Typhoon Haiyan: The grim task of recovering Tacloban’s dead

Officials are still struggling to quantify the dead

CNN News Wire | 11/18/2013, 1:36 p.m.
They’re doing a job nobody wants to do in a place few want to be. But their deeply unenviable task ...
Don Pomposo, left, and Vincent Albert Garchi Torena — just two of many with the grisly task of removing the bodies of those killed by Typhoon Haiyan in and around Tacloban.

But Pomposo and Garchitorena shrug off concerns about the mental toll the experience may be having on them, even though they’ve never done this kind of work before.

They say they’re not suffering from nightmares. They just want to get the job done and head back to Bicol, the region a few hundred kilometers northwest of Tacloban where they’re from.

Their clothes retain the stench of death from one day to the next, and they have to wash themselves over twice to try to get rid of the smell from their skin.

But they show more concern for the stricken people of Tacloban than they do for themselves.

“They will have to start from zero,” says Garchitorena, his eyes hidden behind a pair of reflective sunglasses.

A state of flux

The two firemen say the situation in the city has changed from the unruly conditions they witnessed when they arrived early last week, a time when law and order had broken down and looting was rife.

Now, Tacloban is in a state of flux. Many residents who survived the typhoon, especially women and children, have left to stay with relatives elsewhere until the situation improves. People from badly hit communities in the surrounding areas have also flowed through the city.

Like the firemen, large numbers of the government employees working to clear up Tacloban and provide aid to storm victims have come in from other parts of the Philippines. And ordinary people from other regions have also rushed there to look for missing relatives and help survivors.

Added to that is the influx of international aid workers and foreign journalists.

Edwin Manaus stands outside the Stephanie Smoke Haus restaurant in the center of town, known locally for its all-you-can-eat buffet. He tries to make sense of the upheaval.

The streets appear to have gotten busier over the weekend, as more debris was cleared and an improved gasoline supply allowed more people to use scooters, motorized rickshaws and a variety of other vehicles to move around and reach food distribution points.

But despite the increased bustle, Manaus says the city feels emptier to him, with so many of the regular residents gone, including many members of his family.

“I need people for my business,” he says, gesturing toward the darkened interior.

Shocking devastation

He also needs electricity and running water before he can reopen. He says he heard a rumor that the power could be back on as soon as next week, but city officials said late last week that it could take months.

The businesses that do appear to be thriving in the early days of recovery are improvised market stalls in a northern part of the city, near the poor, severely damaged neighborhood of Paseo de Legazpi.

Some goods on sale, like fresh bananas, appear to have come in from neighboring provinces. But other products — like umbrellas, cigarettes and coffee — are most likely taken from the looted stores nearby, locals say.

The devastation in Paseo de Legazpi, where many people lived in flimsy shanties, remains shocking. The creek that runs through the neighborhood is full of the splintered remains of homes and their contents, along with the bloated carcasses of several very large pigs.

The body collectors are likely to have a grueling task ahead of them, gathering what still lies amid the area’s tangled wreckage.

Pomposo and Garchitorena say they don’t know how long they’ll have to stay. But they’ve already planned what they’ll do when they eventually get back to Bicol.

“Rest, sleep and drink a cold glass of water,” says Garchitorena.

To which, Pomposo adds, “File for vacation leave.”

Jethro Mullen | CNN