Disaster Risk Realities

Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which struck the Philippines in 2013, was one of the most powerful storms in recent history.
Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which struck the Philippines in 2013, was one of the most powerful storms in recent history.

By Floyd Whaley

Preparation reduces the damage caused by typhoons, earthquakes and other hazards, but sometimes the power of nature overwhelms all.

Maria Isabel Ana, a 19-year-college student majoring in elementary education, thought she would be safe during Super Typhoon Haiyan, called Yolanda in the Philippines. She lives inland on northern Panay Island, with her father and three brothers, far from the dangerous storm surges along the coast.

As she huddled in her home with her family during the storm, which struck the country in November 2013, the wooden walls and metal roof began to shake violently as howling winds lashed the structure. The family fled to a neighbor’s concrete home and watched in horror as their roof was ripped off and the wooden walls disintegrated.

Where her home once stood, with all her family’s belongings, there is now a flat concrete foundation with a few muddy shoes, tattered family papers and wood splinters.

“We’re totally destroyed,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “We have nothing.”

Though it received less attention than nearby Samar and Leyte, where many more people have died, Panay island was hit hard by Super Typhoon Haiyan. The island’s northeastern coast bore the brunt of the storm after it tore through Tacloban. About half a million people in northeastern Panay were affected by the storm and more than 65,000 homes were completely destroyed, according to local officials.

The provincial governor estimated that 90 percent of all structures on the northeast coast had been severely damaged. Traveling overland from Iloilo, the largely unaffected capital city to the south, each kilometer reveals more macabre scenes.

Kilometers of intricately tangled power lines cross the road and are tangled within trees. Piles of electric transformers littered the roadside where they were ripped from power poles by the winds. The number of surviving wooden structures lessened with each kilometer traveled north.

In some areas, wooden houses were flattened but concrete structures remained standing. In the far northeastern areas, some concrete structures were ripped apart like Styrofoam and metal power poles were bent at what appeared to be impossible 90-degree angles.

In some areas, people abandoned their destroyed homes and were living with their remaining furniture and other items on the highway.  In the port town of Estancia, where the sea surged in excess of six meters, residents use remnants of their homes to build shelters. The warehouses in the area, where fish were transshipped, were reduced to strange skeletal structures that have had everything except the steel frame ripped away.

Eugene Tentativo, the disaster risk reduction officer for Estancia, the hardest hit town in northern Panay, said the community was prepared for the storm.

“We gave people two days notice to evacuate and most of them moved away from the vulnerable areas,” he said. “We knew this was a strong storm and we prepared. But even our evacuation centers were destroyed.”

He said literally every single structure in the town was destroyed or suffered major damage, including every school, public building, port, church, and market.

“If the typhoon is this strong, there is no way to prepare,” he said. “Where do you seek shelter when everything is destroyed?”

At one of those evacuation centers, the Pani-An Ipil Elementary school, teacher Arlene Bajada stood in a muddy, roofless structure strewn with children’s workbooks and drawings. The concrete building was once where she taught 58 third graders. Her classroom, as well as every other one in the school of 500 children, was destroyed.

Desks were smashed, books caked in mud and one of the concrete walls appeared to have been shredded like paper. On the other wall, a poster stated: “In every sacrifice there is a crowning success.”

“It’s not only here but all of the schools are destroyed, all the elementary, all the high schools, they are all damaged,” she said. “There’s nothing left here for the students. We just have to start over again.”

At the town cemetery in Estancia, Roger Paeldon emerged from a pit with a scarf over his mouth and mud on his face. He was one of 12 men digging mass graves.

“I’m not a grave digger,” he said. “I’m a carpenter, but everyone has to help out.” He pointed to a pit filled with bodies wrapped in blue tarpaulin and said: “No identities.” Behind him, men were digging two more large pits. Wiping the mud from his face, he asked: “Do you know? Are there more coming?”