Material things don't matter. Family is what matters. —Ruby Rosales
Editor's note: Deseret News journalist Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call have spent the past week reporting from the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. This is their final report from the scene.
TACLOBAN, Philippines — In the darkness, Jairus Perez drives, the rain pattering his windshield, the headlights scanning the road before him. Downed power lines and fallen trees block the way. Every few feet, he gets out and hacks through the branches with a machete to clear the highway. And then he drives on.
He hates getting out, not just because of the rain, or the cool chill that passes on his skin, but also for the smell. It is unnatural, and monstrous, the stink of death around him. He can’t decide what is worse, the stench, or the bloated bodies daylight will reveal.
The phones aren’t working, and that’s why he’s here. For two days, he has heard nothing from the people of Ormoc and Tacloban and Palo. He imagines the thousands of people on Leyte and Samar, the two islands hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan, seeking refuge in the more than 20 chapels here, huddled together without electricity, shivering in the cold, praying that help will arrive.
On this night, Jairus Perez is all the hope they’ve got.
Calm before the storm
The day before the storm, Ruby Rosales wakes an hour or two before dawn, as she does every morning, to cook for the day. An English teacher at the high school, she has to leave the house before seven, drop off her nine-year-old son at school, and then get to work before her first class.
She lives with her extended family in a compound of sorts, her father in one small house next to hers, her sister and her brother-in-law in another, the property fenced in by a concrete wall. She likes this arrangement, likes how close it makes her feel to her family. She can’t imagine living apart from her father.
He is 75-years-old, his hands gnarled with age, his eyes watery, his hair white and thinning. And yet, there is still a sense of wonder in his eyes, a joy in his face every time he smiles, which is often.
As a child, she watched him work, painting beautiful landscapes of the fishing villages around their city: the rice paddies and mangrove swamps, the hay fields and palm trees. He still paints, but he has a heart condition and walks gingerly, as if his joints are creaking hinges, and he can no longer support himself financially. She doesn’t mind taking care of him. In fact, she considers it an honor.
As she readies breakfast, her husband sleeps, and she wonders if he’ll be late to class again. He grew up not far from here, shooting birds with slingshots, fishing down by the river, playing a game similar to marbles with bottle caps for money.
He had once grown his hair long, joined a revolutionary movement in college, dropped out and stopped going to church. He had been both wild and idealistic, and flashes of that young man still appear from time to time. But he changed after they met, became more solid and dependable.
Now he wears his hair short, teaches algebra at the junior high, and goes to church every Sunday in a white shirt and tie. At night he studies for law school. He wants to send his son to private school, and a teacher’s salary won’t cut it.
This is Ruby Rosales life before the storm, the middle link between three generations. Family, she says, matters most to her.
When she leaves her home that day, nothing in the sky looks foreboding. She has little reason to think life as she knows it is about to change.
Destruction and desperation
As Perez and his two companions drive through the night, they stop at each chapel along the highway, writing down the names of the missing, asking what the people in each town need. Perez is the disaster relief coordinator for the LDS Church in the Philippines, a country that has more than its fair share of storms and earthquakes.
Perez himself has been through more typhoons than he can count, but this one, he can already tell, is the worst.
At each place he stops, he hears incredible stories of survival, even miracles. More than 400 people took shelter in one chapel, at least 100 of them not members of the church. All survived.
In Palo, a small fishing village with houses of concrete, but others of only plywood and tin roofs, a father of nine sent eight of his children to the chapel, where they huddled together in a bathroom as the 200-mile-per-hour winds ripped the roof off the joists and sent it flying in chunks into the blackened sky.
The father stayed home, like other men in his village, holding his 10-month-old baby under his T-shirt to keep her warm. When the storm surge engulfed his house, he climbed to the roof, and soon enough the water was up to his neck. He held his baby girl above the water for three hours, until it subsided and he could rush to the chapel, where he wept in relief when he found his other eight children were all safe.
Their 72 hour kits washed away, they lived off coconut water and bananas for three days, until aid arrived.
At another chapel not far from here, a wall collapsed, revealing a water pump no one knew was there. Had the wall not collapsed, the members tell him, they wouldn’t have had a place to find fresh water.
In town after town, Perez hears similar stories. Before the storm, a bishop in a town called Ormoc drove by motorcycle into the mountains and down by the rivers to plead with his members to take refuge in the chapel. All of those who listened survived.
But he also hears and sees things he’d just as soon forget.
In Tacloban, carcasses of pigs and dogs and humans lay along the riverbank, decaying in the sun. He can’t believe how many bodies he sees in the streets, even three days after the typhoon. The road is so crowded with debris — twisted sheets of corrugated steel, splintered palm trees chopped off at the knees — that the highway is barely passable, and it takes hours to go a few kilometers.
As Perez inches through the city, trying to make his way to the LDS mission home, a sort of frenzied madness sets upon the people. He watches from his car as mobs loot a meat-processing warehouse. Others climb through the wreckage, over street signs and the rubble of fallen cinderblock, carrying flatscreen televisions and expensive video cameras.
The looters are in such a hurry they step on the bodies rotting in the streets, and move on without reaction. The Philippine soldiers there to establish order shoot into the crowd, and then up in the air as a warning.
Perez knows it is wrong, but in these moments he can’t help but feel a deep anger toward the looters. He briefly thinks: If it were up to me, this city would receive help last.
But then he remembers the friends he has in Tacloban, the many who live here now without a home. At one chapel he stopped at, asking what the members need, a woman pushed a package of crackers into his hand, insisting he take them for he and his two traveling companions, even though he lives in a city unaffected by the storm.
Her generosity nearly brings him to tears.
When the storm comes, Ruby is already up, fixing breakfast. Her father has been through many typhoons, but they can all tell that this one is different. As it rages, for hours, they can hear metal twist and the thundering sound of falling trees crushing buildings. Her 9-year-old son, Elijah, can’t stop crying. She tries to hush him with Primary songs, but nothing works. All eight of them kneel down and pray.
When the wind and rain stop six hours later, and everyone in her family is safe, Ruby and her son walk outside. Nearly every house in their neighborhood is flattened. She looks out across the city, and in the distance, she sees a rainbow. She takes it as a sign from God that everything will be all right.
She had gone to the grocery store the Monday before the typhoon and bought cans of sardines, candles and other emergency supplies. They have enough food and water to survive for a week or more.
Because their house is made of concrete blocks and built on a solid foundation, Ruby and her family stayed inside, unlike other members of her congregation who evacuated to the chapel. Her husband leaves that afternoon to visit the church to see what he can do to help.
As he walks through the city, he sees friends who lost family. He calls to them, but they keep walking, as if they can’t hear. Their faces are blank, devoid of emotion, their clothes torn, their hair wet and matted down by the mud and rain. They remind him of zombies.
At night, as Ruby gathers with the eight members of her family who live in the compound, they hear gunfire. Her husband hears a rumor that the prisoners have escaped from the jail, and he makes plans to leave the city. Ruby can’t sleep at night, awakened every time she hears the patter of rain, worried that the storm has returned.
Aid flows in
Once Perez has travelled through Leyte and Samar Islands and made contact with all the members there, he takes a ferry back to Cebu and returns as quickly as possible with a generator and boxes of food and medical supplies.
At the same time, he begins coordinating with the LDS Church’s disaster relief specialists in Manila and Salt Lake City. They order motorcycles so bishops, who oversee individual congregations, can deliver supplies or medicine to their members living in remote locations. They arrived Friday and will be sent to each ward.
They establish a command center in the city of Ormoc, where they ship sacks of rice, boxes of sardines, pallets of corned beef, blankets, mosquito nets, toothbrushes, soap, aspirin, bandages and other supplies. They talk about the best way to build and replace homes. And every day, Perez and his supervisors in Manila and Salt Lake touch base with bishops in affected areas.
Aid flows in unbidden. A week after the storm, 14 former missionaries who served in the Philippines arrive and set up a medical clinic at the command center in Ormoc, cleaning up cuts and bruises and abrasions for residents who line up all morning. They hand out medicine and apply bandages. The next day, they travel to remote villages to do the same.
A doctor from Manila flies in with boxes of vaccines he purchased himself for tetanus and cholera. At a chapel in Tacloban he gives shots to anyone that shows up.
Perez returns home to Cebu, but he finds it hard to sleep, as his phone is constantly ringing with calls from bishops and stake presidents in Samar and Leyte who report on the arrival of aid and ask what’s coming next.
One night at a chapel in Cebu, which is about 350 miles from Samar and Leyte islands, hundreds of members show up to assemble food and hygiene kits for those in the storm zone.
Dozens of evacuees arrive in Manila and Cebu every day, some with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They find their way to the LDS Temple, hoping that when they arrive, there will be a place for them to sleep.
For days after the storm, Ruby’s husband and her brother search for a way out of the city. They go to the airport but hundreds wait, and only the richest are able to fly out, paying cash for a seat.
Gas stations are closed, their owners worried about looting, and so no buses are leaving the city. The nearest ferry is several hours away by car.
One day, her brother hears that the Philippine Navy has a ship leaving that morning, and if they can get on they can go to Cebu, where they have relatives. He hurries home to relay the news.
The family of eight scrambles to gather a lifetime of possessions and memories, unsure if they’ll ever return, knowing they can only pack what they can carry.
Ruby is amazed at how little material things matter to her now. Hours later, she and her family begin the long walk to the pier. It’s been eight days since the storm, and dead bodies still lie in the street. The smell is so bad, Ruby vomits several times on the walk. Her husband and father cover their noses, and try to look away.
The navy ship is a blessing, a deliverance from a nightmare, but it’s also another trial. They sit on the ship deck with no covering from the rain or sun for the 24 hours it takes to get to Cebu, alternately drenched with rain, and then soaked with sweat.
In the days after their departure from Tacloban, the U.S. military arrives, and thousands of Filipino police from around the country set up checkpoints throughout the city and impose an 8 p.m. curfew. The looting stops. Each day, more debris is cleared from the roads.
As the city stabilizes, the bodies are cleared from the streets, and international aid groups from around the world set up a tent city near the airport. Aid workers fan out through Tacloban, giving shots and handing out water and food. U.S. military helicopters lift off from the airport all day long, delivering pallets of food to remote communities.
A little over two weeks after the storm, the city’s biggest hardware store reopens, and a long line forms. People buy nails and corrugated tin roofing. Near the airport, a group of off duty policemen play pick up basketball on a dirt court outfitted with a wooden backboard.
Not far away, a man bathes by dumping a bucket over his head. A piece of plywood is all the shelter he has left. His wife is one of the 1,611 still listed as missing. The death toll, as of Nov. 22, is over 5,200 and expected to keep rising.
Perez keeps a list of his own, the names of the members of his church still unaccounted for.
A new home
It’s morning in the Philippines, the ground wet with rain. In the foothills above the city of Cebu, near a field where a cow eats under a mango tree, Ruby’s father sits on a bench made of bamboo strips.
Inside the house behind him, his grandson is playing video games on a smartphone. His son-in-law is doing laundry. Ruby comes outside and sits beside her father in the shade, gently pats his bony hand.
For now, this is their home, on a quiet street, with a yard fenced by a cement wall. Shortly after they arrived in Cebu, a man named Joseph Gimena called them. He had been asked by Perez to serve as a “transient bishop,” watching over the evacuees who showed up at the temple looking for a place to live. He helps them with jobs, medicine, whatever else they need. He watches over 79 people who came but who aren't members of the church.
Nearly every night, more refugee families arrive in Cebu, and Gimena becomes their bishop too, relaying their needs to Perez. Ruby’s family is just one he watches over.
Ruby’s house back in Tacloban suffered little damage, and they plan to go home soon. There are rumors that the power grid will be up by December.
The things that mattered to her before the storm still matter — she still wants her son to go to private school and she still plans to get her doctorate — but they pale in comparison to family. Her father is alive, her son suffered no injuries, and her husband still sleeps by her side.
To Ruby, these are the greatest blessings.
“Material things don’t matter,” she says, sitting beside her father. “Family is what matters.”
She prefers to remember Tacloban as her father, the artist, once painted it — the rice paddies stretching to the horizon, the fishing boats on the sea. Maybe one day, it will look like that again, and she will go back.
But for now, this house is enough. Her family is with her. This place feels like home.