SIDEBAR: Yolanda’s Nightingales

No time to grieve for kin

FOR SOMEONE just hearing the stories, they sound like episode after episode of the “Walking Dead” TV series. But what Jermaine Bayas and other aid workers witnessed in Tacloban in the Yolanda aftermath was stark reality.

“People were walking aimlessly, their faces blank,” Bayas says of what he saw right after the super typhoon finally calmed down and for days after that. “They would pass you by. Then after a few hours or so, you would see them again, still walking. They did not seem to know what they were doing nor where they wanted to go. Were they looking for someone? Where they supposed to go somewhere?”

In large part, this is because mobilizing the aid funds has been grossly inefficient, if also severely impaired by the massive devastation, leaving efforts stuck at the recovery stage instead of progressing toward rehabilitation.Adan Omillo, manager of microcredit group Kaakbay sa Buhay at Negosyo Microcredit Inc. (KMI), tells a similar tale. He recalls, “People from Tanauan, Palo, Tacloban, they were walking like zombies and if they saw a warehouse, they would really loot it.”

This was because, Omillo says, even those who had prepared for Yolanda ended up with nothing. “Your house was washed away,” he says. “But all you had prepared, you stored in your home. Even lives were lost.”

For sure, aid workers are no strangers to tragedy and destruction. But those who saw the Eastern Visayan communities after they were hit by Yolanda all say they were left in shock – and then had to rely on sheer wit to survive and accomplish the tasks they had set out to do.

Omillo in fact saw entire families in his neighborhood carried away by the floods. He himself almost did not make it as he tried rescuing some of his neighbors and their children.

Yet another aid worker, Rico Cajife, recounts thinking that the three hours spent by an enraged Yolanda in Tacloban would be his family’s last. At the time, he was staying in a rented room in the city, along with his partner and their three-year-old child. They were thankful for having survived the storm, but then they soon realized they had nothing to eat or drink.

Cajife, who works for The Netherlands-based Inter-Church Organization for Development Cooperation or ICCO, says that when he went out to look for food, he saw many others on the same mission, but relief goods were nowhere to be found in the early days.

Bayas, one of the first responders sent to Tacloban by the U.K.-based Oxfam International, says even having cash during those days was useless. He recalls, “We had cash but we were not able to spend a single centavo because there was nothing to buy, not even food.”

This made his team’s task of assessing the situation as basis for humanitarian assistance very difficult. “We wanted to rent vehicles, but people just laughed at us,” he says. “They were asking: where will you get fuel?”

Thus for the first five days, Bayas and his team had no other recourse but to walk to the affected areas in order to talk to the survivors and meet with local organizations.

In truth, even international aid workers found that the most basic amenities in Tacloban – such as shelter and food – were extremely difficult to come by. That was when Bayas realized they should turn into currency, quickly, whatever stuff they had with them.

For instance, during their first night in Tacloban, Bayas found himself up against a hotel owner who would not accept his team as guests partly because the hotel was in shambles. The owner could not even be swayed by Bayas’s offer of cold cash. Bayas eventually managed to wrangle a room for his team only when he offered the hotel owner free use of his power bank for cell-phone charging.

He also says Red Cross workers gave his team rice in exchange for help in providing security for the hotel where both humanitarian agencies were staying. And then there was the time when a member of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) approached him and his team while they were eating their lunch of crackers and a can of tuna. It turned out that the UN OCHA worker had hardly eaten for days and wanted to ask if he could share in their lunch.

“If we found the situation extremely difficult,” says Bayas, “how much more the survivors who could barely find anything to eat ever since the typhoon struck?”

Indeed, the lack of the most basic necessities and the perceived absence of government assistance in the aftermath of Yolanda appeared to have fueled the people’s sense of panic and hopelessness.

“You could see the exodus of people,” Bayas says. “From nearby areas, they would come to Tacloban City, hoping they would find food here. Meanwhile, those in Tacloban City were all going in the direction of the airport, trying to get out.”

“It didn’t matter if they had nowhere to go when they arrive in Manila,” he adds. “What was important is that they get out of Tacloban because it was really a very difficult time.”


Jermaine Bayas “I am always being asked, ‘Why are Filipinos like that? They can still smile even after a storm,’” says Oxfam aid worker Jermaine Bayas. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

Cajife meanwhile ended up convinced that there really was no leadership to be seen from the government in those first few days after seeing an old woman’s plea for a bottle of water turned down by the driver of a truck filled with government relief goods. According to Cajife, the driver said that the goods needed to be “distributed in a systematic manner.”

“If only I had water with me at the time, I would have given it to that old woman at once,” Cajife says as his eyes grow wet with tears.

Bayas also says that he could not tell whether anyone from government was calling the shots at the time. He also does not recall seeing any system in place that would have helped managed the situation in a disaster of such scale.

Unlike Cajife, however, Bayas tends to be a bit more understanding of the local government’s quandary. “The local government’s operations were very minimal at the time,” he says, “not because they wanted to, but because most of the staff of the city government were affected. Many City Hall employees perished, their rescue teams gone.”

Then again, he says that even international aid organizations, despite having a good system of coordination among themselves, were similarly “stuck” at the time because of logistical problems with the delivery of relief goods.

The lack of basic goods was what prompted Ma. Ruselle Dacillo to venture to Cebu City and try to retrieve money from relatives abroad and bring back food and medicines not only for her family, but also for her neighbors in her community in Dulag town, Leyte.

Knowing that people in her community had no way of retrieving assistance from their relatives elsewhere in the country and abroad, Dacillo served as a money-transfer agency of sorts. Upon arriving in Cebu City, she did a shout-out on social media for assistance, and offered her bank account as a receptacle for the remittances of her neighbors’ relatives. She extended her stay in Cebu while waiting for said remittances. Using the money, she bought basic necessities and brought these back to her community singlehandedly.

Dacillo now works as a community organizer for the Center for Agrarian Reform Empowerment and Transformation (CARET), assisting fishers’ communities in Leyte to rebuild their livelihood.

Yet Dacillo and Cajife consider themselves lucky despite the difficulties they have had to hurdle; at least, they say, they emerged from the disaster with their families intact.

The same cannot be said of Omillo, who lost both his parents to the storm surge brought by the typhoon. Still, after helping his neighbors and securing his family, Omillo lost no time in joining the Yolanda relief efforts in his community.

Several weeks later, during a trip to Manila, a colleague brought Omillo to an acupuncture clinic to manage his post-traumatic stress. Only when his tears began to fall involuntarily did Omillo realize that he had not been able to grieve for his parents. “Dumaan ako sa ganoon katindi, wala ni isang luhang tumulo sa akin (I went through such an ordeal without a single teardrop falling from my eyes),” Omillo says.

Since then, he shares, tears would well up in his eyes whenever he is reminded of his late mother and father.

Cajife, for his part, says he also would have wanted to have psychosocial support and undergo stress debriefing. But, he says, this did not become a priority due to the nature of his work in emergency response, which did not leave him with spare time. Still, he considers his work itself as a form of stress debriefing. “With my job,” he says, “I was fortunate to have this blessing, this capacity to help others.” – PCIJ, January 2015



“Christian Aid funded this project/report as our contribution to the interest of the public’s right to know how the Yolanda funds are managed and used, and that the findings and recommendations are meant to feed into the policy discourse on Republic Act No. 10121 (The Philippine Risk Reduction and Management Plan of 2010) review and the Yolanda budget process.”