By Dennis Sadowski
PALO, Philippines — The mood turned somber late this morning in the community known as Barangay San Joaquin as residents uncovered the body of 16-year-old John Steve Cobacha, who had been missing since Typhoon Haiyan tore through the central Phillippines Nov. 8.
A small crowd of supporters stood alongside the main road between Palo and Tanauan to watch about 15 men carefully pick through a large mound of debris after another neighbor found human remains while clearing branches next to his home.
Cobacha’s brother, Gilbert, 23, was among the men removing tree trunks, palm branches and personal belongings washed more than a quarter-mile inland by a 15-foot storm surge and pounding winds.
John Steve was reported missing soon after the storm. The death was the fourth for the Cobacha family, neighbors said. Mother Lorenda, father Leondro and toddler son Santino, 2, also were killed. Their bodies were found soon after the water receded into the ocean once the storm passed through the region.
The volunteers moved debris knowing that more human remains could be in the decaying and water-logged rubble that had been pushed against what was left of a battered concrete block wall of a two-story building.
Barangay council member Fel Rene Bambi Maraya told Catholic News Service 40 people remained missing from the tight-knit community. More than 400 people from the area died in the ferocious storm, he said.
Two middle-age women watched their neighbors struggling to lift some of the debris, silently praying.
Virtually every home in the area of the discovery was covered in tarps donated by various worldwide relief agencies. Twisted metal, broken windows and fallen walls are now trademarks of the once-thriving, if poverty-stricken community.
The site of the discovery is across the road from the grounds of San Joaquin Parish, the site of a mass grave where 352 people were buried immediately after the storm.
Simply crafted crosses of wood and metal marked dozens of slight mounds in front of the church. Candles, photos, large banners and even dolls served as small memorials at nearly every grave.
At one grave, the resting place for 10 members of the Lacandazo family and three others, a group of school children on their way home from morning classes delicately placed a small brown basket filled with colorful plastic flowers. Each one took a turn at arranging it until it looked just right. They stood, looked at their work and slowly continued on their way home.
Visitors constantly entered the makeshift cemetery during the 45 minutes colleague Tyler Orsburn and I were there. Most were women who stopped to pray and remember the events of that horrible day.
The Philippine government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported Jan. 29 that 6,201 people had died because of the typhoon and another 1,785 were missing. Now John Steve Cobacha will be added to the roster of the dead.
But to the residents of the Barangay San Joaquin, John Steve was so much more: a friend, a loving brother, a young man whose life was taken much too soon by the whims of nature.