— words and photos by Christopher Johnson — (warning: graphic images) —
Typhoon Haiyan was unlike any story in recent memory.
It was one of the greatest calamities in modern times: a combination of a mammoth hurricane, tornado-force winds, and sea surges akin to the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011. Many scientists called it the most powerful storm ever recorded on land.
For human-kind, there’s never been a more powerful message about the consequences of mismanaging the Earth’s ecosystem. After spending days and nights surveying the destruction of the Guiuan and Tacloban areas, award-winning war photographer Stephen Dupont remarked: “This is what the end of the world looks like.”
This time, a glimpse of the Apocalypse came to the Philippines. In future, it could be Houston, Shanghai or Tokyo.
The scale of devastation stretched our imaginations of what is possible on Earth. If imposed on North America, the storm would have stretched from Texas to New York, Toronto and Newfoundland. One US military commander compared it’s nucleus to a tornado, 50 miles wide. CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland said Haiyan, with sustained winds exceeding 300 km/h (and gusts around 400 km/h), was much stronger than Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana with sustained winds of 200 km/h. He compared Haiyan to a “strong F3 tornado” which can overturn trains and lift cars off the ground. “Only we’re not talking about a very small area, a neighborhood or a city or a town being affected. We’re talking about an entire country,” he said.
In the early hours of Nov. 8, Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, wiped out nearly everything in its path through the heart of the central Philippines, home to more than 25 million people. Though the storm killed at least 7800 and displaced more than 4 million people, quick-thinking local officials and volunteers at schools, churches and town halls saved millions of lives, and the international community rallied to prevent mass deaths by disease and starvation. Nearly everyone in this devout Christian country praised God for sparing them from a storm of Biblical proportions.
Scientists and political leaders immediately connected the storm to climate change. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Yeb Sano from the Philippines and delegates from other countries went on hunger strike in solidarity with disaster victims. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the calamity a wake-up call. “There are a lot of people on Earth who seem to believe we have two Earths. We have seen now what has happened in the Philippines. It is an urgent warning,” he said, “an example of changed weather and how climate change is affecting all of us on Earth.”
Many saw Haiyan as a harbinger of bigger storms to come. The World Meteorological Organization estimated that 2013 was one of the hottest years ever measured, and global sea levels reached a record high. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that average global temperatures could climb by as much as 4.8C this century – a recipe for more calamities. “We need action before it is too late,” said Ban. “The threat is very real and we all have to take responsibility to stop it.”
For me, Typhoon Haiyan was the most wide-spread catastrophic damage I’ve ever seen. It ransacked parts of six major island groups: Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Negros, Panay and Palawan. I couldn’t walk in and out of the disaster zone — stretching more than 1000 kilometers — like I did after the Kobe, Japan earthquake in 1994. When covering the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and the 2011 disasters near my home in Tokyo, I could stay and work in functioning hotels within driving distance of devastation zones that were limited to narrow lowland strips along the coast. Haiyan was more like Cyclone Nargis, whose sea surges and rains inundated secretive Myanmar in 2008 away from the camera eye. But Haiyan was much larger in size and force than Nargis, Katrina or other storms — and it was all hitting millions of impoverished people who lack proper living conditions during the best of times.
For journalists, it was one of the most challenging and urgent assignments ever. To cover Haiyan, I brought a tent, flashlights, rubber boots, rain gear, medicine kits, food and water — and gave almost everything away. I suffered from hunger, thirst, exhaustion, dizziness, heat-stroke, headache and stomach ailments, but was the healthiest person around. We never had problems getting food and water in Yugoslavia, East Timor, Afghanistan or Baghdad, and didn’t have to cope with torrential downpours through damaged roofs and shattered windows. Though terrifying and disturbing, war zones often have pockets of peace, and soldiers or heroic locals often protect us at the front-lines. But there was no oasis of calm and no exit strategy during Typhoon Haiyan for cameramen such as James Reynolds and Filipinos who braved the storm and its horrific aftermath. There were also threats of disease and crime. As police and soldiers coped with their own survival and losses, looters — including escaped prisoners — roamed through dark cities stealing sacks of rice from warehouses or food out of people’s hands.
While many reporters rushed in and out of Ormoc or Tacloban in Leyte province on day trips from Manila or Cebu, we ventured further out to Guiuan in southern Samar, where the typhoon first made landfall. Covering Guiuan, where every building was damaged, had a higher degree of difficulty than Tacloban, which still had functioning hotels and hospitals on higher ground and inland areas.
To reach Guiuan, we had to stand like cattle in the back of a packed, sweltering Philippine Air Force C130 cargo jet, and hold onto others during a rough landing on a bumpy WWII-era air strip, normally used as a jogging course.
The view was shocking. It was like landing on Mercury.
Surviving mainly on bottled water and crackers, myself and a hand-full of war-hardened photographers — Stephen Dupont, Bryan Denton, Brendan Esposito and Tuan Nguyen — slept in puddles of dirty water in the mangled ruins of Guiuan’s municipal hall, the only building with stable electricity from a generator in a pitch black city under curfew. This was our view, day and night.
Disoriented, we worked in blistering heat and thrashing rainstorms, stepping over and around wreckage to get a window into the world of desperate survivors. As privileged foreign journalists, we were luckier than the locals. We knew we could leave on military aircraft without having to wait hours or days at the airfield, as they did. But like many of them, we took risks to reach remote areas such as Calicoan island.
(see Brendan Esposito’s photos here: http://www.smh.com.au/photogallery/national/clique/devastating-scenes-in-samar-20131122-2y0jh.html?aggregate=)
The devastation was shocking. Striking the Guiuan area with maximum force, Haiyan blew away every leaf, annihilated nearly every plant, uprooted ancient trees, snapped palms like toothpicks, and transformed a lush green tropical jungle into a brown sun-baked desert without shade.
The entire coconut crop, which employs about 80 percent of Guiuan’s population, was wiped out in minutes, and can’t grow back for at least five years, according to Tom Sison, Guiuan’s chief of agriculture.
To grasp the full scale of the catastrophic wind damage, I flew in a deafening US Marine Osprey for two hours, pointing lenses out the open back door and enduring G-forces and air sickness as the aircraft rose, banked and hurried to find tiny landing spots on isolated islands where troops delivered supplies and evacuated survivors.
Troops stayed on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier or in tents at the airfield. There were no hotels. In Guiuan, there was not a single undamaged building. Haiyan blew off roofs, shattered windows, punched out doors and knocked over walls. It looked more like Hiroshima than Baghdad during the bombing and looting of 2003 (which I covered from the Palestine Hotel). The Immaculate Conception church, more than 400 years old, was an instant ruin. Guiuan’s hospital was obliterated. Doctors Without Borders, on scene before others, pitched tents amid the wreckage. Everybody was hungry and sleep-deprived from living in the rubble of their homes with little shelter from the nightly rains. Yet they smiled and showed tremendous spirit and compassion. They considered themselves lucky. The death toll was only about 100.
The Tacloban area, home to more than 300,000 people, was less fortunate. Though the winds were less powerful than in Guiuan, sea surges up to five meters high demolished and swept away entire communities, from slums and fishing villages to expensive resorts and industrial parks. Thousands died in their homes because they didn’t understand the dangers of storm surges, though they were used to fleeing from potential tsunamis after earthquakes.
For Stella Campo in Tanauan, south of Tacloban, it was “eight days of hell”, as she struggled to accept the terrible reality that her mother and four siblings weren’t coming home. “We had just had a family reunion. We harvested rice together. We were all together, then suddenly they disappeared like bubbles in thin air.”
She thought that it was unfair for her to live while others died. She thought of taking her own life, in order to join her family. “I went to the burial site. I had no more strength to walk. I really wanted to die. But as days went by, I saw the reasons why I survived. I now realize that I must live for my children.”
With thousands traumatized, isolated and unable to help themselves, the need for outside aid was never more pressing. The world responded with one of the greatest humanitarian missions in history. Aid agencies and adhoc local groups rushed in supplies any way they could by road, boat or private helicopters. Military craft and crew members from the US, Canada, the UK and other countries — notably Japan, South Korea and China — joined the Philippines Air Force in saving thousands of lives by delivering stacks of aid and evacuating some of the 27,000 people listed as injured.
Seeking refuge or relief goods, thousands of survivors “commuted” on hulking C130 cargo jets between the disaster areas and the shopping malls of Manila and Cebu.
Crews rushed around on tarmacs, forming human chains to carry supplies off planes and onto trucks, jeepneys, motorcycles, motorized tricycles or rickshaws driven by foot.
Guiuan’s air-strip hosted more than 30 military cargo flights daily and dozens of helicopter landings, as US troops directed traffic on a crowded runway or manned a makeshift “air traffic control tower” — just a tent and a wind-sock.
Flying into Tacloban with World Food Program workers and the South Korean air force, I ventured into Anibong, a slum normally too dangerous for foreigners. Amid flies and rotting corpses, families lived under freighters which had demolished their homes and killed their loved ones, but now sheltered them from rainy season storms. One man sat in his living room looking over an unwanted intruder in his backyard — a freighter named “Elegance”.
Everywhere, people had a stare of despair. They hadn’t slept well for days. The post-disaster adrenaline rush of survival was gone. With empty stomachs, it was hard to summon energy to clean up debris and rebuild life. Where do you start? Do you move or stay? There’s nowhere to go. No job waiting in Manila or Cebu. No bank account with savings, no cash on hand. It was hard to dream of a new life when surrounded with the stench of death.
From a distance, a death toll can be an abstraction. An official count of roughly 6000 dead, 2000 missing doesn’t sound as bad as earlier estimates of 10,000 dead, or the 200,000 dead across the Indian Ocean after the 2004 tsunami. But try dealing with just one dead body in front of you. That deceased person was special, with a name and family and a history of memories. Now that person is just a hole in someone’s heart, and a heavy sack of bones and flesh requiring removal.
Multiply that into several bodies. Nobody wants to pick them up and bury them. (Corpses are heavy; try picking up and carrying a living human being.) And corpses reek of the worst smell imaginable. We are supposedly God’s favorite creatures, but we smell even worse than rotting garbage or spoiled meat. We lie there, lifeless, terrorizing the living, as if taking revenge on the survivors we envy. Our horrific powers, and our stench, grow as we lie in decay for days and even weeks in rain and 35C heat.
Then multiply that horror-factor by hundreds of bodies in the mass graves of Basper, Santo Nino, Palo and Tanauan, to name but a few.
Standing on a mound over hundreds of bodies in a ditch near Basper cemetary, I told myself not to think or feel, just take photographs. I had to steady my feet, making sure to fall backwards, not forward into the pit.
The rickshaw driver kept his distance, as the odor penetrated my mask and clothes and engulfed me. I walked around the ditch, seeking different angles and shades of light, as storm clouds roiled over the hills, ready to pelt us with rain.
I couldn’t stop imagining that I was one of the fetid corpses rotting in the bag. Nobody wants to end up in a mass grave, nameless, unidentified, erased forever from the material world.
As we drove to photograph more cadavers in Santo Nino, the torrential rain couldn’t wash away the stain from my body or being. I later wept alone in darkness. I often felt too deranged to work, but work was the only way to overcome the horrible reality of our surroundings. Like the cadaver workers, I would soon get used to it.
Day after day, we drove through downpours to find mass graves in church yards and even under a sign welcoming visitors to Tanauan. In front of San Joaquin church, inconsolable men stared at a sign bearing the names of 22 dead or missing from the Lacandazo family.
Nearby, Rowy Chuka, a welder, shoveled dirt over his 6-year old nephew, found that morning atop a coconut tree. Chuka, having lost his wife, parents and several siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, was the sole survivor. “I’m having a hard time accepting the reality,” Chuka said, with a stoic face shedding no tears. “I have to move on with my life somehow, but I don’t know how.”
Bereaved, famished and exhausted, dealing with untreated disorders, riddled with rashes and diseases, people fell back on their bedrock of faith. There was nothing else to fall back on.
This was a Biblical flood, and religion — maligned by many in the modern world — gave shining rays of hope to people through holes in cathedral roofs. Churches, often the strongest buildings in a community, became evacuation shelters for believers and infidels alike. Priests helped organize local aid, and church groups flocked to the disaster zone as parishioners collected donations around the world.
A compassionate spirit of caritas inspired people to volunteer, buy food and water, rent trucks and deliver it wherever they could. At the northern tip of Cebu, people ran alongside our truck, held up fallen electrical wires, and swarmed us as we squeezed into narrow lanes to reach a ransacked village in Daan Bantayan. With women and children going first, they smiled as they received a loaf of bread or a package of noodles.
Having lost everything, people clung to their loved ones. Parents, grandparents, aunties, cousins — whoever was available — took care of children who, like gifts of God, gave them hope.
Oblivious to the wider implications of the disaster, kids made the best of their surroundings, dancing in the rain, and playing with anything they could find.
Other kids, seemingly without parents, went on scavenger hunts, searching piles of debris for scraps to add to their collection. Aid groups, meanwhile, warned of ruthless adults seeking to exploit, abduct or sell them into the human slave trade.
Criminals could easily take advantage of the chaos. Rumors spread of hundreds of escaped prisoners roaming in packs at night, looting homes and raping girls. Yet many escaped inmates showed even greater courage by returning to penitentiaries, which at least had food and water, and a sense of familiarity.
Out of 588 escaped prisoners, more than 300 returned to Leyte Provincial Prison. “We didn’t want to ruin our reputations with the wardens,” said Edwin Cornejo, facing murder charges along with his brother Roger. “If I run away and don’t surrender, then they’ll think I’m guilty.”
While many blamed politicians and police for failing to prevent widespread looting, police officers also lost family members, homes and valuables. They too were hungry, shell-shocked and afraid. One policewoman, Febsterr Sawan, rescued her friend’s child in Palo, and later returned with supplies for her aunt Vilma and other relatives.
While international aid groups garnered much of the global press attention, locals such as Sawan did most of the groundwork — for no pay. After she bought an over-priced tarp, neighborhood boys put it up. “Filipino boys are amazing,” she said. “They aren’t afraid of anything. They believe they can do it, and they do it.”
Despite government decrees, some entrepreneurs exploited shortages to jack up prices. In Sulangan village in the Guiuan area, Leo Garado and his fellow fishermen repaired their boats but couldn’t go fishing without fuel, which was five times the normal price. “If I can finish this boat, maybe I can take it to the US warships to ask for supplies for victims. But we have no gasoline.”
Recti Melquiades, a senior official in Guiuan, said fuel shortages were the biggest problem. “We are getting donations of food and water and medicine, but we can’t distribute it without fuel for trucks. This is why the more remote villages still aren’t getting enough.” Aware of the problem, Guiuan mayor Christopher Sheen Gonzales even threatened to confiscate fuel from private companies, who eventually lowered the price.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino praised Gonzales, 33, for his disaster response. His measures to force evacuations, move prisoners to secure sites, and deploy troops and police from outside as soon as possible in order to secure food stocks, can serve as a model in future storm preparations.
Injured during the storm, Gonzales, the father of two infants, closed himself into a room to think deeply about what to do. “I was thinking ‘where will I start’. So immediately, first thing that came to my mind was the basic needs of people: food, shelter, water, clothing of course. If I can’t provide food to people, they will panic. I have to give them hope, inspire them.”
He said it was vital to maintain law and order first, then bring in relief. “I told the Secretary of Defense: Please give us police first before the goods. You cannot give the relief goods without police. I cannot control the crowd,” he said.
Like other disasters, Typhoon Haiyan showed the need for better coordination at every level of government. It’s the same story in every disaster: shell-shocked, incommunicado local authorities — themselves victims — cannot cope on their own. To solve this, outside authorities, unaffected by the disaster, must be ready in advance to immediately take temporary control.
Relief efforts on Malapascua island in north Cebu also offer lessons for future disasters. Sven Zenker, a German resort operator who saw thousands of tourists die near his home in Khao Lak, Thailand during the 2004 tsunami, wisely evacuated his guests to safety in Cebu city. He and other islanders withstood Haiyan by putting mattresses or wood panels over windows and sheltering inside concrete buildings. After the storm, foreign divers and resort operators quickly gathered donations on social media and used funds to buy wood, tools and materials to help locals rebuild. After weeks of working long hours into the night, Zenker’s Ocean Vida resort was fully operational by Christmas on Malapascua, which means “Bad Christmas”. For them, it was a “good Christmas on Bad Christmas island.”
Others across the disaster zone weren’t as fortunate, and reconstruction of buildings — and lives — will take years, especially in Guiuan and Tacloban. It’s not easy to rebuild a city from almost zero. Typhoon Yolanda destroyed what took years to build, and it will take several more years to rebuild as well. It’s a colossal undertaking, and things won’t change fast enough for some.
“It will take maybe 10 years to rebuild,” said Stella Campo and her husband after their escape from Tanauan. “We want to go back, but not only to the life we had. We want to surpass what we had. It’s a beautiful place. It’s our roots. I can’t live without the sea. I was raised by the ocean. It’s calling me.”
Haiyan won’t be the last calamity for these people, and their survival skills will be tested again. Everyone who went to the disaster zone was impressed with the resilience of survivors. Their smiles, born of faith and a will to endure, continue to shine a light after what seemed like the end of the world.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I dedicated almost two months to working on this 18-part project with more than 200 photos because I wanted readers to see — as much as possible — what a super-storm can do to our lives. I wanted to put human faces to the impact of global warming, caused by all of us. Climate change — resulting in super-storms — is ultimately a more significant longterm issue than terrorism, war, revolution or any other problem. There’s no refugee camp for us on another planet. As living organisms, we can’t survive on a hostile planet of 300 km/h winds, sea surges, and catastrophic crop damage.
To me, the chain reaction is clear: pollution in Toronto, Beijing or Mumbai leads to ozone depletion and therefore higher temperatures, melting polar ice, rising seas, warmer ocean temperatures, and violent super-storms. I don’t believe that Haiyan will be remembered as the most apocalyptic storm in recent human history. Bigger storms are coming.