, if any. Blood pressure was taken, lung function tested.
At the next table, Dr Tan carried out a full medical, based on triage, chatting to the patients. Those that needed medicines – antibiotics and painkillers mostly, but sometimes vitamins also – were given them immediately.
Some of the villagers were referred inside the house to Dr Summers. These were people with infected wounds that needed dressing or stitching, or with conditions that gave rise to suspicions of something more serious.
Outside, as Dr Summers worked, a gaggle of villagers – adults and children – gathered by the door chatting, keen to know more about what was going on inside, craning their heads to see.
Maria Lilibeth Cabigon brought me to her house opposite the temporary clinic. All that remains is the concrete floor.
“That was my bedroom,” she says, pointing to the space right by the sandy coral beach, turquoise water and reef just beyond.
You must have had a wonderful view, I say. “But not now,” she answers sadly.
She and her husband Alberto, along with their children, Reena (26), Richard (22), Aljohn (20) and Revin (8) survived by going to the elementary school, a few rows further back from the beach.
Everyone in the school hunkered down and held on to each other for dear life as the storm howled outside. The roof blew off.
‘The end of the world’
“It was like the end of the world,” she says. The concrete block building later collapsed and is now a mess of toppled desks and destroyed schoolbooks.
The community then headed into the mountains to escape the sea surge. All but one man went. Domingo Cabaguing (78) refused to leave his home and he died.
“We need nails,” Benilda Mabanan says as a man on top of her house tries to hammer down corrugated iron to give her some shelter.
Bernarda Baganon (78) shuffles along the coconut and palm strewn path to tell me: “My house is destroyed.”
Where was it, I ask.
“There,” she says. All I can see is flattened jungle undergrowth; not even a hint of the home that used to be there.
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” she calls after me, not intending the comment as a joke.
Evelina Belen (53) is the incoming chairwoman of the community. “We need fertiliser,” she says. “We need it to plant cassava, camote [sweet potato] , bananas and lemon trees.”
I asked how people survived immediately after the storm and before the food boxes were dropped last week. As all but one of the community’s fishing boats had been smashed, they scoured the shore for rock crabs. A gushing stream from the mountain supplied all their water needs.
Back at the clinic, Ria Villamor, a pretty 32-year-old mother of two children, aged 10 and five, has a wound on her left foot dressed. Her husband Jonar (35) helps her walk home and I stroll with them.
Ria had a stroke about a year ago (in part, perhaps, because of the very high salt content in their diet, it being used to preserve fish) and walks badly. She smiles slightly awkwardly and tries to exercise her arm as we walk.
Dr Summers was the first doctor she had seen since her stroke; doctors don’t come to Habag, and so whatever physiotherapeutic exercise she is now encouraged to do may be too late to restore her limbs to full use.
Jonar has made good progress rebuilding their wooden house which is right on the beach, another home in what otherwise would be a stunningly beautiful setting.
In Dr Summers’s makeshift surgery, the most serious case of the day, that of Faustina Eucio, is getting his and paramedic Andrew’s full attention. Faustina (70) stepped on glass the day of the storm and the wound was left untreated.
She is given intravenous antibiotics and Andrew bathes her badly damaged left foot in betadine. The doctor gives her five days’ of injections and 14 days of antibiotic pills.
“She would have lost that left foot in a week and maybe died,” says Dr Summers.
Faustina’s foot is eventually bandaged and given a temporary fibreglass protective sheath.
She is raised from the slatted bed that has been her treatment couch in the commandeered home and placed on to a wooden bench as village men carry her home, slowly, through the rubble.
A grand fuss
The villagers provide lunch – rice and some of the salty fish that has caused almost an entire community to have high blood pressure. They make a grand fuss of us.
“The people here did more for me than I did for the people,” said Dr Summers, who has been playing with the village children like a favourite uncle.
We play on the beach, throwing coconuts, American quarterback style, while waiting for the choppers to return. The children gather shells for us from among the coral.
One of the village women says: “Thank you for coming. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
There is no room on the choppers for any evacuees. We pile in, they rise slowly at first, scattering sand and coral and then wheel away, the figures below waving and getting smaller.