Tacloban, Philippines Deployment
On February 11, 2014, Heidy Drawdy and Brigitte Basey were mobilized for deployment by Global D.I.R.T. (Global Disaster Immediate Response Team) under the direction of WHO (World Health Organization) and NATO in coordination with the Philippine Government to aid with the human remains recovery operation after Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). The mission was to complete a search of the impact zone to verify that human remains were no longer present prior to large-scale debris removal. Our final destination was Tacloban.
After completing all necessary vaccinations of both handlers and K-9s, we departed Atlanta on February 15, 2014 to Houston to meet with other teams and to be issued our gear. Left Houston Texas. for Honolulu on 2/16/14, from Honolulu to Guam, Guam to Manila arriving on 2/17/14 Asian time. We spent 2 days in a very nice hotel in Manila waiting for our flight on a C130 to Tacloban. The plane was very crowded with supplies and with Philippine families trying to return to Tacloban, our assigned search area. There were no seats available so we sat on our dog crates which helped the dogs to stay calm. We landed at the airport of Tacloban and were met by representatives of WHO and Global and then taken to the home of a very gracious Philippine lady. The home was being rebuilt while we were there to be used as a future hotel. We were three women and dogs in a small room. Poor Heidy elected to sleep on the floor on a mattress. But we were fortunate to have running water (at times warm) most of the time and even had air conditioning once the electricity was restored. Imagine, we had to wash our clothes by hand and line dry them. We were served breakfast and dinner every day with fresh pineapple and papaya from the market. Meat was mostly pork and some chicken with lots of rice with each meal. The women in the kitchen had lost some relatives and all their belongings in the storm. They were trying very hard to make good meals for us. We Americans are so spoiled.
The house we stayed in is located not too far from the airport and on the main road from Tacloban to the airport. Across the very busy street is the once beautiful house of the Tacloban Mayor with a beautiful beach, a museum, and old Japanese bunkers. Very historical place. We were allowed to let our dogs run and play in the ocean after returning from the searches. Our drivers picked us up every morning by cars and pickup trucks to take us to the search areas. The drivers assigned to us were amazing navigating through the increasing traffic. No traffic signs. Not once did we see a car accident. Truly amazing how everyone navigated around the bicycles and carts, and, no road rage!
By the end of our stay we were able to use a Sunday afternoon to go shopping at a newly reopened shopping center. Mostly American goods and lots of candy. We asked our drivers not to go too far away and to find us after an hour. They kind of chuckled and said that we were not hard to locate. We couldn’t be missed, sticking out over the crowds.
On our first day of searching we visited a mass grave site where the bodies found were buried along the side of the roads and in a large field, to be exhumed later for identification. Our teams’ finds were picked up by a crew from the precinct’s fire department and deposited in body bags along the side of a road and then later picked up to be processed for identification and burial at a morgue.
One unusual request to search an area came from a prominent family. Through translations we found out that the lady of the house had reoccurring dreams of her sister appearing in her dreams telling her she was buried underneath the rubble of their demolished home and someone needs to come find her. Our handlers searched the rubble and the property. Unfortunately we could not provide her closure.
Philippines have several generations living in one house and are very devout and reverent of their elders and family structure.
The city is divided into precincts governed by officials that we had to visit daily to get permission to search. So there was a lot of waiting at times to get our job done. Politics. There are so many different dialects in the Philippine language due to multiple tribes, which made communication somewhat difficult. Even our local counterparts had difficulty communicating. But you could sometimes find some of the younger people who spoke English and were eager to help us out. At times we were in areas where our drivers asked us not to get out of vehicles because of the local beliefs and politics.
We searched a lot of swampy areas where the bodies deposited while the waters receded. At times we were overcome by overwhelming panic while walking on a net of roots and decaying reed. If you stood still you would sink, so solution was just to walk as fast as the locals and stay on their path. Our hearts certainly skipped a beat when the dogs fell in, but they just swam and went to source. At locations close to the ocean, we were balancing on logs and debris with water underneath. Once the tide went out it was a little easier, but then you got stuck in the mud when you slipped off the logs. The dogs did much better than us humans. The local search teams supplied us with bamboo sticks to help us balance. The rubble of houses that had crumbled from the force of the water was much easier to navigate.
Quite a few of the fishing fleet boats and other large ships were washed ashore and the City was preparing to have them moved back into the harbor. They were lifting the ships by driving wood pilings between the rocks and bottom of ship. We were asked to check around and under the boats and ships to locate possible victims as the shoreline was heavily populated. Some of the homeless people took advantage of the ships by making living quarters.
During the last week of our stay, we were joined by the Makati rescue squad from Manila, a very dedicated and well trained group of professionals. They were able to communicate with the local officials and we got a lot more done and areas covered.
The Philippine people are amazing and very resilient. We watched them build new shelters for their families from scrap they collected that had washed into piles. We watched a family hammer a huge concrete pillar into small pieces to be used as a base for their new shelter. Even the little children were using a hammer. The children’s main toys consisted of plastic lids as frisbees, and kites made from plastic bags.
The local carpenters were collecting all the downed coconut trees and cut precise boards with a hand held chain saw. You could hear the noise of chain saws from dawn to dusk. There was also a small shack next to our house used as a motor cycle shop. Everyone brought their motorcycles that were damaged by the flood to be rebuilt. Motor cycles are the main transportation for most.
The Mayor of Tacloban invited all of us to a newly renovated Italian pizza restaurant in the inner city. And, they served a green salad, a treat for us. The restaurant was mostly frequented by foreign nationals working for relief agencies. Interesting to hear all the different languages. There were also several news agencies present to take pictures and interview our leaders. I talked to a reporter from Vietnam and they took pictures of Envy searching.
We were warned of snakes such as cobra and anacondas. Fortunately we did not encounter any, that we could see. The native teams reported sightings but no one was hurt. We were amazed watching as some of the young men climbed the coconut trees to get the nuts. We got to drink the coconut water and eat the fresh green coconut meat using the nut shell to spoon it out with. One has to acquire a taste for fresh coconut.
On Sundays we were pretty much on our own and we got brave enough to walk along the road to some of the local little stores. We bought one of each of the pastries to taste, fruits and spring rolls. Cucumbers became a real treasure for us when we shared in the room. CocaCola tasted different from the US Coke, much sweeter.
The local search teams would cook their meals and would offered to share their food with us, a lot of it was quite spicy, different but good. We felt hesitant to take their food because of their economic situations. They were quite proud of their manly culinary skills.
We also saw the historical site where General MacArthur landed during the war with Japan. Quite a moving site with all the statues and plaques where the American Presidents had visited and gave speeches. President Clinton was the last one.
We saw quite a lot of improvements made within our one month’s stay. By the time we were leaving, there were street lights and electricity restored to some homes, workers were assigned certain parts of the streets to sweep with brooms every morning, and rubble piles were disappearing every day. It was with a heavy heart when we had to say goodbye to our new friends in Tacloban and wished we could return to this once beautiful city under “vacation” circumstances.
We left Tacloban on March 15, 2014 on the old C130. The Cebu search teams were most helpful getting us and all our gear on the plane to Manila. In Manila we were greeted by the Makati Fire Department’s men and taken to their station to relax before getting on the flight to Guam. We were invited to the office of the Mayor of Makati, which was quite an honor.
The trip from Guam to Honolulu and then Chicago was extremely long. The dogs were getting restless from being confined to the small space at our feet. Arriving in Chicago was a little shocker, we went from tropical climate to ice and snow on the ground. The dogs loved it though.
We were so glad when we finally touched down in Atlanta and were met by our husbands and relaxed in our cars to go home. But, we hope we made a difference and brought closure to some families.