HERNANI, PHILIPPINES – Skulls lie on tombstones and a hand reaches out from a grave at a cemetery in the eastern Philippines after a typhoon so powerful it pulled the dead from the earth.
Shell-shocked survivors speak of how there was nowhere to hide when the storm brought the ocean surging ashore, sweeping through a school where children and the elderly cowered.
Typhoon Haiyan killed at least 75 people in the small rural town of Hernani. Another 45 are missing.
And like something from a nightmare, the storm surge was so powerful it washed bodies from their graves as it swept over the local cemetery.
Those who survived the onslaught were horrified to discover the graveyard in ruins.
“It was a hair-raising sight. Some of the dead were sticking halfway out of their tombs. Others were strewn across the street,” said Claire Gregorio, an aid worker from the nearby Catholic diocese of Borongan.
“The water came in and just swept everything away,” said Gregorio, one of the first responders to reach Hernani, pointing to the ocean about 700 meters away and hidden by a strip of now-dead mangrove forest.
The Catholic cemetery in this deeply religious country was a jumble of upturned and broken concrete and marble tombs, half-buried by the fine, crushed coral that came in with the water.
A calcified hand stuck out of one broken grave, several skulls lay on top of tombs and a thighbone sat on the ground.
Romeo Vazquez, 45, recalls how the waters rose rapidly around 2 a.m. on Nov. 8 and did not retreat for five terrifying hours.
“These fields were like a sea at the time,” he said. “There were houses and boats afloat as well as people, both the dead and those still alive.”
His family all survived after sitting out the flood on a small hill behind their house. But relatives who had been laid to rest once before have now gone.
“My brother is missing, his shattered tomb was empty,” he said. “My grandmother’s remains are also missing.”
Farmer Luciano Habagat, 70, waded to safety through chest-deep water when the waves engulfed his home.
“People were awake because of the strong winds, but it was very dark. Some people sought sanctuary in a nearby school while others ran to the hills,” he said. His sister died in the flood.
Gregorio, the church aid worker, said villagers had fled to the school because they thought they would be safe there.
“The elementary school was an evacuation center, but after a while the floor became wet and the water tasted like salt,” she said, relating stories from survivors. “When they opened the doors the seawater exploded in their faces.”
Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest ever recorded when it thundered through the Philippines, cutting a swathe of destruction and killing thousands.
More than a week after it hit, 1,600 people are still officially listed as missing in addition to the 3,976 dead, and up to 4 million are homeless.
A huge global rescue operation has swung into action, with millions of dollars’ worth of aid being delivered around the clock.
But food remains scarce, especially in remote areas. There is no power and no running water across a wide area, and even in some of the larger cities decomposing bodies still lie on the street.
In Hernani, survivors could not wait for an official effort to rebury their dead.
Most of those that were disinterred were put in a mass grave, after a blessing from the parish priest, apart from one man whose funeral had been held just two days before the storm, said Gregorio.
“The relatives decided to rebury him in a grave of his own.”