Typhoon Yolanda (International Code Name: Haiyan) tore thru the Philippines on November 8, 2013 and devastated Eastern Visayas particularly Tacloban City with massive lost of lives and properties. International aid and support poured-in after CNN highlighted the destruction in a week-long broadcast that saw an unprecedented scale in humanitarian effort.
I finally visited Tacloban City on November 20 and 21, 2-weeks after the super typhoon made landfall. With only a backpack with enough food and water to last 4 meals, I took a commercial flight from Manila to Tacloban, and as our plane is about to land, the scene from the air almost move me to tears. Never in my life had I seen such widespread devastation and the scenarios on the ground was equally heart breaking.
Upon landing at the airport, I proceeded to shot (photograph) the many evacuees waiting for a ride on military C-130s on the tarmac; as I was busy shooting, I saw these group of journalists dashing across to a waiting V-22 Osprey. Curious, I approached the US Marine officer and quip: “Where is that bird going (pointing to the Osprey)?” “It’s going to Guiuan.” the officer answered back. “When is it coming back?” I asked again. “I have no idea.” He says. “But I have 5 of them going back in forth.” I shouted back: “Do you have space for one more person?” With the sound of the Osprey’s spinning rotors drowning out my voice. “Let me check with the crew.” He says as he walked over to the rear ramp of the aircraft. At this moment, my adrenaline has started to flush and a mixed of excitement and disappointment was taking an equal footing. As soon as I saw the crew gave the “one” hand signal, I knew I got the pass to board the Osprey!
The flight from Tacloban Airport to Guiuan in Eastern Samar took about 20 minutes. Inside the cockpit, we were strapped military style together with boxes of relief goods; noise from the two rotors were deafening that earplugs had to be wear especially for those with sensitive ears. You don’t feel much from the vertical lifting of the aircraft, but once the rotors tilted towards the horizontal position, you can hear and feel the sudden locking sound and the surge of acceleration.
Upon landing in Guiuan Airport, one can see the mostly bare coconut trees standing like giant matchsticks from every directions. After shooting some scenes around the airport, I hired a tricycle and headed to town with a sense of comfort knowing from the ground personnel that the last flight out will be at 3pm.
My first stop was the Immaculate Conception Church as I saw first hand how powerful the winds of Yolanda really was. The entire roof of the church has collapsed, same with the front pediment, as well as the roof of the belltower. Damage to the interior was equally appalling.
I stopped by a school as well, its structure completely decimated; same as with most houses from both sides of the street I passed by. Managed to hire a “tuk-tuk” or a local pedaled bicycle with a sidecar back to the airport, more scenes of devastation unfolds along the way.
Once I reached the airport at around 2pm, lo and behold, all the Ospreys were gone! At the tarmac, only two C-130s remained, one from the Philippine Airforce, the other from the US Navy, and both of them are bound for Manila! I quickly approached the communication officer and inquired as to when a flight back to Tacloban will be, and the officer was only able to mustered he doesn’t know as well!
Hunger finally got hold of me, as I sat on the grass and mechanically begun to munch my sandwich while at the same time pondering on my options as whether to take the C-130 back to Manila or wait until the next morning in the hope of resumption of relief operations; from the horizon appeared the unmistakable profile of a V-22! Oh how I prayed to all the Gods that it land at this airport!
And land it did! In a few minutes, the radio officer was running towards me: “We managed to found an Osprey for you!” “Great! Thank you!” were the only words I uttered while resisting every effort to hug him.
What was curious was this Osprey didn’t drop any aid boxes, nor any person deplaned; and after I boarded, it flew back with me as the lone passenger.
Upon my return to Tacloban Airport, I shot some more scenes that included this Japanese C-130 that was about to take a group of refugees to Manila with the Japanese media busy covering the event.
As I got out of the airport, this relief group from LAMP offered me a ride at the back of their pickup and we proceeded to Palo Cathedral and documented one of the mass graves behind the church.
On the way back, I had myself dropped at a gasoline station, shot the scene and hitchhiked on a firetruck en route to the Tacloban Stadium.
From the stadium, I took a Philippine Marine 6×6 truck to the Leyte Provincial Capitol, arriving there almost pass 6pm with the place looking much like a ghost town.
Beside the Capitol is the Eastern Visayas Medical Hospital, the only place that has emergency power and safe enough for me to spent the night. The people at the nursing station was kind enough to provide me a corner spot to rest. Sleep eluded me, thoughts of destruction lingered in my mind, then it started to rain by 12 midnight. The rain poured, almost none stop for several hours. When I awoke by 5am, it was still drizzling. I sipped the remaining chocolate drink I brought, thanked the staff profusely and jumped onto an ambulance about to transport a patient and making its morning rounds.
I was dropped at the Santo Nino Church after visiting the rice carrying ship that was wrecked, looted, and burnt. From the church, I made my way to Tacloban City Hall and there chance upon the rest of the Rappler Team camped in front of the building. They took me an another colleague to the airport where I consumed the last of my rationed meals and waited for my flight at the storm-ravaged lounge back to Manila.