Two months ago, when it was nearly 7a.m., 21 members of a family were gathered in the home of the 84-year-old family matriarch on Leyte island in the central Philippines, to protect themselves from a “storm surge” arriving up the coast. None of them knew what this warning meant. They understood wind damage from typhoons, but not the fatal combination of wind and water.
In the great-grandmother’s community, or 'barangay', of Mohon in Tanauan city, about 20km south of Tacloban, more than 130 residents - almost 10 percent of the pre-typhoon population - died that day. Only four of the 21 people seeking refuge in her house survived when the surge broke down the door.
She had lived through a similar storm in 1937, when she was eight years old, and also the Japanese invasion during World War II, and would escape death again even as her great-grandchildren drowned.
The typhoon approached the island and pushed the sea water up into San Pedro bay, creating a storm surge nearly five metres high. At the head of that bay lay Tacloban city, the provincial capital, with an estimated 221,000 people, based on the 2010 census.
One expert called it an “unfortunate confluence of meteorology and geography”.
Following the death of all four of his children, Quieta is still sorting through what is left of his home and has not yet gone back to work at a private company. Shoes, expired medication, framed photos, a bench, a toy – each surviving item a memento of them. His wife has gone back to her job as a government employee to avoid being surrounded by memories of their former life.
Friends from the agriculture university, which Quieta and his wife attended, have brought power tools and supplies to help rebuild their home. Another friend’s social media post about Quieta’s loss led to the gift of a small solar power system from more than 12,000km away in the US state of Nebraska by a professor affiliated to a local NGO.
Throughout the Philippines, shattered homes, mangled piles of scrap metal and snapped coconut trees are physical reminders of a rehabilitation process the government has estimated could take up to four years and cost some US$8 billion. Health experts say the process of building back from grief is less clear -- or linear.
“We did not know water could kill,” said Ferdinand Quieta, 42.
“The children wanted to be with their cousins and great-grandmother. Our 11-year-old daughter said she would look after her siblings and that her mother should come be with me because I was still at our family home. Do you think children have premonitions?
“On the Sunday [three days] before the typhoon hit, our five-year-old daughter drew a picture where she and her three siblings were on one side of the page together, and we were on the other. When we asked her why she drew it that way, she just said the children were going away and that I needed to keep the drawing because we would all meet again one day. I did not know what she was talking about.
“I don’t know why I am still alive. Why they are gone. There is no one to say ‘good morning mother, good morning father’. No one to hug us goodnight. They were such good kids.
“Strangely, also my eight-year-old son, even before his sister gave us that drawing, asked his mother what she would do if all the children died?
“She said she would commit suicide.
“He said that she should not, because then the children would go to heaven and we would be in hell, and how would we see each other again?
“Life must go on, even if we don’t understand why we are still here.”