It was the day after the typhoon when Peter Görgen's phone rang. As an operations manager for the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), Görgen is one of the first people to receive a call when Germany expects to provide aid in a disaster zone.
He and his wife were just having lunch and discussing an art exhibit in Grevenbroich, a town near Düsseldorf. The call was from his boss, who said only a few words: "Can you go?" Görgen said "yes" and immediately shifted his mental focus from Grevenbroich to the Philippines.
Görgen, 65, is organized. His main job is as an engineer in the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning, but he knew exactly how to react after the call, and didn't even forget to throw some socks into his backpack before getting into a waiting car to the airport for a flight to Manila two hours later.
Whether they are talking about an earthquake in Pakistan or a tsunami in Sri Lanka, men like Görgen refer to their operations as casually as others mention family vacations. No matter where in the world a particular disaster has occurred, Görgen always puts on the same dark blue "multi-functional operations suit" and hits the road.
His mission in the Philippines is to organize something that is immediately needed in crisis zones: clean drinking water. When people start drinking from puddles, for lack of other sources of water, or from rivers in which dead bodies are floating around, the most dangerous consequence of a disaster is bound to ensue: disease epidemics.
Görgen and his team have prepared two large water purification systems, along with a laboratory and tools, which enable them to supply drinking water for up to 36,000 people a day. Görgen is one of the most experienced operations managers at THW, having been on more than 40 foreign missions in 22 years. But he can't leave Manila immediately. First he has to coordinate his operation with the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which involves requesting helicopter flights and reviewing aerial images. For Görgen, the most important issue is deciding where to locate the facility.
Aid Catastrophe Follows Typhoon
Finally, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, Görgen was up at 3 a.m. and took the first flight from Manila to the northern, typhoon-stricken part of the island of Cebu. Upon arrival, he got into a car with the German honorary consul, who drove him to the north. Along the way, they saw devastated cities, collapsed school buildings and palm trees that had snapped in half. Children stood by the side of the road, holding up signs that read: "We need water."
Super-typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest typhoons ever to hit the coast, with winds of up to 379 kilometers (235 miles) per hour, had struck the Philippines days earlier on Friday, Nov. 8. Haiyan had derived its strength from warm ocean waters with temperatures of up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), growing into a massive storm that destroyed entire regions. Its most devastating aspect was a storm surge up to five meters (16 feet) high, which leveled entire cities. Several thousand people died, although the official death toll remains uncertain. The damage is estimated at €10 billion ($13.5 billion).
But after the catastrophe, the aid disaster began. For several days the world, and especially the government in Manila, was unable to help many of the storm's survivors. Entire regions were cut off, with relief workers unable to reach them. The survivors had nothing to eat or drink, and there were no medical personnel to care for the wounded. Looters ransacked what was left at warehouses and shops, and the disaster zone descended into chaos.
"I do feel that we have let people down because we have not been able to get in more quickly," said Baroness Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator.
Haiyan's arrival was not a surprise by any means. The Philippines is hit by about 10 typhoons a year, and the government in Manila should have been prepared. "The emergency plans are very poorly conceived," says a senior official in Manila who, eager to avoid conflict with President Benigno Aquino, does not want to see his name in print.
Government Unprepared for Disaster
The Philippines consists of more than 7,100 islands, and according to the official, most parts of the country are easily accessible by ship. To be more prepared for disasters like Haiyan, Manila could station a handful of freighters around the country and keep them on call, with water filtration systems, emergency food supplies, medicine and tents on board. After a disaster, these ships could reach the affected areas more quickly than international aid workers, who must be flown in.
The government also bears some of the responsibility for the deaths of many Filipinos. It could prepare the country more effectively for typhoons. Many cities are too close to the water, where storm surges are quick to wash away flimsy huts. And meteorologists can predict the arrival of typhoons with a fair degree of accuracy, sometimes hours or even days in advance. In other words, people could get out of harm's way, the government official says angrily. But many don't.
The Philippines is one of the poorest countries in the world. Some residents own nothing but a "TV set and a kettle," which they want to protect from looters, says the official from Manila. For that reason, they often stay in their huts -- and die there. The police and military should maintain a stronger presence in provincial areas, to establish order and stop looters, says the man from Manila. If these steps are not taken, the next typhoon could cause as much damage as Haiyan did in Tanauan, a city on the island of Leyte.
At 10:30 a.m. last Thursday, 26 more names were added to the list of fatalities in the city. On this day, civil defense officer Chat Ortega, 53, maintains two lists, one for those reported dead and one for the missing. Six days after the storm, there are more than 1,000 names on her first list. The list of the missing is longer, so long, in fact, that Ortega doesn't have the time to add up the numbers on all the pages. There are people waiting in line in front of the city hall. Some want to know where to bury their dead, while others are waiting for news on the missing.
After that, they intend to leave the city.
No Provisions a Week Later
Thousands are already embarking on an exodus out of Tanauan, making their way north on foot, by bicycle, or whatever means possible. Their goal is to get out, and to somehow travel the roughly 20 kilometers (13 miles) up the east coast of Leyte to the airport in Tacloban, where large military aircraft are taking off and landing. The refugees hope that by reaching Tacloban, they will be able to get something to eat and drink, and perhaps a seat on a flight out of this nightmare.
The road from Tanauan to Tacloban begins at the Embarcadero Bridge. Mountains of debris -- palm trees, roof trusses, a minibus, a coffee table -- have piled up against the bridge. Bodies float in the water, stuck in the debris, and the stench is unbearable.
"There are a few dozen bodies under this bridge," says dentist Quintin Octa, who is helping local official Ortega manage her lists of the dead and missing. "We have no means to recover them." Men pump water out of a well a little farther down the canal. "Drinking water is our biggest problem," says Octa.
Tanauan, a city of about 50,000 before the storm, was destroyed. Located directly on the Pacific coast, it was defenseless against the storm surge. There are no longer any habitable dwellings between the waterfront and the city hall.
Almost a week has passed since the typhoon, and still no fresh water, not a single food shipment and no gasoline have arrived in Tanauan. She doesn't want to complain about her government, says Ortega, since she herself is part of it, but -- "no," she says, interrupting herself and angrily turning her face away.
By last Wednesday afternoon, German THW operations manager Görgen know where he and his team can provide the most effective help. On this day, they decide to install the water purification equipment in the northern part of the island of Cebu.
The plan is straightforward: The equipment has to be flown to Cebu, where his personnel will load it onto trucks and take it to the north. There they will set up the equipment and begin providing the local population with drinking water. Time is now of the essence.
His unit of 18 men and one woman is already in the air, on board a Lufthansa cargo plane, along with 22 tons of equipment. The THW staff have brought along German federal property certificates, letters of recommendation and customs stamps for the Filipino authorities. They are determined not to lose any time.
The team of specialists in the field includes mechatronics engineers, electricians and chemical laboratory assistants. If all goes well, they will be able to unload the materials immediately after landing and begin driving north. They hope to be able to begin setting up the equipment by evening.
But things are not going well. The cargo aircraft was diverted from the civilian airport to a military field. A portion of the team is on board another aircraft, which has landed at the civilian airport. The men at the civilian airport decide to drive to the military airport. The two airports are only five minutes away from each other, but a guard at the military airport refuses to let them in, citing his orders.
"But I was already here this morning," says the German honorary consul, who is still accompanying Görgen. "Flights with relief supplies are constantly landing at the airport, and the Americans are also there."
The guard is sweating. He doesn't respond. The consul, Franz Seidenschwarz, has been living in the region for 26 years, is an honorary citizen of Cebu and speaks the local language, Visaya. He knows that if he raises his voice and humiliates the guard, he will have lost the argument. As in many Asian countries, it would amount to a loss of face for the guard.
'Please Help Us'
As difficult as it is at the moment, the consul has to keep his cool. His cellphone rings, but he doesn't answer. According to Seidenschwarz, answering a call while in conversation with someone is a serious faux pas.
"Please understand my problem," he says pleasantly to the guard.
"I understand, Sir. We have to coordinate."
"Good, good. I know. Please notify your boss."
"We will notify our boss," the guard says. But he doesn't move, instead taking a large handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his forehead. He seems uncomfortable. He apparently either doesn't know which boss to consult or doesn't have the nerve to make the call.
The consul pleads with the guard: "Please help us. There is drinking water equipment there. The people need water."
But nothing happens. One team is in the airport and can't get out, while the other team is at the gate and can't get in.
A car stops at the gate with people from the local water authority inside: a driver, the boss and two engineers. They are supposed to help the German team, but they too are reluctant to challenge the guard, so they remain in the car. A coconut falls to the ground. "Very dangerous," says the boss, looking at the coconut.
The consul finally convinces the guard to let them in. He has discovered that they have a mutual acquaintance, and suddenly the guard agrees to drive them toward the tarmac in a military bus. Relationships are critical in the Philippines.
But the hydraulic ramp is still missing, and the trucks that were promised haven't arrived yet, either. In the meantime, the THW team members try to get their equipment through customs. But the interpreter doesn't speak the local dialect, which she is unwilling to admit. In the end, despite the disaster, the Filipino customs agents decide that it's time for them to go home. There is one small consolation: A hydraulic ramp arrives late in the afternoon. But now the team is missing a forklift.
Refugees Walk toward Help
On the neighboring island of Leyte, the coastal road veers inland north of Tanauan. The hills to the left look as if they had been bombed. The storm stripped the trees of their leaves, leaving the fields exposed to the sun, so that the crops are now brown. The stumps of palm trees protrude from the swampland on the right side of the road, where the land slopes down to the coast, while corpses and wrecked boats float in the canals.
During the day, a flood of refugees surges along the road, as people from settlements littered with wreckage from the shore make their way northward. Some of the women are carrying umbrellas while the men have wrapped towels around their heads to protect themselves from the sun. No one speaks. They are all saving their strength, forming a silent, bleak convoy.
In San Joaquin, the first larger village, which was also destroyed, one of the many residents who drowned was Maximina Abano. As the waters rose, she and her husband Jesus left their house and started running. She was carrying her five-year-old son Aldrin Jude in her arms. They only made it a few hundred meters before the wave caught up with them. Jesus and Aldrin managed to grab onto the post of an iron fence set in concrete, but Maximina didn't make it.
"The surf simply ripped her away, in the middle of San Joaquin, in the middle of the street," says her sister Marylou, who is a nun.
A mass was read for Abano in the cathedral of the neighboring city of Palo, where the altar and pews have been exposed to the elements since the typhoon. The storm tore the roof off the enormous church.
US General Douglas MacArthur landed on the beach of Palo in October 1944, an important date in the history of the Philippines, because it marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese occupation. The monument to MacArthur that was erected in Palo survived the storm almost completely intact -- only one of the seven men shown wading ashore was knocked down by the waves.
The procession of refugees continues northward through the devastated town, passing the monument along the way. From here it is only about eight kilometers to the airport in Tacloban. The sound of the planes becomes audible when the wind changes directions.
The refugees who are on foot take the short coastal road to the airport, which is littered with uprooted trees. The few cars still on the road a week after the storm must drive through the city, passing the looted Robinsons Mall, warehouses and gas stations.
There is a severe thunderstorm. The people stop walking and look up at the sky. There is no point in looking for shelter in a city where almost all the roofs are gone.
The road to the airport passes through a neighborhood called Paraiso. A sign on the left side of the road reads: "There are 50 bodies in San Pedro. Pick them up!" There are bodies lying in black bags on the other side of the road. There is a naked woman among the hundreds pushing their way between cars and bicycles. She too is walking toward the airport, which is now close at hand. In this apocalyptic scene, no one is walking with her, no one stops her and no one approaches her.
On this afternoon, as journalists await the arrival of UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, a senior US military official appears on the tarmac: Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, 50, who, with his sunglasses, brilliant white teeth and khaki uniform, resembles his famous fellow American, General MacArthur. He has arrived with what he calls "game-changing" news: The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is on its way to the Gulf of Leyte, and amphibious ships have also been requested. "This will put us in a position to provide people with fresh water."
The general disappears, and as movie-like as his appearance may have seemed, on this afternoon there is a touch of confidence in the faces of the soldiers, doctors and aid teams.
'There Is a Great Need for Water'
Meanwhile, on the island of Cebu, German THW manager Görgen faces an exasperating state of affairs. He needs more trucks, as well as an official contact in the north. Görgen drives to the island capital, Cebu City. The governor of the province is Hilario Davide III. It is rumored that he owes his career in part to being the son of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, a country where those with the right family connections stand a better chance of making it to the top.
After coming in office, Davide decided to have the statehouse renovated. The entire building is currently under construction. Görgen takes a seat in a large armchair in the waiting room, looking a little out of place in his "multi-functional operations suit" with its yellow reflective stripes. The governor doesn't seem to know who Görgen is, even though they met two days earlier.
Görgen explains what he needs.
"How many people are with you?" the governor asks.
"Nineteen," Görgen replies.
"No, technical assistance. As I mentioned, water aid."
"Oh, water. Yes, I'm sorry, I'm confused. Okay."
"There is a great need for drinking water," says Görgen.
"Did you manage to unload your materials?" the governor asks.
"God bless you. Would you like some coffee?"
"Just don't leave the coffee untouched. That would be impolite," the German honorary consul whispers. "At least take a few sips."
Nothing But Candles
The meeting ends. "This is happening too slowly for me," says Görgen. He meets with other people. Perhaps he will get more trucks, after all -- more than a week after the disaster.
The city of Ormoc is more than 100 kilometers southwest of Tacloban, on the other side of Leyte. It's a city in shock. The roofs, made of tiles or corrugated metal, are gone. The coconut trees are stripped bare. The streets are under water. The people are joking and smiling, but sometimes they begin to weep only seconds afterwards.
The poor have been hit especially hard. Many lived in huts directly on the shoreline, like Evangelina, her husband Marcelo and their two children. They had been making a meager living selling pots in a shop in the city, and occasionally going fishing. When the storm came, Marcelo took his family to a tiny chapel near their hut, where they hid behind the altar. They stayed there, holding each other's hands, until it was over.
Now they are standing in front of what is left of their hut. A dictionary, a deodorant stick, three candles and an old mattress are lying on the floor. They cheerfully show us what is left of their lives. In the end, they say "thank you for your time" and return to the beach, where the sky is turning purple just before nightfall. Soon, in a city that once boasted a population of almost 200,000, there will be nothing to see but a few candles.