"The Sea Washed it Away": On the Ground After Typhoon Haiyan

January 6, 2014

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In front of the San Joaquin Church in Palo, a town just south of Tacloban City in Leyte, Philippines, church workers prepare the ground for a grave in the mass burial site, a woman’s body wrapped in a white body bag beside them.

The two young men, shovels in hand, stop digging and turn to Anthony Alma for approval. He nods his head.  

“I never thought I would bury my wife in a mass grave,” Alma, 43, a contract worker in Italy, said. His wife, Sheila, who was 42, is now one of the 200 to 300 typhoon victims buried in this site, marked by wooden crosses and a storm-ravaged statue of Jesus Christ.

“We don’t have any children, she was all I had,” said Alma, his face partially obscured by a face mask to block the stench. “If she had survived, I would have brought her back to Italy with me and I would never come back here.”

Thirteen days after Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda) struck on November 8, there’s not much to come back to in this coastal town, located about 10 miles south of Tacloban. Whole barangays [villages] are practically destroyed. Coconut trees are ripped from their roots, toppled over where houses used to be. Lakes of brown mud stretch across fields, and residents navigate around mountains of debris.

Now more than a month after the typhoon, more than 6,000 people are dead, almost 2,000 are still missing. Four million have been displaced from their homes, including more than 100,000 people now living in evacuation centers.

But as survivors struggle to pick up the pieces and rebuild — many on the ruins of their old homes and near mass graves that stretch along the roads — stories of courage and resilience in the face of catastrophe emerge.

I. Preparing for the Storm: “We knew it was coming…"

Even for Filipinos, who experience natural disasters with regularity — an average of 20 typhoons a year hit the archipelagic nation every year — Typhoon Haiyan left the country reeling. Residents were not prepared for the 20-foot (six-meter) storm surges that swept through Tacloban and coastal villages in Leyte, Samar and Cebu. Many chose to evacuate their one-room shacks to safer structures such as schools and churches, but others decided to stay and guard their property.

MARIA FLORA ORBONG [Barangay 66-A, Tacloban City, Leyte]: We knew that a strong typhoon was coming but we didn’t really expect the water [levels] to rise that high … our neighbors evacuated but we thought we were safe. We were in the middle, surrounded [by cement houses].  But in just seconds, the water rose and our house was the first to go.

JUDITH PISENTINO [Grocery Store Worker and Village Committee Member, Barangay 76, Tacloban City, Leyte]: We moved out of [our barangay to my sister-in-law’s house] before the typhoon struck, on Thursday, because we heard on the news that it was going to be a super typhoon. We were up on the roof. From 4 o’clock to 10 o’clock, we were up there.

CELINA CAMPOSANO [Dulag, Leyte, now living with six other families in one of the only houses still standing in her coastal village]: We went to the [town elementary] school [to evacuate]; the barangay captain here came to tell us to go to the school, before the typhoon arrived.  We all went there so we wouldn’t get caught in the winds. We’ve never experienced something like this before … we’ve never had to evacuate before.

RETCHE YCOY [Farmer, Evacuee now living at the Pasay City Tent City in Manila, from Ormoc City, Leyte]: We didn’t expect this was going to happen. We were just sitting around in our house and the wind suddenly started … it was so strong, we couldn’t cross the street, because you’ll get blown away.  The wind would stop for two minutes and we made the decision to gather the family and move to a bodega [nearby]. It was chaotic. We were all there, the whole barrio.

II. The Storm Hits: “The waves came one after the other.”

The bustling provincial city of Tacloban and its 200,000 residents were in the direct path of Haiyan, with the full force of the typhoon’s winds and “tsunami-like” storm surges hitting in the early hours of Friday, November 8. Haiyan had winds of 190-195 mph at landfall, making it the strongest tropical cyclone on record to make landfall.

PAPOOSE LANTAJO, JR.[Barangay Chairman, San Joaquin, Palo, Leyte]: The winds started at 5 o’clock in the morning, and by 7 o’clock, most of the houses had been destroyed. Roofs were gone. Even at our home … we were just helping each other prevent the walls from collapsing. We went downstairs to escape the iron sheet roofs [that were flying in the air], but somebody shouted that there was water. It was actually a wave coming from the sea. There were three waves. The first one was big and destroyed the coconut trees, pulled out the coconut trees. The others [swept] the trees from the sea and destroyed the houses. The water was more than 12 feet, and it lasted for 30 minutes.

MARLENE AURELIA [Housewife, Evacuee now living at the Tacloban “Astrodome” Convention Center]: If the high water lasted for [more than 30 minutes], more people would have died … even those of us up on the roof [of the Astrodome] would have died. Before the water rose, we were downstairs. We went outside but saw that the road was flooded. My sister said, “Let’s go back!” So we went back up to the roof and stayed there.

ARNOLPO DACUYCUY [Barangay 66, Tacloban City, Leyte]: The waves came one after the other. One wave receded; another rose, and [another one would] come. The water rose to six to eight meters … that was how high the water rose. Many people started to escape [but] the ships washed up and many people died.

MARIA FLORA ORBONG: The house we [sought shelter in], its roof collapsed on us, we were underneath it [in the water], all six of us. My 4-year-old [nephew] slipped and my husband swam to rescue him and gave him mouth-to-mouth. A shipping container was [slamming] against the back of the house we were in, a house that was made of cement.

RONNIE PUENTES, Driver [Evacuee now living at the Tacloban “Astrodome” Convention Center]: My wife [who is pregnant] and I were at our house but we were able to survive. The water reached the second story … I didn’t think we would [escape with our lives] because the waves from the sea were so strong.

RETCHE YCOY: We were looking at all the houses and we can see how strong the winds were. Everything was destroyed. Even our appliances, the little we have, gone. The TV … everything is gone. All that’s left is the bed made of cement. Everything is gone. It’s like everything was just swept away with a broom.

III. The Aftermath: “We couldn’t save anything.”

By 10 a.m. on Friday, local time, the worst of Haiyan was over. Philippine authorities had moved 800,000 people to evacuation centers but many of the brick-and-mortar buildings could not withstand Haiyan’s pummeling winds and massive storm surge. Many perished in evacuation centers, including at the Tacloban “Astrodome” Convention Center. Houses were left with nothing but their flooring, roofs blown off. Ships washed up on coastal villages, crushing houses. Cars were thrown into trees. Bodies lay on the streets. With no electricity, no food, no water, many in Tacloban, the worst hit city, were starting to panic.

MARLENE AURELIA: After the storm, we didn’t have anything to eat. We were starving.

PAPOOSE LANTAJO, JR.: When the water subsided, [I went out] to inspect my barangay. That’s when I saw many people … in the garbage. Some with broken heads, drowned. I pulled up more than 70 bodies. We found, near the mountains, almost 35 bodies, dead, and only more than 20 survivors. Nobody rescued us. Nobody helped us. So we retrieved and we rescued by ourselves. We have buried more than 200 people in our mass grave. But we identified only 158 ... [and we’re still missing] 150 people.

JUDITH PISENTINO: Our house in Barangay 76 … it’s gone. Washed away. The water there reached 20 feet. We have nothing, but we’re thankful that we’re alive, we’re here and we survived. But after the storm, people were panicking because no help arrived. People ransacked Robinson’s [a mall and supermarket in Tacloban].  They destroyed it. They only wanted to get food … because we had nothing to eat.

PAPOOSE LANTAJO, JR.: We starved for four days. We just ate what we could find … pigs. That’s what we cooked. We didn’t have rice. We went to our mayor; she said she was still waiting for the relief goods. [A local media outlet] interviewed me so I said, “Please help us, we need food.” We don’t need pity but we need help. On the sixth day [after the storm hit], we received relief goods, and we could finally eat.

MARIA FLORA ORBONG: My husband lost 10 of his relatives, and some are still missing. We’re alive — the kids and my husband, but all our belongings, nothing is left, even our house. Nothing. No clothes, nothing. We couldn’t save anything. We’re here trying to find anything that’s left … so that we have something to wear, something to use. I learned, here in our barangay, they were only given food once, 2 kilos of rice and one packet for two families. That’s all we’ve received so far.

RAY GONZALEZ [Evacuee arriving at the Villamor Air Base in Manila, from Guiuan, Samar] Our house was completely destroyed. It’s gone … the sea washed it away. All our belongings are gone. The clothes we’re wearing, that’s all we own now.

VINSAY "JUN" FABIO, JR. [Evacuee arriving at the Villamor Air Base in Manila, from Ormoc City, Leyte]: Almost every building is totally damaged. It’s different when you see it on television [in the news]. If you see it in person, it’s worse. The trees are pulled from the roots… the houses there don’t have any roofs anymore. Ormoc is in really bad shape, they really need help there.

CELINA CAMPOSANO: When we returned [to our barangay], we saw that all the houses wArnolpo Dacuycuere destroyed. All of them. Just this house is left. Nothing else. If this house was destroyed, we’d have nothing and we’d still be at the school [where we evacuated to].

MARLENE AURELIA: At San Jose [a coastal village almost completely wiped out by the typhoon], several people died. Almost everyone is dead. Only a few survived. It’ll be hard to rebuild … we have no funds, no money. Even the money we’ve been hiding away, all gone. Nothing is left.

ARNALPO DACUYCUY: Our friends … [a lot of them] died. But we were able to escape, so my family was safe. After the typhoon, we were able to return [to our destroyed home]. But all our food got soaked … so we didn’t have anything to eat. Just water. We boiled it and drank it to fill our hunger.

RAY GONZALES: It’s difficult to get to the mainland where the relief goods are. We don’t know what to do. To cross in a boat from the island, it will take us four hours, and we can only use small boats. In those small boats, only men can get on because it’s so dangerous for women — the waves are so big. So for each family, only one person can ride to the mainland, and only men. I was one of them. I had to split up with the rest of my barangay; we split up to get help.

IV. From Relief to Recovery: “We want to rise from this.”

On November 11, Philippine President Benigno Aquino declared a state of calamity to hasten relief and rehabilitation efforts. Foreign aid officials, led by the U.S., have called the disaster unprecedented for the Philippines and ramped up aid efforts. Thousands of displaced residents seek refuge in private homes, shelters and “tent cities” as Manila and other cities in the capital region scramble to absorb refugees.

RONNIE PUENTES: My wife and I live [in a tent] now, she is about to give birth. All we want is safety for our child. He might get sick and it’ll be difficult.  We would need medicine and we would have to travel for medicine. Our house is destroyed. I used to make a living as a driver but all my vehicles are all gone, destroyed. We want to rise from this.  All we want is to just go back to normal.

JUDITH PISENTINO: We don’t have water. We have sardines, noodles, rice, but no water. I don't think the [food] will last us one month. It’s not enough. No one’s selling, there are no stores. I don’t have a job anymore, and I don’t know how I’ll start over, my children are still in school.

PAPOOSE LANTAJO, JR.: [Our barangay] had 856 families but now there are only 534 families. So, our family here sustained a huge loss. The big questions are: What will we do and how can we start again? Everything is devastated: the schools, elementary and high school. Even our barangay hall is destroyed. The records were destroyed. I don’t know but we will try. Another thing is, how long is this relief? I don’t want people here to depend on the relief [goods]. What I want is for them to be given jobs. Because I know the relief goods won’t last forever.

LT. JAMES REYES [Philippine Navy, Public Information Office, Heading the cleaning operations at the Astrodome]: The government’s relief operations and relief transportation are continuous. For now, so that the evacuees are more comfortable here at the Astrodome, the biggest evacuation center here in Tacloban, we are cleaning it up. We’re also installing televisions, a big-screen television, for their debriefing and so they also have a distraction from everything they’ve gone though.

ARNOPA DACUYCUY: Our house was completely destroyed, but we are rebuilding. We scavenged and found materials [from the street] we can use. Anything — nails, we found and picked up. That’s all we could do. A Chinese organization, the Tzu Chi Foundation gives us cash to work on our house and clean up, so we have money to buy what we need.

ALFREDO LI [CEO of Tzu Chi Foundation Philippines, organization implemented a cash-for-work program for Tacloban City]: [Our program] allows survivors to clean up their own home and community, and we give them cash at the end of the day — 500 pesos for each person who will work. We met with business people, who said, “We’re not opening our stores, people have no money.” But we are injecting money [into the community], so people will have money to go to the stores, so the stores will open, and little by little, the whole community, Tacloban, will go back to normal.  Commerce will come, [the people] will lead normal lives again.

RONNIE PUENTES: We want is to find a way to make a living [again].  We don’t have our jobs here anymore. We’re just here, sitting around, waiting for relief goods. That’s all we’re waiting for. There are no jobs here … everything’s destroyed.

MANUEL SIA QUE [Mayor, Dulag, Leyte]: We are in our rehabilitation stage but I want to see to it that each of my constituents have a place to live. After that [we can move on] to their livelihoods so that they will go back to their normal lives. I’m [working] on getting donations of small boats with engines and fishing equipment for our fisher folk, and seeds and fertilizers for the farmers inland. I am also planning to work with the other regions in the Philippines [that can] absorb the heads of the families here, for work. If the heads of the family can work in other [unaffected] regions, they can send money to their families, they can start to move on and eat three square meals a day.

RETCHE YCOY: We’ve been here in Manila 5 days, [we’re just saving money] so we could go back home. Our family back home is starving … and this is what they are waiting for, the relief goods that we’re bringing back to Leyte.  They need our help. They need water, the water there is dirty, and we boil it because if we don’t, the kids get sick. We’ve collected one sack [of goods]. We have a big family… but these are not just for our family. Our neighbors also need help, and in our neighborhood, we help each other. When we got [to Manila], we couldn’t stop crying. We didn’t expect to get so much love from people. When we got off the C-130, it’s like my soul rose out of my body, people were applauding, they were so happy that we survived … God really had plans for us. We received so many blessings to bring back home.

EDNA SINDICO [Supervisor, Pasay City Tent City in Manila: [The evacuees], all of them, are traumatized. They are traumatized by their experience. We have volunteers here [at the Tent City] from the National Center for Mental Health conducting therapy sessions. At first, they didn’t want to speak about their experience. They [just cry]. At least now [two weeks after], they are responsive ... They are positive … They are starting to smile [and can now] talk freely about what happened.

VINSAY "JUN" FABIO, JR.: I came here to Manila to find work, because my house [in Ormoc] is completely gone now, all that’s left is flooring. But that’s life.

MARLENE AURELIA: I just have a positive attitude and I laugh even with all the problems. Americans, they say,  “Just laugh at your problems.” So we go on, just laugh at everything.

MANUEL SIA QUE: [Us] Filipinos, even in times of hardship, we have to smile [to keep our morale high]. I am very much worried about this calamity right now but [I know I have to keep smiling to set an example]. That is our culture in the Philippines.



Executive Producers: Gregory Gilderman, Neil Katz, Shawn Efran
Cinematographer and Editor: Eric Jankstrom
Eric Jankstrom is a photojournalist and senior producer at Efran Films. He is driven by a passion for creating visual narratives that honestly depict our human stories in a broader social context.


Writer: Stephanie Valera
Stephanie Valera is a New York-based news reporter and the travel editor at She has written for CBS Local, The Huffington Post and BBC America.
Editing: Kevin Hayes, Neil Katz

Layout and Design

Edecio Martinez

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