Typhoon Haiyan: The Philippine Village that Lost Its Men

The men stayed behind in Candahug while the women escaped to higher ground when Typhoon Haiyan moved in.

Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty

Nine days ago, the village of Candahug was a tranquil haven on the eastern side of the Philippines, its meandering Pacific coastline flanked by thick palm groves. A half-hour's drive from the nearby city of Tacloban, its sheltered waters and whitewashed hotels made it a pleasant weekend getaway spot.

Today, all that is left of Candahug is the church and community centre, saved by their concrete foundations. But ask a local resident for directions to the village and there comes the first hint of what makes it so unusual, even amid the widespread carnage of Typhoon Haiyan. "You are going to meet the widows aren't you?" they say.

When the storm approached last weekend, most of Candahug's menfolk sent their wives and children to a shelter in Tacloban's convention centre. With the women safe, they stayed behind to defend their homes from storm damage and looters.

Maybe they would have survived a straightforward typhoon.

But no-one expected such an extreme atmospheric low pressure, which generated 200mph winds and whipped the ocean into a deadly, surging wave. As it funnelled through the bay outside Candahug, some witnesses put its height at a towering 16ft.

As a result, the casualties in the village were disproportionately men; the husbands, fathers - and in some cases, their young sons - who had stayed behind.

Among them was Rowena Estoya's husband Bernado, a bicycle rickshaw driver with curly hair and a patient manner. As the typhoon began bearing down, he packed his wife off to Tacloban for what he thought would be just a heavier than normal storm, with no lingering hugs or kisses, and no "I love yous" or "be braves". That was the last time Mrs Estoya saw him alive.

"We really didn't expect the storm to be this big," she told The Sunday Telegraph this week, standing in the shattered remains of the family's two- room home. Today it is little more than a concrete floor, marking the shape of the tiny house. Two thick palm trunks lie across its width and its concrete block walls have tumbled to the ground.

"No-one thought the ocean was rise up so big. If we had known we would not have let our husbands stay."

On the night that the typhoon unleashed its fury, Mrs Estoya, ensconced in Tacloban's convention centre, said no-one really understood what was happening outside. Comfortable, warm and with hot tea being served, the night had the excitable air of a party.

It was not until a survivor from Candahug arrived at the centre soon after dawn the following morning that anyone even began to appreciate the scale of what had unfolded during the night.

"We had no idea," she said. "We were just so shocked. When we heard, we realised that so many of the people who stayed had died and that it was mostly our men. What will we do now?"

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The tragedy was compounded for Mrs Estoya when she learned that her 21-year-old daughter, Victoria, had died as well. She had stayed to look after a shop she ran, against her mother's advice.

She tracked down her husband's body on Tuesday to an elementary school, serving as a makeshift morgue.

"Until then I had hoped he would turn up," she said.

Throughout her story she retained the stoicism that has marked much of the reaction in the province of Leyte, the worst affected area. It was only when asked if she had a photograph of her husband, and she realised that the storm had taken all their photos from more than 20 years of marriage, that her eyes filled with tears and her voice stalled.

Home for the time being is a local high school campus, a couple of miles distant, where many of the survivors are staying, living off tined food, sacks of rice and packets of dried noodles. It stood up to the storm better than the basic houses of Candahug.

Hers is just one of many stories of loss from the village. Her sister – and neighbour – Lolita Miraflorez, also lost her husband, as did dozens of other women.

Mrs Miraflorez spoke to The Sunday Telegraph as she picked among the rubble of her own house, where all that was left standing was the lavatory – its base inscribed with "April 2007", the date their home was built – and her husband's welding machine.

"For a week I have been searching for him. I still hoped to find him alive," she said. "Today I just know he is dead."

In happier times the village was an attractive place to live for families with a little money.

The coast road follows a grassy promenade by the water and the land used to be thick with dense, shady palms. As well as drawing local tourists, a handful of foreigners make pilgrimages to see the site where General MacArthur brought his forces ashore in 1944 to liberate the Philippines from its Japanese occupiers.

That was then - before last week's typhoon wreaked unprecedented devastation.

Now the coastal road is impassable by car. The sea has ripped through sections, leaving gaping holes that plunge to the water below. Only motorbikes and pedestrians can skirt the edges.

The palm trees have gone, leaving a desolate wasteland of stumps reaching into the sky. Even the monument to MacArthur's forces has been damaged, with one of its seven statues toppled.

And the once tidy village,has been laid waste, with not a single house still standing. Notices posted by local officials list 130 people as dead or still missing, most of them men. Among the victims was a 12-year-old boy, Bilfrid Militante, who stayed behind against his mother's express wishes to help his father protect their home.

While the village may have suffered one of the highest death tolls anywhere, a similar pattern has been repeated up and down the coastline.

In Tacloban itself, Jerry Sambo Yaokasin, the deputy mayor, said he expected the death tolls to show that far more men than women had been killed.

"They were afraid that if they all left someone might go to their home and loot it," he said. "The night before super typhoon hit I myself was driving pregnant women and mothers with children to the shelters."

He said it would take a year for the area to recover from the devastation and appealed for more help from the international community.

Local authorities and international donors have come under intense criticism for what many see as a sluggish response. Aid officials say the intense destruction of infrastructure and the devastation spread across a network of islands generated unprecedented logistical problems.

On Thursday, the relief effort intensified with the arrival of an American aircraft carrier group just offshore.

Whatever the reason, in Candahug the survivors are getting by without help from the rest of the world. The American helicopters that surged into operation this week – ferrying in supplies from the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and its support vessels – have not landed here. The United Nations is absent. International charities have not reached this part of the Philippines yet.

Instead, an informal network, based on extended families, kicked into gear. Communal kitchens boil up water for noodles and everyone pitches in.

Sacks of storm-damaged rice have been emptied on to the concrete paths to dry in the sun as families try to find anything salvageable from their ruined homes.

Alina Vergana, 41, was sitting beneath a tarpaulin stretched to keep off the burning sun.

She survived by spending the night in the two-storey Barangay hall – the local community centre. Even then she had to climb on to its roof with dozens of children, nieces and nephews to escape the surging flood. She helped her aged mother on to an airbed to save her life.

Having spent the night protecting the family home, her husband Jerry would have been almost within sight when he died. He must have thought the worst was over as dawn broke, she said, and had gone to her sister's house for a cup of coffee with her brother-in-law.

"That's when the water came in," she said.

Neither has been seen since, leaving Mrs Vergana, a civil servant, wondering how she can start again, and look after her young daughter.

"Look at this," she said, gesturing towards the rubble that had once been her house. "We don't have a home. What are we going to do?"

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This article by Rob Crilly was first published by The Telegraph.