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Families in the Philippines coordinate their own relief efforts

Relatives take food, water and other supplies to those in areas hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan. The government is criticized for a slow official response.

November 15, 2013|By Alexandra Zavis
  • A U.S. Navy helicopter flies over the Tacloban airport. With a U.N. agency now putting the death toll at 4,460, the Philippine government is under fire for what critics say is the slow pace of its official relief effort.
A U.S. Navy helicopter flies over the Tacloban airport. With a U.N. agency… (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)

ORMOC, Philippines — Dressed in shorts and a pink T-shirt, Dimples Juntilla was headed Friday to a village named Friendly, embarking on a mission of mercy in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Arriving by ferry from the relatively unscathed port of Cebu, Juntilla, a bank employee, bore boxes of biscuits, noodles, candles, medicine and toiletries, all to assist relatives in Friendly, just outside Ormoc.

Her heart had sunk when she was told back in Cebu that the ferry was overloaded and the wares would have to be left behind. "We badly need them," Juntilla, 22, pleaded. "Not just me, but my family and neighbors."

PHOTOS: Typhoon Haiyan slams Philippines

 Her persistence paid off. The crew allowed her to load the precious cargo, some of it purchased with donations from relatives in Canada. Aboard the ferry, similar boxes were stacked up against walls and in the aisles. It seemed that everyone on the packed ferry Friday morning was taking much-needed supplies to their families.

Even as thousands of Filipinos continue to flee the disaster zone a week after Typhoon Haiyan hit, others are looking for ways back to search for missing loved ones and to take in supplies.

In Cebu, lines form before dawn each day for ferry tickets or elusive seats on military aid flights back to the hard-hit neighboring island of Leyte.

With a United Nations agency now putting the death toll at 4,460, the Philippine government is under fire for what critics say is the slow pace of its official relief effort.

"In a situation like this, nothing is fast enough," Interior Secretary Max Rosas told reporters during a visit to Tacloban, the provincial capital of Leyte that was largely destroyed by the Nov. 8 typhoon. "The need is massive, the need is immediate, and you can't reach everyone."

As a result, relatives of the newly homeless are pitching in, purchasing supplies and seeking to deliver them however possible.

At the air base in Cebu, Hermenia Tibayan sat on a patch of grass watching planes loaded with supplies from around the world take off for Tacloban. Tibayan, 40, lives with her husband in Manila, the capital. But the rest of the family — her father, brother, sister and a niece — were in Tacloban when the typhoon hit.

"I don't know if they are still alive, but I hope," she said, her voice trailing away.

With news of bodies lining the streets and a city bereft of food, water, power and communications filling headlines, Tibayan filled a backpack with biscuits, sardines, water, medicine, candles and water purification tablets.

It took four days to find a seat on a commercial flight to Cebu. From there, she hoped to get onto an aid flight to Tacloban. She arrived at the air field at 4 a.m Thursday and was still waiting at 5 p.m. that day as flights were winding down.

"I will stay and try tomorrow," she said.

Lt. Col. Marciano Jesus Guevara, spokesman for the Philippine air force's 2nd Air Division, said he was sympathetic but authorities have to prioritize relief supplies and don't want more civilians in the disaster zone.

"There is no sense going there," he said. "There is no transportation, so the next thing will be, 'Please take us out.'"

Juntilla had already caught a ferry home from Cebu earlier in the week after being unable to reach her father by phone. She knew he had been dispatched by an electric company to a town outside Tacloban and feared the worst.

Her first sight of Ormoc was staggering: entire buildings collapsed, rows of electricity pylons knocked down, a street once lined with houses reduced to a debris-strewn wasteland.

But there, among the frantic crowds, stood her father. He had survived the storm and walked nearly 13 hours to get home. "We embraced and thanked the Lord," she said.

She returned to Cebu two days later, and with the help of other family members, reached out to their North American relatives for contributions.

"I don't want to blame the government, but it is so disheartening that it took our president five days to get relief to us, when there is so much food from so many countries already," she said. "They say it is difficult to travel, but why are we able to and they are not?"

Sitting nearby on the ferry was Pagunsan Villafranca, 62, who had been dispatched by his employer to look for the man's elderly aunt. With communications and electricity down in many areas, it had been impossible to reach her. He pulled out a sheet of paper with carefully written directions to the woman's house.

"That's near my street," said a passenger on the ferry, Rafaela Rojas, 37. "I'll show you."

Rojas had just dropped off her 13-year-old son with an aunt in Cebu and was returning with supplies for the rest of the family. Her husband works in Australia, so she was alone with her son when the super typhoon whipped through Ormoc. The storm ripped off their roof, shattered the windows and tossed around their possessions. They clutched their terrified dog and prayed.

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