16th November 2013:
It's only on Thursday that the first MSF advance team finally reached Tacloban. The three preceding days spent waiting in Cebu were very frustrating. Each morning dawned with a new hope to be able to reach the most typhoon-affected cities, plans that evaporated each afternoon at the very last minute. On Monday, Tacloban airport had not been sufficiently cleared of debris. On Tuesday, appalling weather kept us grounded. On Wednesday, the Philippine army was given priority as it was urgent to re-establish order in town.
Then at last on Thursday a helicopter transported Audrey, the emergency coordinator, Damien and Adrien, the two logisticiens, and Morpheus and Joey, our two Philippines doctors. They landed in Palo, little town located few kilometres south of Tacloban. Against all odds, commercial flights resumed regular movements from Cebu. I myself managed to reach Tacloban airport where Damien ended up by picking me up after six hours spent with a crowd of survivors awaiting to be evacuated in the middle of tons of accumulated debris.
Night was about to fall and we quickly reached the city centre to find a place to sleep. Humanitarian workers and journalists had gathered in a sport centre requisitioned by the army. An Australian reporter pointed us to a hotel where we could stay. The building had suffered damages but the landlord had already done enough work to free some space for living. We were exhausted and terribly hungry. Damien's noodle soup tasted like heaven, each of us found a corner, a sofa or even a bed for the luckiest, and we all collapsed.
Early morning, the team criss-crossed the town to find a place to install our inflatable hospital. In the end, the Bethany hospital is our best option. There is no other site in town with a flat space large enough to set up our hospital. The installation will start on Tuesday and there's currently a race against time to clear the space which, like the rest of Tacloban city, is covered with debris. The hospital next door faces the sea. Everything inside is destroyed. There is some medical material that could still be useable - little by little we hope it'll be possible to rehabilitate the building in collaboration with the ministry of health authorities.
Nearby our hotel we meet Jason, owner of a climbing centre and a renowned local speleologist, a popular sport in the limestone Samar island with many underground caverns. His friends, cavemen as they are nicknamed, came from all over the archipelago, some of them even from abroad, to give him a hand and help Tacloban community. Asked by worried families, they drive motorbikes throughout the area to seek for missing relatives, sometimes risking their own lives. Jason compares the typhoon to the movie 'World War Z'. His fear is still very real. He keeps his gun with him at all times, even though there is now a massive army deployment in the streets. On one of the walls he shows me the two-metre high water-mark left by the flooding. Jason and his friends immediately proposed to help us clearing the Bethany hospital and rounded up the community. All these people are impressive by their courage and dedication. So far, we have to humbly acknowledge that they help us more than we are able to help them.
Everyone understands the urgency to re-establish a hospital in town. Typhoon related wounds get infected and first amputations have already had to be done in the military hospitals. The lack of a blood bank is a major issue. The lack of electricity and refrigeration impedes any storage so far. The same for laboratories, vaccines and incubators...
Even if a significant part of the population has already been evacuated, Tacloban area had 300,000 inhabitants and setting up a referral hospital is our priority.
The team in charge of installing the inflatable hospital is arriving. It's with real joy that I meet up with old friends. Eric, my firm friend from Quebec with whom I already shared adventures in Burundi and Haiti. I had bumped into Daniel the mechanic in Nigeria, Damien the Aussie in Niger, Aurélie the electrician last summer when we were carrying on a vaccination campaign in a refugee camp in South Sudan.
Emergency teams are made of very experienced people. We all had seen our share of crises and disasters. But none of us had seen such a level of destruction. Yolanda crossed the archipelago like a lava flow, leaving behind a motorway of desolation hundreds of kilometres wide. One can only feel humble in the face of what wind can do, or rather maybe it's wind that humiliates us.