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I Visited Tacloban Soon After Typhoon Yolanda Hit

On November 8, a massive storm surge ten feet deep and as high as seventeen feet in some places had devastated the city. Three days later, there was still no electricity, no cell phone service, and no internet. The media had satellite dishes to file...

Aurora Almendral

Photos by Ron Hose

On Friday, November 8, the day Typhoon Yolanda hit, I was in Manila, where I’ve been living for the past few months. I was filing breaking news reports for public radio in the US, and while it was windier than usual, it felt a little underwhelming for what was being called “the strongest storm on earth.” Then I heard that the journalists who were sent to the path of the typhoon hadn’t been heard from in more than 16 hours. I hadn't planned to go to Tacloban, but the less we knew, the more it seemed like I had to get there. Until that point, the only other storm I had covered was Hurricane Sandy in New York—which I thought was bad as it was. It did nothing to prepare me for what I would see in Tacloban.

On Saturday, the island provinces of Leyte and Samar were out of contact. No phones, no electricity, no internet. No one knew if they’re just sitting around drinking beer until the lights come back on, or if they were all buried under a landslide.

What we did know was that a massive storm surge ten feet deep and as high as seventeen feet in some places had devastated the city. A local official told some news outlet that he thinks the estimated death toll was 10,000. It was widely quoted in the media. People with family in the area started freaking out. There was still no electricity, no cell phone service, and no internet. The media had satellite dishes to file footage of the flattened city scattered with dead bodies, but people still had no way to find their families.

By Monday, the military couldn’t get us on a C-130 plane to Tacloban. Right now, they are all full of relief goods. I took a flight down to Cebu and hooked up with some locals, young kids in their twenties who work in the city and were taking an overnight ferry, then going overland to bring food and medicine to their families in Tacloban. One girl, Shev Lira, is twenty years old. She’s lanky and beautiful. She wears her hair to one side and her nail are done up in neon green. She was going to Tacloban to find her parents and her four-year-old daughter.

The next day we drove into Tacloban just as the sun was going down, in an ambulance with the curtains drawn. Everyone was peeking out of the windows, not talking as the scenes of destruction got worse and worse. Before we got to Leyte, the island where Tacloban is the capital, we already felt bad. We’d seen the footage and heard the reports. But actually being in the presence of the destruction is much different. It never ends. It’s not a minute-long video clip before the newscaster switches to a different story. There were piles of rubble covered in mud on either side of the road. There wasn’t a single house that wasn’t damaged or completely destroyed. Coconut trees and cement lampposts were snapped in two. This coast was in the direct path of Typhoon Yolanda, and the few people left were living in the rubble of their old homes, starting fires for light, and waiting for someone to show up with food or water.

Shev was the only who hadn’t heard from her family. The last time she heard from them was at 6 AM on the day of the typhoon, when her mom texted to say they were fine. That was four days ago, before media started reporting death tolls at 10,000 and she caught a glimpse of her house on some aerial footage. Nothing was left except the cement floor. Shev didn’t look out the window. She pulled a blanket over her head and put her face in her hands.

November 6, two days before the storm hit, was Shev’s daughter’s fourth birthday. Flights were already getting cancelled, so she couldn’t get home to celebrate with her. Shev showed me a video on her iPhone from the last time they saw each other, of a special handshake they made up where they clap palms, bump fists, and make little explosions with their fingers. Her daughter laughs, takes a sip of soda, and then the video ends.

The next morning, the first thing Shev said to me when we woke up in Tacloban was that she’s not ready. After seeing how bad things were, she’s not ready to go to her neighborhood and try to find her family. But when we got into the truck to go to San Jose, her part of the city, and the part that was the most destroyed, she was right there with us.

We all wore surgical masks to block out the stench of death. It’s been six days since the storm hit and there were a lot of dead bodies baking in the sun. They’re lying on the side of the road, black and bloated with their fingers liquefying. People have draped sheets on them to cover up their faces, but there’s no one to collect them. The smell was sickening. I walked by at least a hundred dead bodies that day. I can still smell them, on my clothes and in my mask. Another journalist told me it’s a phantom scent. My mind was playing tricks on me. Of the team I’m with, I’m the only one who was here early enough to see so many of the dead, and I would complain about the stench, even when no one else could smell it. I was afraid to go anywhere without my mask. I think about their corpses every night before I go to sleep.

We got off the truck at Barangay 88, a neighborhood called Costa Brava. It’s a narrow strip of land, with the sea on one side and a river on the other. That day, the sun was shining and waves are lapping up against broken coconut trees. Someone had to tell me that this used to be a densely-packed place. Houses right up against houses, narrow walkways instead of streets. The place is completely flattened now, and it’s impossible to imagine what it could have been before.

One man sifting through the rubble of his old house told me that he didn’t evacuate. When the storm surge came, he managed to get a hold of some wood. He was picked up and swept away by the sea. He doesn’t know how many hours he held on, but by the end, his muscles were convulsing and his lips trembling. The surge dropped him off over the river into downtown Tacloban, a forty-five minute walk away. If it were in New York, it would be like getting picked up by a flood in Wall Street, and deposited in Downtown Brooklyn.

Another woman, Jocelyn, was sitting by herself in the rubble. She fought with her husband about going to an evacuation center. In the end, she went with their two kids while he stayed to protect the house. She told me that the bottles of nail polish and kids bicycles strewn around what used to be their living room don’t belong to them. It was just deposited there by the flood. Now, she says, she doesn’t have her husband, or any of the belongings he was protecting. She still believes he’s alive somewhere, but she came here to cry where her kids can’t see her. Through tears she kept asking me, “kaya ko ‘to diba? Kaya ko ‘to?”—I can handle this right? Can I handle this?

We kept making our way to Shev’s neighborhood. We walked through Fisherman’s Village, which was blocked off from the road by a putrid, ten-foot tall pile of rubble. There’s an elementary school there that was used as an evacuation center. It flooded, and twenty or thirty people drowned, their bodies still piled up on the desks and in the courtyards.

When we got to Shev’s neighborhood, my heart sunk. It was just me and Shev and the photographer, at that point. We walked past a woman weeping. The photographer whispered to me, “Please tell me this isn’t her neighborhood.” There are so few buildings left standing.

Shev tells me that she doesn’t want to see any more dead bodies, but again, the gap between what she wants to do and what she has to do is wide. We walked past so many on the way to her house. There was a man lying in the centre of the road, he hadn’t been covered up. Shev gripped my hand as we walk by, less than a metre away from him. No one mentioned it.

As we got closer to her house, she was very calm. Everything was in ruins. She pointed to an exercise gadget that her daughter liked to play on. She pointed out her dad’s prized mountain bike. She picked up a cross-stitched clock face her mother made and tucked it under her arm. She sighed when she came across her red taffeta prom dress, which her mother was saving in case Shev’s daughter wanted to wear it to her prom.

The photographer probably broke some kind of fucked up journalistic code of ethics and took a piece of cardboard to cover up the bloated corpse of the family dog before Shev could see it. 

Shev left without knowing anything new about whether her parents or daughter survived.

Later we ran into her cousin. He was with her family when the storm surge came in. He grabbed on to the trunk of a banana tree to stay afloat. He says that when it started, there were fifty other people holding on to the tree. By the time he washed up across town, he was the only one left. He couldn’t say much more, and I felt bad for asking him even that much. He helped Shev keep searching every evacuation center and gathering area until they find her family.

The next day the Mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez, announced that there would be a mass burial. He’d gotten around some red tape from the Department of Health, and would be allowed to dig two trenches in the municipal cemetery to bury the bodies. I hired a motorcycle to take me to the cemetery. We passed the hillsides of Tacloban—stripped bare and dead—the moto driver said that a week ago, they were green.

When I arrived at the cemetery, I was the only journalist. I missed the first group of cadavers, the mayor’s speech for the cameras, and the PR-friendly version of the mass burial. The sun was starting to set, when two diesel dump trucks piled with body bags unceremoniously rolled up. I was doing a recording for an NPR correspondent, and he reminded me that because of the kind of mic I had, I needed to get up close to whatever was making the sounds. I stood there with my mask on, at a technically correct distance, about eighteen inches, and pointed my mic to the sound of bodies being slid off the truck. Then I walked across the cemetery grounds and recorded the sound of another stack of other bodies being dropped off—it was a light thud. Thinking about the technical stuff helped me forget how fucking morbid it was. I left when the zipper to a body bag burst open. It was dark and I didn’t think I could take any more.

That night, I fell asleep at about 8 PM on a pile of donated clothes at City Hall.

This was hard to write. It would be easier to keep filing the news. The President’s visit. The logistical disaster of delivering relief goods. Some story about the long lines for fuel. But this is what a disaster is. A bunch of people waking up in the morning trying to find an answer to the question: what the fuck am I going to do now?

Follow Aurora on Twitter: @auroraalmendral

More Yolanda/Haiyan coverage:

What We Shouldn’t Be Doing in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda

Typhoon Haiyan Turned We from Tourist to Medic

How Remote Islands Are Coping with Typhoon Haiyan’s Devistation