Tanauan, Philippines – Huddled in a room with their headlamps providing the only source of light, Michael Karch and his team of medical professionals looked like miners ready for a dig. Tarps protected them from the rain, as they carried out their relief work inside the roofless and flooded town hall of Tanauan, one of the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan last week.
On Tuesday night, the group of American doctors and nurses assisted Ann Cheryl Orongan, a local resident, as she gave birth following an emergency Caesarian operation.
“We try not to do a C-section in situations like this,” said David Page, a coordinator from the humanitarian organisation Mammoth Medical Missions. “So this was very tense.” As one of the volunteers swaddled her in blankets, the newborn let out loud and repeated wails.
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The birth was welcome news for the storm-weary town, which saw all of its villages facing the Pacific Ocean wiped out from the storm surge last Friday, leaving hundreds dead or missing. But it also highlighted the Philippine government’s slow response to the disaster, leaving homeless and hungry survivors to look after their own welfare.
“I don’t know what we would have done if these doctors were not here,” Reynald Bahin, the baby’s father, told Al Jazeera.
For at least three days, debris and fallen trees have blocked the roads into Tanauan, keeping it in near total isolation. The Mammoth team was headed for Chiapas, Mexico when they learned of the disaster in central Philippines, prompting a last-minute reroute.
By Sunday, they were onboard four helicopters heading to Tanauan, 18 kilometres south of Tacloban, the provincial capital of Leyte. Landing by the beach, the team reached the town centre on foot. Along the way they passed dead bodies, some wedged in mounds of debris, Page said.
The team then set up a medical centre inside the town hall. As of Tuesday, they had delivered nine babies and performed 55 surgeries, including amputations. Other medical organisations like Doctors Without Borders and Physicians for Peace have also pitched in to help elsewhere in the central Philippines.
Aside from the injured, doctors also had curb the spread of diseases, such as cholera and typhus, among the evacuees.
Between Tacloban and other Pacific Coast towns to the south like Palo, Tanauan, Tolosa and MacArthur, ruined houses line the entire 60-kilometre segment of the Maharlika (Nobility) Highway.
We're going to get through this. We can't lose hope.
Some parts of the road were completely covered in sand, making it difficult for vehicles to manoeuvre. Tangled wires from downed telephone and electric poles served as added obstacles. Homeless families sat by the road, and children held up signs begging for food from motorists. Others were building tents from scrapped tin roofs, wood and bamboo. By the mountainside heading to Tanauan, coconut tree trunks were scattered like matchsticks.
“We’re going to get through this,” Penelope Tecson, wife of Tanauan’s mayor, told Al Jazeera. “We can’t lose hope.”
A strong smell emanated from behind the town hall, where a mass grave had been dug. However, it was not big enough to accommodate the corpses that have been piling up.
According to Tecson, town officials listed about 1,000 people missing and between 600 to 1,000 dead. There is not enough manpower to help with burials, as survivors are desperately looking for food and water.
Hoping that her family was still alive, Corazon Coritana decided to go home from neighbouring Samar Island. It took her overnight to reach Leyte province, just across the San Juanico Bridge. From there, she walked for hours before reaching Tanauan.
“I feel like I was walking into a set of a horror movie,” Coritana told Al Jazeera. Her family barely survived. Her cousins Raffy and Archie Garcia were caught in the surge and drifted to the next village, swimming alongside debris and dead bodies.
Her family has now left Tanauan to seek refuge in southern Leyte. “We can’t stay in Tanauan for now, because I can’t let my homeless family die from hunger,” Coritana said.
In the town of Tolosa, Al Jazeera met Ruel Robedillos after he collected a two-kilogram bag of rice – a donation for his family of six. “We had no idea what a storm surge was,” he said. When it came, it swept his house away. Robedillos said his family clung to a coconut tree that was left standing.
“We are just lucky to be alive,” said Robedillos.