GUIUAN, Philippines – The knock of hammer on nail, the buzz of chain saws, the swish of brooms clearing up debris from wrecked homes and yards: The sound of people putting their lives back together rings out across this devastated town.
A week after a monster typhoon struck the Philippines, there is immense need along this coast, much of it untouched by an aid effort that is struggling against clogged airports, blocked roads and a lack of manpower.
But amid the desperation, a spirit of resilience was clearly evident Friday as the residents of Guiuan and other battered towns started rebuilding their lives and those of their neighbors — with or without help from their government or a foreign aid groups.
At 6 a.m., Dionesio de la Cruz was hammering together a bed, using scavenged rusty nails. He has already built a temporary shelter out of the remains of his house.
“We’re on our own, so we have to do this on our own,” the 40-year-old said as his wife and mother slept on a nearby table. “We’re not expecting anybody to come and help us.”
Authorities estimate some 600,000 people have been displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the islands of Samar and Leyte hardest. Most of those are likely to be homeless. Along with food, water and medicine, aid groups will prioritize the distribution of tools, nails and other equipment to allow people like de la Cruz to make better shelters while more permanent solutions are considered.
The death toll, meanwhile, was raised Friday by disaster authorities to 3,621, up from the previous figure of 2,360. Some officials have projected that the eventual toll will top 10,000, after the missing are declared dead and remote regions are reached.
In signs that relief efforts were picking up, U.S. Navy helicopters were flying sorties from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington off the coast, dropping water and food to isolated communities.
The government — perhaps inevitably — has come under some criticism for its inability to get supplies out quicker.
“In a situation like this, nothing is fast enough,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said in the Leyte capital, Tacloban, most of which was destroyed by the storm. “The need is massive, the need is immediate, and you can’t reach everyone.”
Back in the town of Guiuan, some 155 km east of Tacloban, there were other signs of life emerging from the debris. One man was selling skewers of meat, a couple of kiosks are open selling soda and soaps. Everywhere, freshly washed clothes lay in the sun, drying.
While many have left this and other affected towns, some are choosing to stay and help.
Take Susan Tan, a shop owner. She was all set to fly elsewhere in the country after hungry townsfolk swarmed her business a few days after the storm struck, stripping the shelves of everything of value.
But a friend persuaded her to stay, and she is now running a relief center from her shop, which has been in the family since the 1940s.
“I can’t just go to Cebu and sit in the mall while this place is in ruins,” she said. “Although I’ve been looted and made bankrupt by this, I cannot refuse my friends and my town. We need to help each other.”
Tan managed to get her hands on a satellite phone from a friend who works for a local cell phone provider. Hundreds line up in the sun to use it to call relatives to let them know they are safe. One minute per caller is the house rule.
On Thursday afternoon, she welcomed her first aid shipment. It’s a fraction of what is needed, buts it’s a start: 20 boxes containing dried noodles, canned goods, sardines, medicines, some bottle water.
Guiuan was one of the first towns to be hit by the storm. It suffered massive damage, but casualty figures were lower than in Tacloban and some other towns because it was largely spared from storm surges.
In Tacloban, there were also some signs a battered population was beginning to get back on its feet —even as trucks carrying corpses drove through its streets on the way to a mass grave.
The ornate tiled floor of a still-standing church was covered in mud as sunlight poured in through holes in the wind-peeled ceilings. Inside, people prayed while others swept dirt from the pews.
Residents hauled debris into piles in the streets and set them on fire. Others were at work making frames for temporary homes.
In one neighborhood, dozens of people crowded around a mobile generator, where countless cords snaked across the dirt and into power strips. Residents plugged in mobile phones, tablets and flashlights, hoping for a precious gulp of electricity, even though cell coverage remained spotty.
John Lajara was already thinking about replacing his old residence, which once had a pool table and a sea breeze. Now it’s a trash heap.
“We can’t wait so I am building my house again,” he said. “Back to zero.”
John Bumanig and his wife were cleaning out their second-hand clothes shop, which was swamped by storm surges. They were laying out bras in the sun, though they weren’t hopeful anyone would buy them. Most of the stock had to be thrown out.
They were determined to stay in Tacloban, but faced an uncertain future.
“We cannot do anything, but will find a way to overcome this,” said his wife, Luisa, holding back tears. “We have to strive hard because we still have children to take care of.”
In Guiuan, a team of volunteers from elsewhere in the Philippines was clearing rubble from the road to the airport so that relief goods could get in quicker. Its leader, Peter Degrido, was trying to move an overturned passenger bus with a truck and steel cables.
“It’s devastating to see this. But people are slowly recovering,” he said. “They’ve already moved most of the bodies.”