GUIUAN, Philippines – People swept dirt from the pews and wiped clean the mud-covered, ornate tile floors of a church. The sound of hammers hitting nails and the buzzing of chain saws reverberated in the streets. Debris was piled on corners and set ablaze.
And amid all this activity, a stream of bodies continued their final journey toward a hillside mass grave where nearly 170 had been buried by Friday afternoon.
One week after Typhoon Haiyan razed the eastern part of the Philippines, killing thousands and leaving at least 600,000 homeless, resilient residents of the disaster zone were rebuilding their lives and those of their neighbors.
An international aid effort gathered steam, highlighted by the helicopter drops conducted from the American aircraft carrier USS George Washington. But the storm victims moved ahead – with or without help from their government or foreign aid groups.
Peter Degrido, a coast guard reserve, was one of the 35 workers trying to move an overturned passenger bus from a road leading to the airport in Guiuan, a town on Samar island. They hitched the bus to a truck with steel cables and made slow progress. Ahead of them lay many downed electricity poles that must be moved next.
“We’re clearing debris from the roads leading to the airport and the port so that relief goods and medicine can arrive faster,” Degrido said. “It’s devastating to see this. But people are slowly recovering.”
The Philippines’ main disaster response agency raised the death toll Friday to 3,621, up from the previous figure of 2,360. Most of the casualties occurred on Leyte and Samar islands. It said 1,140 people are missing and more than 12,000 injured.
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 in Guiuan, about 100 miles from Leyte’s devastated capital of Tacloban.
The side of the new house is open. A statue of Jesus stands on a table. On the ground is a broken mirror.
“Temporary,” he shrugs, referring to the house and their status. “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.”
Elsewhere in town, one man was selling skewers of meat, and a couple of kiosks were selling soda and soap. Everywhere, freshly washed clothes lay drying in sun.
Guiuan was one of the first towns hit by the typhoon. It suffered massive damage, but casualty figures were lower than in Tacloban and elsewhere because it was largely spared from storm surges.
While many have left the disaster zone, some chose to stay and help.
Susan Tan, a grocery store owner in Guiuan, was all set to fly elsewhere in the country after hungry townsfolk swarmed her business a few days after the storm, 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 cellphone provider. Hundreds lined up in the sun to use it to call relatives and let them know they are safe. One minute per caller is the rule.
On Thursday, she welcomed her first aid shipment. It’s a fraction of what is needed, but it’s a start: 20 boxes containing dried noodles, canned goods, sardines, medicine and bottled water.
In signs that relief efforts were picking up, U.S. Navy helicopters flew sorties from the USS George Washington off the coast, dropping water and food to isolated communities. The U.S. military said it will send about 1,000 more troops along with additional ships and aircraft to join the aid effort.
So far, the U.S. military has moved 174,000 kilograms (190 tons) of supplies and flown nearly 200 sorties.
“Having the U.S. military here is a game-changer,” said Col. Miguel Okol, a spokesman for the Philippine air force. “For countries that we don’t have these kinds of relationships with, it can take a while to get help. But with the U.S., it’s immediate.”
In one neighborhood of Tacloban, 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 Bumanig and his wife were cleaning out their secondhand 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.”