— by Christopher Johnson, all rights reserved — Stella Campo, 21, learned about tsunamis when she saw images of the 2011 disaster in Japan.
She never thought it could happen in her hometown of Tanauan, a few kilometers south of Tacloban on Leyte island in the Philippines.
With super-typhoon Yolanda approaching on Friday, November 8, she joined others evacuated to a local school. She and husband took turns holding their babies Queenie Shane and Mary Nina, ages 1 and 2, in their arms.
Two days earlier, they had just celebrated the harvested rice with a family reunion. She never thought that she would soon lose her mother and four brothers and sisters in one of the most terrifying storms in history.
When the winds picked up force, people hid under wooden benches in school rooms. Her babies began to cry. “They were scared because they heard other people crying and screaming. Everybody was scared.”
The strength of the winds shocked them. During a brief dip in the storm, people were told to hurry to another room of the school. In the crowded rush to move, she got separated from her husband, who was carrying one of their babies.
Then the winds regained strength and water began to stream into the school. She thought it was a tsunami. Rumours — later proven false — went around that their had been an earthquake, causing a tsunami, just like in Japan. They had no idea about the concept of deadly storm surges.
A flood eventually swept her away. She managed to hold onto her baby as she struggled to walk against the current. Along with strangers, she managed to take refuge on the second floor of a concrete home. “I was crying the whole time. I couldn’t find my husband or other family members.”
The house shook violently in the storm. “We were scared it would break the house.”
A devout Catholic, she prayed for the survival of her family. “I was wearing my rosary the whole time.”
Throughout the storm, her baby gave her the strength to hold on. The child, so scared during the storm, was behaving like normal, seemingly oblivious to the hell around her. She was too young to be traumatized, and would not remember anything, except perhaps the love of her mother that night.
When the storm died down, she was shocked by the utter devastation, wiping out her town, known for its skim-boarding events, attracting foreigners who often stayed in tents by the beach. She was amazed that her town could turn into debris so quickly. “I couldn’t believe it. Yesterday, everything was normal. Now, everything is washed out to sea by the tsunami. “
Death was everywhere: humans, dogs, cats, pigs, water buffalos — all dead. “The stench was horrific. People were covered in mud. They were already turning grey. ”
She walked back to the school to look for her husband and child. She couldn’t find them, and couldn’t stop her tears. All she had was her baby and her soaken clothing. Everything else was gone: her home, her birth certificate, all her papers and family photos, everything that makes up the life of a person.
She felt a terrible weight of loss. Confused, she found it hard to move. She spent a horrific night out in the open in wet clothes, holding her baby for warmth. In the ominous darkness, she couldn’t sleep. All she could think about was her family.
The next day, people spread false rumours that another tsunami was coming. Somebody said that an earthquake at sea would send more tidal waves. Survivors scurried up into the hills behind the obliterated town. They held mats over their heads to keep out the rain, but water seeped through anyway, soaking her baby’s clothes.
She finally met up with her husband and the child in his arms. They had survived, but his legs were sliced up and bleeding. They thanked God for survival, and preyed for the well-being of their missing family members.
With all the trees torn down, there was nothing to protect her from the searing heat after the storm. She felt a headache, and worried that her delicate child wouldn’t survive.
“We survived a super-typhoon. We should not die of diseases.” She said she feared her children might succumb to diarrhea, coughing or fever. The stench of death was sickening and overpowering.
She was desperate to find out about her family. She stayed alone breastfeeding, while her step-father searched for the others. Her husband, meanwhile, went to look for his 10 brothers and sisters.
After three days, her aunt came to see her. She had bad news for Stella: her mother’s dead body was found, along with the body of her brother. Three other younger siblings were all missing.
She refused to believe it, until her step-father, who had spent days searching, confirmed their deaths.
She struggled to accept the terrible reality. “We had just had a family reunion. We bonded. We harvested rice together. We all left each other on Wednesday, and went to different areas. We were all together, then suddenly they disappeared like bubbles in thin air.”
She thought that it was unfair for her to survive, while others died. She thought of taking her own life, in order to be with the rest of her family. “I went to the burial site. I had no more strength to walk. At first I wish I could have died with them. I really wanted to die. But as days went by, I saw the reasons why I survived. I now realize that I must live for my children.”
She found scrap metal and formed a sort of triangular shelter. The couple and their two infants slept on the cold wet earth, but at least they had something of a roof over their heads.
They expected that they would get help soon. But nobody came, for days.
With everything destroyed or swept out to sea, she couldn’t find food, other than coconuts from severed trees. For days, they survived on coconut meat and coconut juice. Nobody came to help them.
They pumped out water from a well until it went dry. They tried turning on taps in buildings with solid structures, but the water was too dirty to drink or use to wash.
Nobody came to help them.
“The government is weird. We waited one week. There was no relief.”
They began to see aircraft circle overhead, but nobody landed. Finally, they got an air-drop. As a helicopter approached, people obediently formed two lines: one for women, with mothers and children at the front; and another for men. Rich and poor were suddenly equal, all begging for food. But as soon as the packages hit the ground, people broke out of the lines and into a desperate frenzy. Some got more, others got nothing. Men appeared, brandishing knifes and axes. Frightened, Stella didn’t dare enter the fray with her baby. “We got an air-drop, but we couldn’t get any of it,” she said. “I was holding babies, they were holding weapons. I had a choice: risk dying of hunger, or risk being murdered by those men. I decided that I would rather die of hunger.”
She said she didn’t know the armed men commandeering the aid supplies. “They came from other places, or maybe they were escaped prisoners.”
She heard rumours that convicted criminals had escaped, or been let loose, from a destroyed jail in town. Since the police were also victims, there was nobody to enforce law and order.
People feared for their lives all the time, she said. Rumours went around that escaped criminals were going around raping women, stabbing kids, burglarizing the remains of homes, even stealing food out of the hands of others.
Stella said that at another drop point, her husband’s mother said she saw people get trampled to death in a stampede.
She said there was also a lack of medical treatment. A Japanese team had been there since Monday. Shunsuke Koriki, arriving in Cebu after a week in Tanauan, and his colleagues seemed exhausted. They had treated countless number of patients since Monday, just two days after the storm. “It looks like the tsunami zone in Japan,” he said at his hotel in Cebu. “Total devastation, and unbelievable suffering.”
Even with more aid workers arriving, Stella realized she had to act quickly. Though she didn’t want to leave with her siblings still missing, she worried about the health of her children. “We can take food or water that isn’t clean, but children cannot. They are very delicate, and they can get diseases very easily. They need clean food and water.”
Finally, 8 days after the storm, she, her husband and their two children were able to get out of Tanauan. But it wasn’t easy. With roads finally passable, they took a municipal bus for four hours to Tacloban, and another 5 hour trip to Ilongos. Then they took a ferry to Cebu city, received a fresh meal from a welcoming party of local volunteers, and boarded a bus taking them to an evacuation center in a sports pavilion near Cebu city’s port.
They took their place on mats on the floor, at the front of makeshift town of at least 100 other survivors from across the region. It was crowded and noisy with kids playing with new toys. They got regular meals of local pansit noodles, rice, eggs and other delicious food. There was no longer a shortage of water in their life.
“Everybody here is sharing this experience. While there is life, we continue to have hope.”
As she told the story, she beamed with a smile. Though she lost her mother and siblings, she saw them in the eyes of her children. “My children have helped me to overcome the pain.
Like many others, they want to join relatives in Manila and begin a new life there.
“To be strong, we have to start a new life. It wasn’t our time. It’s God’s will that we are alive.”
Her husband says he believes he can get a job in a plastics factory for 250 pesos for a 12-hour shift — (a wage of about 6 dollars per day). Someday, he hopes to return to his hometown. “It will take maybe 10 years to rebuild. We want to go back, but not only to the life we had. We want to surpass what we had. It’s a beautiful place. It’s our roots. I can’t live without the sea. I was raised by the ocean. It’s calling me.”