It may seem like a movie. But there was no exaggeration to it. It was real. And I was there.
Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) became one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones in global history. On November 8, 2013, thousands of people died in Tacloban, Leyte, my mother’s hometown. It wasn’t just the strong wind speeds and rainfall intensity that wreaked havoc in the region. A storm surge as high as two building floors engulfed large portions of the city.
GMA News deployed several teams in Tacloban. But the island had more stories to tell. After the storm, my news team and I found our way to the other side of Leyte, in the city of Ormoc. We stayed here during the first two weeks after the calamity.
The Bohol Earthquake Patrol
It wasn’t really Ormoc at first. Days before the storm, the office assigned me to cover Bohol. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake jolted the province weeks ago and the soil of Bohol was relatively soft to begin with because of its rich limestone deposits. With the province still reeling from sinkholes and aftershocks, what could happen should typhoon Yolanda make its landfall here?
Just take a look at the town of Sagbayan, the epicenter of the earthquake.
The nearby seaport town of Tubigon never had it any better as well, especially their church. This is just one of many historically important churches that the earthquake reduced to rubble.
When I was very young, I really wondered if the Chocolate Hills were really made of chocolate. It took me several years and a strong earthquake to see the answer for myself. In time, nature will heal itself, I pray.
In a twist of fate, super typhoon Yolanda spared Bohol. During the height of the storm in Tagbilaran City, I was reporting LIVE for News to Go but it was not as strong as expected because the eye of the storm diverted form its original path.
It went straight to Leyte.
I was relentlessly monitoring the damage left by the storm. Most of the news updates came from Tacloban but there were not much information coming from the other side of the island. Netizens with loved ones in the other towns of Leyte were asking me questions about the situation there. I had questions of my own too because my relatives were also in Leyte.
The news desk gave my team the green light to travel to the western side of the island. But how? The super typhoon destroyed the Tacloban Airport. It was also difficult to coordinate with people on the ground because most of the electricity and communication lines were out as well.
Still, we found a way to leave Bohol.
The Voyage to Ormoc
We discovered a backdoor gateway in the port of Ubay, Bohol that transported us to Bato, Leyte. It wasn’t as smooth sailing as we thought it would be. One of the ships sustained damage from the strong waves and was unavailable. The remaining ship cannot accommodate the entire news van engineering team and the equipment. Also, they had to wait two days for the next trip because of the looming presence of typhoon Zoraida.
I had to go ahead with two of my cameramen.
The Road Ahead
We arrived in the town of Bato, Leyte after a few hours out in the sea. From here, it would just be a two-hour drive to Ormoc. But we heard fuel and supplies were disappearing quickly due to panic buying. To restock, we went the other way and camped in Maasin, Southern Leyte for two days while waiting for the news van team.
As we made our way to Ormoc, we took a quick stopover to one of the nearby towns: Albuera, Leyte. Most of the people were in a river trying to clean and dry the remaining belongings they have.
In the coastal areas of Albuera and even its elementary school, there was nothing but utter destruction. Other nearby towns had similar problems.
The roads leading to Ormoc were still souvenirs of the super typhoon. Various debris littered the streets. It seemed like an obstacle course out there. But these were just a preview of what Yolanda left behind in the city.
The Impact on Ormoc
Tacloban had numerous casualties but the eye of the storm never passed through there. Yolanda barreled its way to Ormoc. The local government gave an initial assessment that the super typhoon crippled 95% of the city. It’s hard to argue how or why.
There were casualties in Ormoc such as the sad story of two parents who rescued people during the height of the storm, only to discover that their child died at home.
Fortunately, the death toll did not reach the apocalyptic levels of Tacloban. Be that as it may, Ormoc is no stranger to the horrors of a widespread tragedy. Back in 1991, tropical storm Uring (international name: Thelma) ravaged the entire city and triggered furious flash floods that killed thousands of people too. It happened on November 5, the first week of the month just like typhoon Yolanda.
The super typhoon was a double jeopardy for many residents who have bitter memories of the flash flood. I met a mother who was washing clothes in the same river that took several lives. She survived 1991; she told me she can survive Yolanda too.
The Daily Grind
Members of the media had to endure the same hardships of the residents. There were no open hotels. Food and water were also hard to come by. When our news van arrived, we set up a remote site by the city hall.
My news team decided to sleep in our rented van. There were times when I tried sleeping in the ground floor of the city hall just so I can stretch my legs. But mosquitoes feasted on me; I should have known better.
There were also times when foreign journalists would wake me up inside the vehicle. The Internet signal was not yet functional and they were inquiring if they can borrow our equipment.
I also didn’t know how to do my own laundry. But that was until I lived in Ormoc.
Ormoc 4th District Representative Lucy Torres-Gomez voiced out a problem with relief distribution in the city. According to her, the local government would favor party mates and would even pressure political opponents to switch allegiances in exchange for relief goods. This did not sit well with Mayor Edward Codilla; he denied the allegations. He countered with barbs through television interviews, saying that Rep. Torres-Gomez wasn’t even around during the height of the typhoon.
Whichever of the two camps may be right, most of the residents found it an unnecessary distraction to the problem at hand.
I met both political figures. Mayor Codilla accommodated our requests for information and interviews at the city hall. His staff was actively coordinating the incoming assistance from various groups and countries. I then personally met Rep. Torres-Gomez in Camp Downes. She partnered with the US Navy to help bring relief goods to far-flung areas of Ormoc via air drops.
Thicker than Water
I also met Joko Montero while doing my field work in the adjacent town of Villaba. During the storm, he sustained serious head injuries. But the nearby hospitals were too damaged to accommodate his condition. He was given painkillers and then sent home. I personally thought it resembled a death sentence. Will he just wait to die at home? To make matters worse, the pus on Joko’s wound would not stop flowing and he could not move half of his body.
After reporting his condition, I received an influx of messages from good Samaritans who wanted to help Joko. A team of kind doctors shouldered his roundtrip ship ticket to Cebu and all of his medical bills. Thank you all for your help.
Perhaps by divine intervention, I also learned that one of Joko’s neighbors is my aunt. They were all safe and sound — even my relatives who live in Tacloban. There is a stronger force from above that overcame the strength of the storm and kept all my loved ones alive.
During my first few days in Leyte, I could not stop thinking if one of the dead bodies were my relatives. For some, news reports are just the stories of other people, until it becomes your story. Then, the meaning changes.
A year has now passed since the storm. We should always remember: those who died were actual people, not just names and numbers in news reports. We cannot bring back the dead but we can help the survivors live a life worth living.
[Entry 55, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Bam Alegre is the founder of SubSelfie.com and writes from time to time as a guest contributor. He is a News Reporter for GMA News (2012) and an Instructor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the East (2015). He was also part of the team that won GMA News the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for the news coverage of super typhoon Yolanda (2013). Previously, he worked behind the scenes as a Segment Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho and 24 Oras (2009-2012). He is also the vocalist, pianist and guitarist of the band No Parking (2005). BA Broadcast Communication 2007, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.