By Kristen Gelineau
TACLOBAN, Philippines – Close your eyes and hold your breath, and you could imagine you are in a normal sports stadium. You hear a ball bouncing and the children’s cheers echoing under the cavernous dome.
Open your eyes and you see rain-soaked trash littering almost every inch of the ground and exhausted refugees sprawled across seats. A sign taped on the wall next to a small, dank room by the stairwell tells people in rough terms not to relieve themselves there. It is clear from the stench that many have ignored this advice.
For the thousands of people jamming the Tacloban City Astrodome, the great hall with a solid roof was a heaven-sent refuge when Typhoon Haiyan rammed the eastern Philippines last week. Evacuated from their homes along the coast in time, they had a place to hide from the furious winds and gigantic water surge. But along with shelter, their constant companions now are misery and hunger.
It’s been six days since the typhoon struck but no aid has arrived at the Astrodome. Not a single relief worker is in sight.
“What can we do? There’s nothing we can do!” said Corazon Cecleno, a volunteer with the village council who had handed out food stamps to the occupants — stamps for food that has yet to arrive. “We really want to know why the distribution of help is so slow.”
The people staying here find water wherever they can — from a broken water pipe on the side of the road, from a tarp in a former office building nearby. The water tastes bad — salty — but there is nothing else available and they are desperate.
Just as New Orleans residents took refuge in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Filipinos are squatting here: inside the stadium, in the ruined shops and restaurants that line it, and under tarpaulins on the grass outside.
Maria Consuelo Martinez, 38, is nine months pregnant and jammed in an abandoned restaurant at the dome along with five families. Her naked 2-year-old son, Mark, sits next to her on a piece of plywood. She has only one outfit for him, and it is drying after a wash. Her 5-year-old daughter, Maria, stares vacantly. Sodden laundry hangs from ropes crisscrossing the room. Flies are everywhere and the tiled floor is slick with filth.
Looking for food
Her husband wanders around, begging for food. Some friends found sacks of ocean-soaked rice at a warehouse and gave the family one. They are drying the grains in the sun on a blue tarp, hoping it will be edible, knowing it will be salty. They have a bottle of well water to cook and wash with, but it tastes like the ocean and they aren’t convinced it’s safe. They drink it anyway.
“We have no choice,” says Moses Rosilio, a neighbor who is squatting in the restaurant with Martinez.
Her baby is due by the end of the month. She has no idea where she’ll deliver.
“I’m feeling nervous,” she says. “There are no clothes for my baby. … I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give birth here.”
In the wreckage of a discotheque next door, facing the street in front of the stadium, a few men have built a small fire to cook noodles. The pot will need to feed a dozen people today.
Nearby, Vicky Arcales, 38, uses a hand-crank charger for her mobile phone. She shakes her arm in exhaustion; she’s been at it for three hours. She knows she won’t get a signal anyway, but charges it nonetheless. Just in case.
Behind her, a family has crafted a makeshift baby cot out of a pink-and-white-striped sheet, strung up by cords. It cradles a month-old boy in a shirt, but no diaper; they have none, and no other clothes. Nor do they have food for his mother, who is starving.
The baby stares up at visitors and urinates, the urine seeping through the sheet onto the floor below. A few feet away, a 1-year-old girl wails, her face covered in a red rash. There is no medicine for her.
Inside the dome, Erlinda Rosales lies on a steel barrier propped atop the railing and stadium seats, next to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is their makeshift bed. They are cooking a little nearby on a small burner borrowed from a friend.
Rosales, 72, is one of the lucky ones: Her family has finally received the first supply of relief food. But it was only because her granddaughter has walked every day to their village council to see if the supplies are there. On Thursday’s walk, the food was finally available. They got 3 kilograms (7 pounds) of rice and three cans of sardines.
“I wonder when they will bring food here,” she says.
Daniel Legaspi has less than Rosales, but more than some other people. The 16-year-old holds up a packet of squeezy cheese, powdered biscuits and cream.
“We don’t have bread, but we have the fillings,” he says with a laugh.