In 1998, I first met Mark, Gord’s son, in Tacloban on the island of Leyte.
Tacloban wasn’t particularly attractive and little known outside the Philippines. Now, it’s a city leveled, thousands dead. For a few days, a week or two, it’s a world headline and newsreaders struggle with Tacloban's proper pronunciation. But most will soon forget, just as we forget Banda Aceh in Indonesia, the city destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Tacloban has been a headline before. In the Second World War, it was the first city the Americans liberated from the Japanese. It served as the Philippines’ capital until Manila was taken. I mention this because of a picture I've just seen on the local news. Let me explain.
Above is a photo I took while visiting the invasion beach where, in a famous photo-op, the vainglorious U.S. General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore on October 20, 1944.
This is where he fulfilled his 'I shall return' pledge, made after Japan occupied the Philippines in 1942 and he escaped by sea. The photo-op became a war memorial and the typhoon has toppled one of the oversized statues, although MacArthur (third from left) remains upright.
It's ironic the Americans are coming again - and this is said in some seriousness - to save the Philippines. More irony: Japan is expected to send military forces to aid in the recovery. The Tacloban airfield being used for relief flights was expanded by the Japanese during the war.
This country, despite much experience in disasters, simply can't cope. It will take foreigners - making diplomatically polite noises about the Philippines 'taking the lead' - to make things happen. Even then, the local media warns much foreign aid will go into politicians' pockets. This editorial cartoon appears in today's Philippines National Inquirer. Juan dela Cruz, the Philippines' abused 'everyman' is, as usual, the last to benefit.
Two days ago, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino made an extraordinarily revealing statement: 'Regardless of political affiliation, no Filipino will be left behind'. I have a slow internet connection, so don't know if the foreign media has picked up on this, but it says to me that, even in such a situation, there's concern often murderous politics will dictate who gets help. For background, Aquino’s father was assassinated, possibly on the instructions of then dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez, is Imelda Marcos' nephew, suggesting from whence comes family wealth and influence.
Romauldez decided to ride out the storm in his single floor mansion, right on the sea. There were warnings of a seven metre storm surge for at least two days before the typhoon. The mayor is, by Philippines standards, educated and certainly had access to - what turned out as - accurate forecasts. Yet Romauldez and other family members found themselves desperately breaking through the ceiling to survive. Later, they were sniffling on TV about their ordeal. If the mayor didn't think to move to safer accommodation, what about his impoverished constituents with grass roofs, who may be smarter, but lack his privileges and access to information?
On that long ago visit to Tacloban, Gord and I bribed ‘security guards’ to let us inspect the confiscated coastal home of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. It was one of many palatial estates used by the dictator and his flamboyant wife. Here are two of my old film photos.
You can see how vulnerable the house - so close to the beach - would be in a significant storm.
The house has been washed away, fortunately with none of the caretakers losing their lives. I suspect there are many in the Philippines who won’t be saddened that a Marcos relic was one of Haiyan’s victims.
A commentator on the main TV news channel here admitted to that streak in Filipinos, which leads to a 'if happens, it happens' attitude. Let tomorrow take care of itself. And be certain: this may be the worst for now, but it's going to happen again. If not a typhoon, then an earthquake or volcano.
Apologies for sounding so tetchy. Some of it stems from frustration at being unable to do anything useful here, not even fill a bag with food. Mind you, I could donate to this newly formed 'charity'. Would you?
(Later: by early December, the official death toll stood at nearly six thousand with eighteen hundred still missing.)