Interviewing the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan
In the Philippines, countless are preparing to honor the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which cut a 30-mile-wide swath of destruction in the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013. Haiyan (or Yolanda as it is locally known) claimed at least 6,300 lives and left millions without food, clean water and shelter.
Three Catholic journalists and I spent five days interviewing those most affected by the typhoon in Manila and in the Island of Leyte. This was part of a Catholic Relief Service (CRS) reporting fellowship. The purpose of the fellowship was to see the aftermath of the typhoon and the recovery process the people of the Philippines are still undergoing, and to report on how climate change is affecting the poor and most vulnerable.
Though the rebuilding process has been relatively fast, everywhere we went we could see the marks of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. This was apparent when driving from Tacloban, in Leyte, to the neighboring towns, where amid new buildings and informal settlements, we could see mass graves where hundreds of people were buried in the days following the typhoon.
In the case of the communities in Tacloban and Palo, many heard the warning of a “storm surge” on TV without understanding what it meant since typhoons in that area only brought wind and rain – this was the first time a storm surge occurred there. The water from the two sides of the shores flooded streets, sometimes going up to six or seven meters high. Those who had a two-story building, or trees nearby, tried swimming to safety. Others were not able to survive.
The biggest toll of Haiyan has been on the people who lost loved ones, homes and, often, their ways to provide for their families.
Even before the typhoon made landfall, the poverty levels in parts of the region were high, with most relying on agriculture or small-scale commerce as their source of income. After the storm, farmers lost their crops, livestock and small businesses. Coconut farmers, for example, had their livelihoods wiped out along with the trees and are now working with CRS to diversify their crops as they face an extended drought due to El Nino.
In one of the barangays by Tacloban City, a CRS beneficiary had pulled up as many people as he could into the second floor of the barangay hall while Typhoon Haiyan caused the storm surge. The 19 adults and children on the second floor hung from the roof beams for three hours, praying to God and singing to the Divine Child Jesus until the waves finally relented. Now, that community is focusing on improving its sanitation to prevent floods and is creating an emergency preparedness plan for the next typhoon.
Time and time again we were in awe at the resilience, faith and strength of the survivors. Many of the stories focused on the strides toward rebuilding their lives.
We could also see how Catholic Relief Service, with the support of the U.S. Catholic Church, has been working tirelessly with the local church, the government and barangay leaders to help the communities to recover and to be prepared for the changing weather patterns affecting them.
During this reporting trip, we saw the results and ongoing efforts in response to Typhoon Haiyan while meeting with local government representatives, climate experts and church leaders.
The most meaningful part of the trip, though, was the chance to speak with people who have been affected by Haiyan and the increasing intensity of typhoons.
Like the other reporters, I felt overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster that left 7,350 people dead or missing and affected 12 million people. Putting faces to these numbers made their stories resonate amid the different news items in the 24/7 news cycle. I was also humbled and overwhelmed by the resilience and kindness of the community members who had the courage to move forward and help others.
In the next few weeks The Tablet newspaper will publish some of the stories of these inspiring people, many of whom still need help. I just pray my reporting can do justice to their experiences.