For Filipino couple in hard-hit area, ferry has become a lifeline

November 14, 2013

The despair around them has become so commonplace that Joyma and Delfin Perlas, in some ways, feel lucky.

They are not quite homeless: They sleep in a concrete husk, the ground covered by a tarpaulin, using damp clothing for pillows. And they are not quite desperate: They can still get water and food, so long as they can scrounge up money — and then chance into a seat — for the two-hour ferry ride to the intact city of Cebu.

“Yes, I would say we are lucky,” Delfin said. He laughed. “But our lives are terrible.”

In their post-typhoon existence, survival has become a full-time jobin a region where water is scarce, banks are closed, fuel is nonexistent and candles provide the only light.

Joyma, 35, and Delfin, 38, lost no loved ones, but their experience in the past week points at the broadest consequences of a super typhoon that killed at least 4,460 people and displaced more than 900,000, according to U.N. statistics released Thursday.

This past Friday, as the storm ripped through, they huddled in a crawl space in their attic and watched the neighbors’ roofs fly off like kites. On Saturday, they were still almost too dazed to walk, let alone plan. By Sunday, grocery store prices had tripled. By Monday, the shelves were empty.

And by Tuesday, with aid still slow to flow, Joyma and Delfin realized they needed a plan.

“We couldn’t just wait for help,” Joyma said.

They headed to the Ormoc City Pier, the entry point for nearly all goods and people along the central western coast of Leyte island. The ferries can shepherd 250 passengers and — more important — carry towers of boxed food and water. Curiously, since the typhoon, the main private ferry company has not changed its schedule. There are still three departures and arrivals per day from Cebu.

By the time Joyma and Delfin showed up at the terminal Tuesday, seats for all three departures were sold out. The couple waited standby, and the clouds darkened as a much smaller tropical storm rolled through. Two students got nervous about the weather and sold their tickets — roughly $15 each — to Joyma and Delfin, who boarded the ferry hungry, unshowered and nearly in tears.

Now-rare luxuries

The ferry ride is bumpy, but for those from Ormoc, it’s a reminder of the many items that have become rarities in the places where the typhoon hit. The ferry has refrigerated sodas, working electrical outlets and a flat-screen television that plays slapstick comedies. On board, attendants distribute complimentary cake snacks known as Fudgee Barrs.

The ferry is a means of escape, but that is an option that many in Ormoc say they cannot take. Almost always, those who have boarded in the past week to be transported away from Ormoc end up coming right back. They haul with them loads of bottled water, sacks of rice and crates of instant noodles — all for relatives or friends who couldn’t get onto the ferry.

An international relief operation has picked up in the past two days, with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group arriving off the Philippines on Thursday with 21 helicopters and pallets of food, drinking water and medicine. But hunger is widespread, and many people need medical attention.

About 190,000 people live in Ormoc, and though just dozens died here in last week’s storm, nearly all the buildings were flattened or torn apart. The city resembles a three-mile-wide junkyard, one that disappears at night, when darkness swallows everything.

Delfin is a pastor. The homes of most of his congregants have been damaged or destroyed.

Ormoc, Delfin admits, wasn’t prepared for such a typhoon. Many residents don’t have televisions and never saw pictures of the nation-swallowing white swirl that networks talked about well before landfall. A day before Haiyan hit, a local government official with a loudspeaker drove around town, asking residents to be careful.

Delfin and Joyma actually drove toward the path of the storm. Last Thursday night, they dropped a friend off at the airport in Tacloban — the city that the storm would pulverize the next day, leaving several thousand estimated dead. Delfin and Joyma debated staying overnight in Tacloban but decided against it. Instead, they drove home, two hours west, around the mountains that would later soften the typhoon’s blow. They arrived home at midnight.

It was six hours before landfall.

“If we’d stayed in Tacloban,” Delfin said, “we’d probably be dead.”

Uncertain future

The two met 10 years ago in Papua New Guinea, where Joyma was a contract worker and Delfin attended theology school. One day after graduation, they flew back to the western coast of this mountainous province, where both were raised.

Last week’s storm damaged their home, dinged their church and ripped apart a school they had recently opened for the children of congregants. They have no insurance, like most Filipinos in the region. To rebuild, they need thousands of dollars for hacksaws, nails, corrugated sheets, insulating foam and vulcanized sealant.

Delfin and Joyma say they have almost no money. Before their trip to Cebu, they borrowed some from a friend and received a donation from another church. But they exhausted most of that on shopping for essentials over the past two days, buying candles, canned food and instant coffee for personal use and for distribution to the church congregants. The food will probably last for three days, Joyma said. “After that, we don’t know.”

On Thursday, they showed up at the ferry terminal in Cebu in the midafternoon, already holding tickets for the return to Ormoc — the last trip of the day. The ferry was delayed two hours. Then, halfway to Ormoc, a piece of rubbish got caught in the rudder. A scratchy announcement on the PA system said the ferry was heading back to the “point of origin.”

The ferry sputtered back to Cebu for repairs. Delfin pulled on a vinyl letterman’s jacket, a new purchase from a discount store, and the couple said they were worried: They didn’t have money for a hotel room in Cebu.

Soon, a ferry employee made another announcement: The rubbish had been removed, and the return to Ormoc was a go.

For the next two hours, the ferry passed from a well-lighted city to a destroyed one. When it pulled up to the terminal in Ormoc, shortly after midnight, hundreds waited outside on the muddy pier. About 400 more crammed the inside waiting room, spreading towels or cardboard on the floor for sleeping space, trying to avoid puddles of standing water.

Delfin and Joyma looked at one another, then picked up their boxes. They walked through the crowd, heading into a city they might have to leave again in a matter of days.

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