The early days of November, life in the small island country of the Philippines was bustling with the energy and excitement of normal commerce and daily affairs. Tacloban, a city on the north eastern corner of Leyte province, was basking in it’s established role as a modernized urban center in the Philippines. It was reported by local newswires on November 4 that the city was benefitting immensely from the revenue of business permit issuance, generating close to 125 million pesos by the increase of corporate interest in the small but bustling metropolis. That same day, a new village chairperson of Tacloban was proclaimed by drawing lots due to a tie vote. A day before, a popular multi-distance running race was held in the city.
Life was moving ahead as usual in the city, but in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean something was transpiring that was far from normal.
A heated wind was becoming more animated, drawing upon the warm ocean currents and cooler condensation patterns to fuel a cycle of mobile winds growing swifter, more volatile. Angry, moving air spanning hundreds of kilometers began to lurch toward land. Soon the Ocean had given birth to an intense, swirling body of wind that grew with unpredictable ferociousness.
Typhoon Haiyan – as it was now known – had rapidly developed from a tropical storm to a typhoon between November 4 and 5 as it headed westward toward the Philippines. On November 7, between noon and 6 p.m. Coordinated Universal Time, 10-minute sustained wind intervals grew from 235 km/h (145 mph) to 315 km/h (196 mph). A superstorm of magnitudes far exceeding anything on record for over 40 years quickly mobilized toward the Philippines and, come November 8, it would alter the lives of millions of people irreparably, perhaps for years to come.
Merlin and Letty Grocock from Coronation, Alberta arrived in the Philippines on October 28, 2013. They were looking forward to a month of relaxation and visiting with Letty’s family, all of whom still lived in her hometown of Tacloban city.
Things were as normal in the urban center when the Grocock’s trip began; they checked into the Go Hotel by the major shopping mall and had freedom to enjoy the nice island weather away from the frigid cold of the Canadian air.
In the days leading up to the arrival of the storm, however, the couple were given subtle hints that something bad was about to happen. There were rumblings amongst the local population that a big typhoon was approaching the island and hotel staff began preparing them for the worst.
“The hotel staff never told us [the severity of the storm], they just told us to get some water and food,” said Merlin, noting that locals had no real plan for an unexpected storm so massive. And perhaps the staff was deceived by the weather in the days prior, as sunlight and tranquil afternoons belied reports of a horrific tropical storm.
“There was sunshine and rain, you would not expect that there was really a typhoon coming,” said Letty. “It was showering, sunshine, calm.”
In the early morning hours of November 8 there was a drastic change in the atmosphere. The couple was up at 6 a.m., noticing something was wrong. Merlin made a coffee – and shortly thereafter at 8 a.m. – the power went out.
“Right after that, that’s when it really started to get serious,” Merlin said. “You could hear debris hitting the side of the hotel. Some windows broke out; people were really panicking in the hotel. One girl was going to run out of the hotel with her young baby.”
Chaos ensued at the hotel. People were screaming and panicking as the wind wrought destruction of an almost unfathomable magnitude.
“The roof was raising about a foot and a half up in the air,” said Merlin. “The wind sounded like a jet engine. I was thinking ‘oh boy, what am I doing here.’”
The skylights blew out leaving the air pressurized so intensely that the couple’s ears were in pain. From the lobby – facing the storm – water was accumulating in the streets, coming threateningly close to the hotel patrons.
“The wind was so strong that it was blowing the water up the stairwell,” Merlin said. “It was just like someone was down there with a fire hose. The top floor got absolutely flooded.”
Then, at 9 a.m. – in less than three hours – it was all over.
“By 9 a.m. it was all done. Dead calm. From six to nine did all that damage,” said Merlin.
The hours after
While a steady wind continued outside, there was a foreboding calm settling into the atmosphere. People were in shock – not knowing what to say, what to do, in the wake of so much destruction.
“Just in the blink of an eye, all of Tacloban: gone. Can you imagine that?” Letty said. She observed that people were starting to immediately flow onto the streets where the extent of the damage was beginning to come clear.
The couple went out exploring in the wake of the destruction, trying to navigate a demolished city littered with debris. Narrow streets cluttered with roofing tin and cement made walking around a near impossibility.
“Everybody was just quiet in shock, total shock,” said Merlin of those wandering the city streets. Some people were crying. Others were beginning to recognize what had happened to their life and families.
“One guy just came from downtown and he said ‘my family’s dead.’ And he’s crying,” recalled Letty. “Downtown the water was reaching 15-20 feet. You can just imagine what that would do.” For Letty, who’s family all reside in Tacloban, a new reality began to emerge as she could hear locals recounting in anguish the devastating effects of the storm on their loved ones.
“I’m thinking oh my gosh, what happened to my family in the typhoon?” she said. “I was just crying. I was saying I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Due to the storm’s effects destroying any electronic communication, getting in touch with her family was impossible in the hours immediately following the storm. Streets littered with debris meant navigating the city was out of the question, and likewise Letty had no recollection of her home terrain for it was all destroyed; unrecognizable. All she and Merlin could do was wait.
The Grocock’s didn’t sleep that night.
With so much damage to the hotel their room was open completely to the elements. A mixture of intense air pressure, coupled with the stifling, stagnant heat of open Philippines air made rest impossible. The power was out even to the backup generators; rainwater had to be collected just to flush the toilets.
In the morning, a new reality was beginning to emerge in the city.
“The second day, that’s when it really set in,” said Merlin. “The first day you’re out looking at all the damage in disbelief, but the second day that’s when things got really, really serious.”
With the arrival of dawn on the second day, people began looking for food and water. Very soon, the nearby Robinson mall had a lineup of people waiting to go in to find rations – or whatever else could be carried away from the broken and unoccupied storefronts.
“People were going in and out of the mall,” recalled Merlin. “They had big screen TV’s, refrigerators… one guy even had a bunch of coat hangers all up his arm.”
A nearby Coca-Cola plant saw it’s inventory filter out into the public.
“All day long [local] kids were dragging these Coca-Cola crates [with 2L bottles] up and down the street,” said Merlin. People were looking everywhere for food or drink, as so much was destroyed or rendered inedible. Due to a lack of power, frozen items were rotting.
Letty still hadn’t heard from her family and the immediacy of helping out in the hotel seemed to preoccupy her mind. In the afternoon, she received word that would calm her soul, if only for a moment.
“My nephew came over and said ‘auntie, we’re all alive’,” she said. “I couldn’t even talk to him because we were all so busy, and it was already dark and it was dangerous to be out in dark.” The small comfort of knowing of her family’s safety was marred by the new reality that things were becoming very unsafe in the city. As people grew hungrier, dehydrated and scared, looting became more widespread. Things were getting desperate.
“We had no food, no drink, we didn’t sleep,” said Letty. “People were knocking on our door at night, it was scary because some people were coming to our hotel for looting.”
Merlin helped the hotel staff to lock an outside door to keep potential looters out at night. People could be heard outside the hotel walls, trying to get in.
“It was scary because there were no lights, you couldn’t see what was out there,” said Merlin. It was the ensuing panic, felt especially by locals who had nowhere to go, that was becoming intensely frightening to the couple.
“These people were already desperate, they didn’t know what they were doing,” said Letty.
The journey begins
The next morning, it was apparent to the Grococks that they needed to get out of the city centre, and fast.
“We talked to the police and they said you have to move now because we cannot handle the crowd anymore,” said Letty. “The hotel staff were trying to find a way to get us out. They prioritized all foreigners.”
Police told the couple that there were only three officers patrolling the area, and due to the increasing frantic atmosphere they advised them to move. A lack of security was symptomatic of the overall turmoil being experienced by the local population.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the military, the police, everybody is affected by this typhoon,” observed Merlin. “You’re not going to get help, you’re not going to get doctors, because everybody was affected. Some people in the army, their homes were wiped out. And some still reported for duty.”
It was decided that all foreigners should head to the airport as a means of removing them from the increasing volatility of the city. The airport was a mere three kilometers away, but the road leading to it was treacherous.
“You couldn’t walk far because there was a lot of dead bodies in the street. You couldn’t even step over them, because there was no space,” recalled Letty. Some bodies were covered, others not. Some were tossed to the side to make room. Mass graves were already being dug.
It took the couple two hours to reach the airport.
When the couple arrived at the airport, they registered their names with local authority and were told to wait.
“It was a gong show, there was no organization,” said Merlin. “They’d take your names, then they didn’t honour the names. You’d register in one line, then you go stand in another line.” As more people arrived and the crowd grew, things became chaotic and tense.
“There were how many hundreds of people at the back, and they are pushing each other,” said Letty. As the press corps began to arrive from across the globe to cover the event, some took the misplaced opportunity to gain some attention.
“This one general, when the press came he decided he wanted to be a movie star and started shuffling the lines,” Merlin said. “We were almost ready to go [on the plane] and we got pushed right to the back. It wasn’t too bad until he started stirring the whole crowd up, then people started to get really panicky.”
The agitated crowd continued to wait until nightfall, when some solace in sleep seemed near.
“That night we slept in a pile of rubble ’cause it was the only place that wasn’t that wet. The whole damn place smelled like the stench of death,” said Merlin. “We weren’t the only ones who didn’t’ sleep, nobody slept.”
The couple was hungry, thirsty. They hadn’t had the creature comforts of sustenance since the storm hit.
“We were like beggars, we didn’t have food for three days,” said Letty. “We wore the same clothes for three days, we smelled horrible. But what are you going to do?”
Early the next morning everybody was told to congregate outside of the remnants of the airport terminal. With thousands streaming in, the chance of catching a flight that day seemed distant.
“They were prioritizing pregnant women and children,” said Letty. A stream of people could be seen walking for miles to get to the small airport.
“Finally they called our names,” said Merlin. “We were so damn lucky to get on that plane.”
The aircraft was a C130 – a Philippines military transport vehicle. The two were flown 40 minutes to Cebu, a nearby airforce base. They spent the night in the city, leaving the next morning on ground transportation for the Mactan-Cebu International Airport.
“Here’s something, we just missed an earthquake in Cebu by 10 minutes,” said Merlin, with a laugh. “It was only like a four on the scale, but geez it was unbelievable. This whole trip was a total disaster.”
The couple ended up in the city of Manila, where they became increasingly ill due to lack of food, water and general weakness. They were able to wash their clothes, a small luxury after so much horror.
Life after Haiyan
Upon arriving back in Canada, a normal outlook was almost impossible.
“When we got home I was just so sick. We were so stressed out,” said Merlin. “Letty’s family is over there still and they’re just barely hanging on.”
News from Letty’s family is still sparse and infrequent. They have been staying at a neighbours place for the time being and so far they remain safe.
“Three families are living there, there are so many there,” said Letty. “That’s why my sister is already hopeless, because of the situation. Her house is gone. Everything; gone. That’s life.”
Having a direct link to family in Tacloban has been one small comfort to the couple, who rest assured that the aid they send goes straight to their loved ones.
“Trouble is over there, foreign aid, I’m just scared it doesn’t get where it needs to go,” said Merlin of the oft-misallocated charity funds. “I don’t recommend donating to an organization: if you know somebody, contribute to them and then 100 per cent of the funding will go to that person.”
The couple have seen an outpouring of support upon their return from local Filipino community efforts.
“The Brownfield Filipino community raised funds for Lett’s family,” said Merlin. “They raised $300 out of a little bake sale, can you imagine that? A cookie sale.”
For now, the family tries to get back into a normal routine, despite what they’ve experienced. Merlin said he sometimes feels ill when eating meat, after the smells they’ve encountered. Letty said she lies awake thinking of her family.
“I cannot sleep still, because I am still thinking about my family,” said Letty. “It’s where I grew up, Tacloban is my home. Now it’s all destroyed.”
But life goes on.