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‘The place is gone’: vice-mayor of Philippine city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan

Cargo ships being washed ashore are seen after super typhoon Haiyan hit Anibong town, Tacloban city, central Philippines November 11, 2013. Dazed survivors of a super typhoon that swept through the central Philippines killing an estimated 10,000 people begged for help and scavenged for food, water and medicine on Monday, threatening to overwhelm military and rescue resources.

ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS

Jerry Yaokasin slowly scrolls through the photos on his digital camera. There are vast fields of rubble that were once residential areas. Transport trucks pitched at odd angles in the air, sticking out of the ditch. A line of bodies wrapped in tarp. A single unwrapped body, visibly bloated.

But for the vice-mayor of Tacloban, the second-in-command of a city destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan, none of these rank as the most heart-wrenching in the last week.

That moment is captured in a single photograph. A man stands centre frame, surrounded by debris. He is in the middle of a street. In his arms is a child, wrapped in a striking blue cloth. The look on the man's face is vacant.

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"This is hours after the storm," Mr. Yaokasin says. "This is the saddest picture. It's a father and a son. Carrying him. Dead."

This, he says, looking to the rubble on the edges of the picture is how his home now looks. "The place is gone. It's the whole town."

On Tuesday, the Globe and Mail sat down for an interview with Mr. Yaokasin, who provided new insights on how the city of 250,000 might rebuild, the long-lasting penalty it might face for widespread looting, the prison riots it has faced and the suspected organized criminal activity behind the mass looting. Here is what he said, edited and condensed for clarity.

Are there any buildings in the city untouched?

I don't think so. There's some probably with minor damage, but almost all the houses are gone.

What are people doing for food and water?

They saw some sacks of rice, so they start looting all the warehouses.

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After that they went to the department stores, supermarkets, ransacked all the pharmacies. So all are gone.

Has there been violence? Do you suspect gang activity?

We suspect there are organized gangs doing some of the looting.

Because it's not just carts that people are using to get stuff. Now it's vans, looting 50" LCDs and bringing them out to the nearby municipalities and selling them.

Were people warned?

They were warned but they were laughing because the day before it was so sunny. So people think we are crazy telling them to evacuate.

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Why did the city not order a mandatory evacuation?

We did. The first local law that we passed under my watch is the forced evacuation ordinance. That was early in August.

Did you use it?

Yes. And we were able to evacuate some people mainly to the evacuation centres.

But where could you bring the whole population? Like 90 per cent of all the buildings are damaged.

Why have the bodies not yet been cleaned up?

On Saturday almost everyone is a victim, so no one can report to work.

Some lost their family. So everyone is just in shock . So we were less than 50 in the government running everything. Now yesterday they started trying to do the mass graves to bury people.

How long do you think it will take to remove the bodies?

We hope to finish them in three to five days.

How many people do you think might be dead?

The estimate on CNN is around 10,000 for the whole Philippines affected. But I think half it will be in Tacloban.

Do people need to leave this city?

That really is a hard question. Because as one of the municipal mayors in our meeting said, we still have the people, but we don't have a city.

But your objective is to rebuild?

The city will do its best, it's like you're building a new city now.

You cannot just rebuild.

Why would you rebuild here if it's so vulnerable to typhoons?

The question is will you still rebuild it knowing that with climate change and all this stuff it's very prone to typhoons?

One of the questions in your mind is whether to rebuild at all?

As a local government official, our commitment is to rebuild it. But in what way do we rebuild the city? For me if we are going to do the same thing all over again then let's not rebuild it. There should be a new way, maybe following a Singapore model, where all the cables are underground and they have made it a really liveable, sustainable city.

But that might be just a dream for many of us.

Reports said inmates at the jail were begging for food and water. Has that situation been taken care of?

Yes. A riot happened on Sunday, and a few inmates were able to get out. But I think they are back there now.

The inmates have food and water now?

Yes, we were able to give them 30 sacks of rice.

What are people living in?

Whatever is left. They are taking scraps to make their own bunkhouses.

That's not rebuilding.

No. Everyone is working for survival. We thought we only see this in the movies. Apocalypse. During the first few days people were just walking to and fro like in the Bible not knowing where they are going.

Like zombies.

The government has sent in soldiers to maintain order. It is safer now?

In central business district, looting has stopped already. Only because there's nothing more to loot. Now [looters] are going to the subdivisions, going to the houses.

How long before you think power can be restored?

It will take a month more.

You own a small grocery store, which was looted. Were you angry?

No. I am angry because they looted all the grocery stores, all the supermarkets, all the drug stores. Even the mall. Because there's no way we can recover fast now because no one will open any more. It only worsens the situation. And it's not who we are as a people. It's not who we are as a people.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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