“Every time we do it, I would always hope that this will be the last.” ‘Exhausted and traumatized’ were the words uttered by Robby Consunji, a member of the Land Rover Club of the Philippines (LRCP) who formed a group of hard-core off-road drivers who went to Tacloban City following the devastation of super typhoon Yolanda in November 2013.
Since 2011, the LRCP has been helping calamity victims by driving to devastated areas, be it Luzon, Visayas or Mindanao, to provide much-needed assistance, especially for mobility requirements. From then on, they’ve averaged two to three missions annually. The group is composed of veterans of the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge, one of the world’s toughest off-road events. They always hope that every mission would be their last. But it always turned out otherwise. Anchored on the principle of “self-sufficiency,” the LRCP drove to Tacloban City via Matnog, Sorsogon, taking with them “high-value” items like medicines, telecommunications systems and back-up power supplies to provide temporarily relief to the hundreds of thousands of typhoon victims who were left with no homes, food, water and electricity. Each vehicle had a back up supply of 20 liters of Petron fuel, scuba diving tanks and power compressors to pump air into damaged tires. They also brought radio transceivers, cell phones and three satellite communication systems.
Leaving Manila on Nov. 20, the nine Land Rovers convoy saw the Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) queue for the first ferry was almost 12 kilometers long. They diverted to Bulan Port and arrived in Matnog after 12 hours. Having established contact with port authorities, the LRCP managed to squeeze in and obtain priority slots on a RORO vessel. Consunji took a plane ride courtesy of Air Asia but monitored the LRCP team which took an LCT, a large cargo vessel owned by a mining company. After two and a half hours, the off-roaders landed in Allen, Samar at around 9 a.m. before heading to Leyte, some 250 kilometers away and four hours of driving under normal conditions. Reports relayed by the team to Consunji cited road obstacles were almost everywhere. As they got nearer to “ground zero,” the ambience became gloomy. It was 8 p.m. when they touched down in Tacloban City, just in time for the government-imposed curfew. The team decided to sleep over at the Golden Sun Pension along KM 908 of Maharlika Highway, Caibaan, Tacloban. The owner of the hotel, a government retiree, was himself devastated, not knowing where to start to rebuild his structure. By this time, Consunji and fellow off-roader Marc Soong had joined the group.
Along with flattened communities, dead bodies in cadaver bags welcomed them. Since Tacloban was still covered in total darkness, the LRCP activated its three portable power generators to get some much-needed rest. As night passed, they found themselves rolling in their mattress because of eerie sounds coming from different directions. They felt relieved seeing the sunrise the next day. Immediately, the team reported to the Office of Civil Defence command center, just beside the severely-battered City Hall building. The OCD requested them to ferry their search and rescue teams to remote areas since transportation was scarce. “The sight was so depressing. Since we arrived, we thought that there would be less bodies,” Consunji said, claiming that he saw more bodies being retrieved beside the Tacloban airport on Nov. 23 before his flight back to Manila. The rest of the LRCP was scheduled to motor back to Manila today, Nov. 29.
“It was a traumatic experience for everybody,” he said, adding that the stench of decomposing bodies and the sound of cries for help just wouldn’t subside. A first timer for major relief mission, Soong himself voluntarily sought trauma treatment after experiencing sleepless nights. Again, Consunji told this writer, “Never again!” We hope it won’t be the last. Manilla Land Rover dealer Marc Soong was also part of the mission. This is what he has to say: As the plane landed, we saw the destruction that Yolanda, the strongest storm in recorded history, caused. I believe the world has not seen anything like this before. It looked like an nuclear bomb was set off. There was an eerie silence on the airplane as people gazed out in shock. As we landed we found ourselves in a shell what used to be an airport. We sat in amazement as airplanes and helicopters from the USA, Korea, and people from all nations were scrambling around the airport. It looked like we had landed in a warzone but at the same time; it was humbling to see all these nations here in our country present and helping us with this disaster. I flew in but the others drove in convoy from the Land Rover showroom at Taguig. We, as the Local Land Rover dealer, and other owners shared the ground costs, fuel was sponsored by Petron but it was the guys alone who had to deal with rumours of security problems with stories of ambushes and hijackings all the way…
The first day there we spent getting missions from the Office of Civil Defense headquarters. The rest of the day we used for planning and to survey the area. And as we drove through Tacloban, Palo, and Tanauan and other nearby towns, we were left speechless. Endless kilometers of destruction met us and did not end. The damage is so great that it leaves you helpless, not knowing where to start. With our windows open, we got to an area where it smelled really bad, and Teody Dolora, the owner of the pension house we were staying at said, “There are still bodies that have probably not been found here.” These are sights, smells, emotions, and experiences that I will never forget. And as we ended that first cold, wet, and miserable day, I could see that there was little movement—no one picking up the dead, not much relief moving around, no one was cleaning up; it was almost like a ghost town. I went to bed that night with mixed emotions—what were we doing there, the problem is so HUGE, what is the government doing, where do we start—a deep sense of desperation set in. After seeing the magnitude of the devastation, how can you actually make a difference? It was so sad that I decided right then to extend my trip as two nights would not be enough.
So for our second full day, we split up into teams and covered all that we could. We split up our groups and mobilized all our team members to different locations. On the second day, we sent one team to set up a “Lakbay Alalay” in Tacloban for Petron with a mechanic to help get people’s cars started. Another team we sent to the town of Dulag to setup a medical relied mission, we went to Ormoc to give relief to towns that had not received goods yet, and one team helped an international agency survey waterlines and try to restore the water supply. All of our team members and vehicles were maxed out. One of the challenging parts of our operations became obvious: communication. The signal is terrible and goes on and off even in areas near the big cities. With an assortment of handheld radios, two-way base radios in cars, satellite phones for emergencies, and old-school planning, we were able to get by. I realized how dependent we have become on technology for communication and that we must still remember how to go back to basics. I remember passing through a town from Ormoc headed back to Tacloban and when the locals heard I was headed there they asked: “Are there still people in Tacloban?” This was only 75 kilometers away from Tacloban and people didn’t know what was happening—they thought everyone in Tacloban was wiped out. It was no surprise that there was so much misinformation going around.
So for the next few days, we would get up at 4am and by out by 5. We split up into teams, do all the work, and regroup at base in the evening and recap what happened during the day. Long and fulfilling days full of many heart-warming and heartbreaking experiences for everyone. We had brought the perfect mix of vehicles to support the efforts: Land Rovers that could go anywhere, a Nissan pickup for cargo, a Kia people carrier, and two trucks to carry tons of goods. We had a perfect set of vehicles to support the relief aid at this critical time. Among other things we were able to: distribute thousands of relief packs that we brought, help distribute relief packs of others, set up a solar-powered charging station for a community, did medical missions (and saved the life of a child), and countless other things in the time that we were there. As the days went by, we saw so much more activity from the local government and the international community. Everything seemed to be moving faster with Philippine trucks, American trucks, a few British-supplied Land Rovers, and locals vehicles all moving helping and reviving the fallen towns. More than the death and destruction, this international cooperation to help our country is a sight I will never forget. There was and still is so much effort to help get our countrymen on our feet. Amazing! Looking back at my experience, I have never been prouder to represent a brand like Land Rover, never been prouder of the Land Rover Club of the Philippines, and have never been prouder of being a Filipino. The current Land Rover motto is simple but I believe is apt for what the Land Rover Club of the Philippines, Land Rover Philippines, the Filipino people, the international community, and the whole world for that matter has done in the wake of this catastrophe. And as a nation, as a people, and as a united world, let us go, “Above and beyond.”
Photos: Igor Maminta and Marc Soong