Witnessing Yolanda’s Aftermath

On the road west of Tacloban

Surveying the storm damage west of Tacloban City

A month ago I was in Leyte, the Philippine island most severely impacted by Super Typhoon Haiyan–a storm known in the Philippines by the name of Yolanda. I was there with Team Rubicon, and I have ten days’ worth of experiences on the ground to share. But first I want to talk simply about the magnitude of the storm and its aftermath, because that is the most important part of the story to convey. It was bad. And, now more than a month since Yolanda struck the Philippines, it seems that U.S. media is no longer talking about it.

A year after Superstorm Sandy, parts of the U.S. are still struggling to rebuild and recover–and that’s with a very strong national system of emergency planning and disaster relief in place. In the Philippines, they are still surveying the damage, certifying homes and households impacted by the storm, distributing aid, and finding and identifying the bodies of citizens lost in this simply incomprehensible disaster. Maybe you saw the coverage a month ago showing you the damage. But I have to tell you that the scene on the ground was astonishingly, profoundly horrible.

Super Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines on November 8th as the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall. Some quick numbers on the storm’s impact on the Philippines:

  • Sustained wind speeds of 195 mph (by comparison, a Category 5 hurricane has sustained winds of 157 mph)
  • Wind gust speeds up to 235 mph (by comparison, an F4 tornado has gust speeds starting at 207 mph)
  • Tacloban City took a direct hit by tornado force winds and three tsunami-like waves over 20 feet high
  • 44 provinces, 59 cities, and more than 12,000 community districts/precincts (called barangays) impacted*
  • 595,000 homes partially destroyed*
  • 580,000 homes totally destroyed*
  • 15.9 million people affected*
  • 4.1 million people displaced*
  • More than 6,000 deaths

But again, it’s impossible to convey the scale of destruction we saw in just words and numbers. We arrived at the Tacloban Airport on November 12th, just days after the storm struck, and even a first look at the ruins of the airport was staggering. But within a day or two, we got a view of the area by helicopter. I’ll never forget what I saw.

The view by helicopter just south of Tacloban City. Photo by Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

The view by helicopter south of Tacloban City. Photo by Kirk Jackson, Team Rubicon

I didn’t take my own photos from the helicopter, but imagine seeing nothing but what you see in Kirk’s telling photo for the duration of the helicopter trip from Tacloban to Tanauan, a ten-mile stretch. The only structures I could see that weren’t completely gutted or flattened like this were churches, which you might attribute maybe to equal parts masonry and faith.

The view from the road was just as bad, if not worse. Whole neighborhoods were flattened by a series of storm surge waves more than twenty feet high. Cars and trucks washed up on top of buildings. Corrugated tin roofs flew and sliced through the waves, maiming and killing countless people struggling to survive the storm. But even people who evacuated to emergency shelters weren’t always saved; there were evacuation centers where people were washed away to their deaths. Roads were blocked with debris, fuel stations and stores destroyed, communications towers downed.

A Tacloban neighborhood completely flattened by storm surge

A Tacloban neighborhood–thousands of homes–completely flattened by storm surge

We’ve had some severe weather events in the U.S., and they’ve been truly horrific. But as I looked myself at this damage, I couldn’t help but wonder what a storm of this magnitude would do to cities and communities along the American coast that I know and love–and it all just took my breath away.

I’ll have more to say on this. But I wanted to get across the magnitude of destruction that I saw, and encourage everyone to keep talking about this, even if it’s fallen from the news cycle.

*Numbers certified and reported as of December 12, 2013, by the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)

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