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Philippines site ‘looks like a moonscape’

NBC News’ Mark Potter describes the ‘moonscape’- like scene at the landslide site  in  Guinsaugon, Philippines, where up to 1,000 are presumed dead. But there is at least one glimmer of hope — the tremendous outpouring of international aid.
Members of a rescue team from Taiwan walk on rocks and mud after landslide buried Guinsaugon village in central Philippines
Members of a rescue team from Taiwan search for signs of survivors Tuesday amid the rocks and mud in Guinsaugon.Bobby Yip / Reuters

GUINSAUGON, Philippines — With estimates of up to 1,000 dead, the chances of finding any more survivors at the site of the landslide in Guinsaugon, Philippines, are fading fast, but the muddy rescue effort continues.

NBC News’ Mark Potter describes the "moonscape"- like scene at the landslide site and the glimmer of hope there reflected by the tremendous outpouring of international aid.

How is the search-and-recovery effort going?
Actually, it’s still considered a search-and-rescue effort. The Philippine authorities still believe there is a chance there are survivors.

The U.S. Marine Corps is following the lead of the Philippine officials and treating this as a search-and-rescue effort. So they are continuing to dig in the area where they believe the schoolhouse that had 246 students and their teachers inside at the time of the mudslide, and a municipal auditorium, also crowded when the tragedy occurred, are located.

They are using listening devices, and they hope to put ventilation tubes down into where they think the schoolhouse might be.

There are also people here from Taiwan. The Malaysians have brought their equipment to listen for human sounds underground. Some authorities have reported hearing some sounds, but it’s unclear what they are.

The fervent hope among many here is that they are human sounds, but there are concerns that perhaps this is just the sound of earth shifting or water running through the mudslide area. It’s hard to tell.

There has been no confirmation that any humans are still alive under the tons and tons of rock and mud that are sitting over what used to be an active farming community. No survivors have been found for four days now. But the mission continues.

What is the scene like at the site?
On Monday, we climbed through the rock, a difficult trek, to see the area where the rescue workers are digging.

Standing there, you can appreciate the massive amount of rock and mud that sits on top of the area. It looks like a moonscape as you look out across it.

It appears like the mountain itself just collapsed and poured everything downward over the town. There is nothing left. There are a few rooftops at the base of the village, but that’s it. Everything else is gone.

Many people believe that there can simply be no more survivors than those rescued on the first day because of the massive size of this mudslide area, which covers acres and acres.

That was the thing that struck me most. I expected to see a lot of mud and loose dirt, but when we got up there we thought, maybe it’s not properly named a “mudslide.” We though that what it really looks like is a “rockslide,” a “landslide,” or even a “land slip.”

The thought of what happened when all of that rock came racing down the mountain into that town makes you wonder how anyone could have survived.

Amazingly, a few did. Then there were the few who were outside the town doing their business at work or going elsewhere to school. They survived, but when you look at them, you can see that they are suffering from great pain.

A lot of the people are clearly still in shock, wondering why this happened. And they are still carrying hope that survivors will be found, that their loved ones will be found. It’s painful to watch.

Where are those few survivors now?
There are 651 survivors from the village of Guinsaugon now living shoulder to shoulder at a Catholic high school in the town of St. Bernard. 

Most of these people are people who had left the village that morning to either go to school or work. Now they have nothing to go back to. A few of the people there are people who were actually rescued from the mud and they carry the scars of that experience.

There they are being cared for by nuns, the Marines, the International Red Cross and other organizations. But this is their new home. It just struck me looking at it that this high school is now Guinsaugon — everyone is here.

They are trying to process what has happened to them, and in helping them with that, the relief workers have been giving them some stress classes and have been listening to them, and getting them to talk a little bit about their feelings and what they’ve gone through. Basically, they are just there to support these people who are just a few days away from this catastrophic event that has so changed their lives.

The whole town now fits in a high school. That struck me when we walked up to the school.

In the short term, they are being cared for. The big question of course is what happens in the long term? They can’t stay at the school forever.

The question has been raised as to whether to relocate the town. Of course, for the moment, that question can’t be answered. It is still so early in the process, but it is clearly on people’s minds. What do they do now to rebuild their lives, which have been absolutely shattered?   

Have any of the people there started the mourning process or burial process for any of the few bodies that have been recovered?
Yes, some unidentified bodies were placed in a mass grave with a service officiated by a priest who was wearing a mask to ward off the stench. There have also been individual funerals.

This is a sad place because virtually all of the survivors have lost a lot. They not only lost loved ones, they lost their homes, they lost their businesses, they lost their farms, and really their lives have been upended. So, when you see them, you look in their eyes and the vacant stares tell you a lot about what they are going through. Clearly they are in shock.

The hardest thing to see are the children who are now orphans. Many children were in school, away from the village, when the mudslide hit. And so they survived, but their parents did not.

They are safe there and are getting a lot of food, clothing, and even psychological counseling, but you can tell that they are going through a very difficult time.

I saw an exchange where a social worker asked a child, “Who’s left?” And the little girl said, “Myself and my four brothers and sisters.” And the social worker asked, “What about your parents?” And the girl just shook her head, “no.”

Is there any sign of hope?
The real hope you see is in the relief effort. A lot of people have come in from far corners of the world to try to help these people.

The Marines today were playing with the kids. They were letting them listen to i-Pods. 

One Marine said, “Well I’ve got Ludicrous, and I’ve got some Snoop on here ...” and the kids seemed to love it.

They were also feeding them MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). Just like everyone else in the world, the kids didn’t seem to like what they were eating, but were enjoying the encounter with the Marines.

It seemed to seemed to bring them at least some relief. The Marines are really good with the kids and it was a nice gesture to watch.