MANILA, Philippines — An international aid effort that included helicopter drops from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington ferried food and water to areas that have seen little of either since a powerful typhoon slammed into the islands a week ago.
The Philippines’ main disaster response agency raised the death toll Friday to 3,621, up from the previous figure of 2,360 dead. Most of the victims were on the islands of Leyte and Samar. More than 1,000 people are known to be missing and perhaps many more.
U.S. Navy helicopters were flying in and out throughout the day, and the U.S. military said it will send about 1,000 more troops along with additional ships and aircraft to join the aid effort.
“Having the U.S. military here is a game-changer,” said Col. Miguel Okol, a spokesman for the Philippine air force. “For countries that we don’t have these kinds of relationships with, it can take awhile to get help. But with the U.S., it’s immediate.”
Meanwhile, many Filipinos who are from the hardest hit areas but rode out the storm in the capital of Manila were going home to find a land of devastation.
Daryl Dano, 31, was unable to contact her parents in Tacloban once Typhoon Haiyan slammed into her hometown. Desperate for news, she decided to take time off from her work at an environmental organization in Manila to make the long journey home.
But all commercial flights were canceled, and trying to reach a devastated city with no power, communication or gas seemed impossible. Eventually, a friend helped get her a seat on a military transport plane.
“Upon landing and seeing the devastation of the airport, it was simply heartbreaking,” she said. “I saw people being stitched on the grass without anesthesia.”
Dano said one man who was waiting for medical treatment looked at her and mouthed the word, “water.” “I filled his bottle with water and he sat down to wait for his turn to be stitched.”
When she got to her wrecked neighborhood she could not believe it. Bodies were heaped everywhere. Houses were gone.
“Seeing dead people on the road was like being in a nightmare, in a horror film. People were walking in different directions, searching,” she said.
She arrived at the gate to her home and got a shock. The body of a small child lay inside the gate. As for her family house, only the balcony and living room of her home was left. Inside the living room was another body.
Dano saw a cousin and they ran toward each other “like little kids who didn’t see each other for a long time. We were crying.” That’s when she learned her family was alive. The bodies had been washed into the home by the surge of seawater that flooded the neighborhood.
“I hugged Mama like I never hugged her before, like I was a little girl on her first day of school who didn’t want to let go of her mother,” she said. “We held each other for minutes, without saying anything.”
Still in Tacloban, Dano has been trying to help. Little food has come in, and there is no gas to drive a car to get it. Unidentified bodies are lying about, decomposing in the tropical heat.
“Last night, while charging my phone at city hall, the night sky was simply gorgeous,” she said. “And it’s unimaginable to think that the beauty of the night and the calm waters created so much destruction.”
Rhea Catada’s job at the Office of the Presidential Adviser to the Peace Process, which oversees truce efforts with rebels in the south Philippines, keeps her far away from her parents in Palo, a seaside town on Leyte island.
She kept in touch with her family until Haiyan struck and Palo was “cut off from the rest of the world.”
“I was desperate but only had social media like Twitter for news. I felt helpless, full of doubt and depressed as I tried to find a way to get in touch with them.”
After three days without news Catada got a flight from Manila to Cebu, an island adjacent to Leyte and a six-hour boat ride to it. On Leyte she managed to get in a car for the three-hour drive to Palo.
“I brought my own supplies, including tear gas because I heard people were becoming desperate and chaotic,” she said.
Baybay, the port she arrived in at Leyte, looked “like the end of the world.” Everywhere she looked she saw overturned vehicles and smashed homes. Catada saw no bodies but could not escape the smell of them.
“Those who survived looked like they had given up. The road had many people helplessly holding cardboard and signs asking for help.”
When she arrived at what was left of her family home she ran inside and started crying. Her mother and father were alive, crowded with other family members in a corner of the house that still had a roof over it.
Her family ran a grocery, so they had some supplies but not much because people had already broken into the store and stolen things like sardines and sodas. Catada thought her family would want to go, but no.
“My mother refused to leave her house, despite the destruction around us,” she said. “She had high hopes that everything can still be fixed in our house. She is treating the situation like this was just a normal tropical storm and we can easily rebuild what had been broken.”
Catada eventually convinced her family to come with her to Manila.
“Not knowing, waiting and getting there was the worst part,” she said. “But now I am really happy.”
Joseph Castillo received a call from a close friend in San Diego who was desperate to find out what happened to his family in Tacloban. Castillo, 30, a businessman who teaches in Banilad, Cebu, said he would try to get there and find out.
He headed to a Navy base and asked if he could go with them on their next ship for the 18-hour ride to Tacloban. The Navy said OK, and he arrived in Tacloban late in the afternoon on Sunday.
“The place was chaotic, People were looking for food and asking for help. I gave away my medicine bag,” he said. “People gave me landmarks to look for to find my friend’s family but there was literally nothing to see.”
After walking for two hours he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I was crying. I felt as devastated at the way the place looked,” he said. “I expected destruction but not to that extent.”
While walking he suddenly got a signal for his cellphone. He quickly called the number given to him by his friend before the signal was lost. A woman answered; it was his friend’s mother. They met at a pier and he gave her a hug from her son.
He returned home and gave the good news to his friend. But now he feels he must go back to help after seeing the terrible way people had been left. He says he is arranging to deliver relief goods by ferry to a community he had never been to before the typhoon.
“We all have to figure out how to help our people to survive and start again.”