New Internationalist

The stories of a tragedy named Haiyan

Dondi Tawatao [Related Image]
Dondi Tawatao. © Alanah Torralba

They saw flattened villages and crumpled homes; uncovered corpses strewn amid the ruins and vehicles thrown about like matchboxes. They saw dazed survivors desperately searching for food or water; they smelled the stench of death that pervaded the air as raindrops fell; they saw a three-year old girl buried under the rubble. They saw all this and more.

These are the stories of three photojournalists who covered the wrath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the province of Leyte in the east-central Philippines on 8 November, killing at least 6,000 people.

Jes Aznar, a freelance photographer who covered Haiyan for The New York Times and who has covered conflicts and disasters in and outside the Philippines, says Haiyan was like no other. He arrived at Tacloban airport in Leyte three days after the typhoon struck.

‘We saw bodies floating at sea outside the plane window. The gutted Tacloban airport greeted us upon landing. There was a strong breeze but the stench of decaying matter was overpowering,’ he recalls.

When he saw more of the destruction, he says it was as if Mother Nature had thrown a major tantrum fit: ‘Slabs of concrete that were once part of houses and buildings were like dominoes, one on top of another. Millions of pieces of broken lumber, stones and household items created a whole new landscape in this city of more than 200,000.’

Yet six days after the storm there was still no government presence. People were left to survive on their own.

‘Looting was rampant. The city was fast deteriorating. The first ones to arrive were foreign aid agencies. The Philippine government obviously was not there. This is what struck me the most,’ says Jes.

With the damage so severe, journalists found themselves much like the typhoon survivors they came to cover. They too had to deal with the logistics nightmare, with electricity shut off, mobile phone lines crippled and basic supplies unavailable. Many of them slept in what Jes described as a ‘torn-down airport’, at least during the first few days.

‘It was good enough shelter for all of us – a bare-bone building cramped with journalists. You could tell how long they had been there by the amount of mud on their boots and face.’

The government, he says, simply failed to do its job. 

‘It should have done what it was supposed to do in situations like this. Simply put, the government should have functioned as one.’

Dondi Tawatao, a news photographer who covered Haiyan for Getty Images, likened Tacloban to a war zone – ‘an incomprehensible mess’.

He has covered disasters in the past but like Jes, Dondi agrees that Haiyan’s wrath was by far the worst. 

‘The airport was utterly devastated when I arrived on 9 November. [There were] no communications, no power, no structures left standing save for the control tower, looking forlorn amid the twisted hulks of debris. I had covered disasters before, but I have never seen this much devastation. The scene was probably as close as you can get to a nuclear bomb explosion.’

Leaving the airport, he saw bodies lying on the roadside. Within 200 metres he counted more than 100 bodies. Those lucky enough to survive were walking aimlessly, dazed and grief-stricken. He walked some more and saw a line filled with hundreds of people waiting for potable water to drink. One begged him for just one gulp of water.  

‘I made my way towards the village of San Jose, the village nearest to the airport. Military soldiers were still in the process of clearing debris. The debris was so deep I couldn’t even see the road beneath me.’

Inside a two-storey structure, he found a corpse of a very large man hanging by his legs, which were snagged by twisted pieces of metal.  

‘The fire volunteers who went inside with me couldn’t get him out. He was too large, too heavy and would require amputating both his legs to free him. I chanced upon a seven-man police crew trying to extricate the corpse of a man and a woman inside a felled tree. They had no tools and gave up on it after a while.

‘What struck me most was the apparent helplessness of the first responders – the military and government officials who were on the ground that day. Few made decisions, or were in the “process” of making a decision,’ he says. 

The stories of survival also struck him deeply: 

‘Many were carrying children, the elderly, and nothing more than the shirts on their back. These people had lost everything.’

Some vowed never to return to the God-forsaken land. 

‘They were streaming by the thousands to the airport, anxious to get as far away from Tacloban as possible. Equally compelling are the ones who chose to stay. Most of those who stayed were the poorest of the poor – fishers, labourers, vendors and farmers.’

Tammy David, who covered Haiyan’s aftermath for The Wall Street Journal, was luckier. She arrived in the second week after the typhoon and so was able to prepare a bit more than others. But the scene that greeted her was just as lamentable:

‘To be frank, I had very minimal stress compared to the others, since I came in during the second week and my assignment was pretty easy. The Wall Street Journal team brought their own generator, stove and other supplies. My luggage looked like a mobile convenience store. In four days, I slept on a mattress, took a bath twice, ate every day, updated my Instagram and drank water when I was thirsty. I was practically in the lap of luxury, but the situation among locals was still very bad which is why to this day I encourage people to help out.’

Still, when she arrived, she recalls being greeted with the stench of the disaster.

‘It was humid and I could smell mud, sweat and piss,’ she says. ‘The smell was bearable but I couldn’t take the sight of people sleeping on the wet and dirty floors of the airport. The planes were noisy but people were sound asleep. They were probably dead tired from waiting for days to get a flight out of Tacloban.’

These are just some of the stories of a tragedy named Haiyan. The stories are as varied as they are painful. They tell of lost lives and broken dreams; of survivors who died because of the lack of medical care; of families torn apart; of thousands of corpses scattered amidst the chaos.

Haiyan was all these and more. It was an incomprehensible mess; a war zone, a nuclear explosion. It was an apocalypse of sorts. Forget the Mayan calendar. This was the day the world came to an end, at least for the thousands who died in the storm surge – including a three-year-old girl found buried in the rubble.

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