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Parallels

Rushing Toward Chaos: Covering The Aftermath Of Typhoon Haiyan

Originally published on Sat December 28, 2013 6:00 pm

It felt like a dream.

The Marines kept flying over us all night long. Their hulking C-130 cargo planes rattled the tarp we'd jerry-rigged above our heads. NPR photographer David Gilkey and I were lying in sleeping bags next to the runway of the destroyed Tacloban airport. We'd arrived a few hours earlier in the back of one of those military aircraft. Now we were just waiting for daybreak.

Typhoon Haiyan had ripped the airport apart, killed the soldiers based there and left it flooded with seawater. At this point, the airport was a makeshift staging area for a relief operation that hadn't yet found its stride.

"This is bizarre," was David's summation of the scene. Filipino soldiers slept in helicopters next to us. American soldiers drifted in and out of the darkness. Black and white 50-gallon drums of jet fuel were strewn across the field around our tent. Refugees huddled by the remnants of the terminal hoping to get airlifted to Manila.

"The most bizarre thing was getting off that plane," David said in a lull in between the roar of the C-130s. "You got off the plane and you walked over to the terminal. You could clearly see there was some sort of light behind [the terminal] so it was back-lit like a haunted house. And you realize there's probably a thousand people cowering underneath plastic because it was raining.

"I turned on my headlamp and all I could see were eyes."

David and I have covered many of the worst calamities of the last decade from the Haitian earthquake to the Afghan war to the Japanese nuclear accident of 2011. But every disaster is unique and leaves you, in some ways, feeling unprepared. Lying there next to the runway, we both wondered how the hell we were going to report from this place.

"Even in Haiti, we sort of knew where to go to set up a base," David said. "This? Here we still don't have the foggiest idea what we are going to do."

There's something surreal about stepping off a commercial airplane in a major metropolis one day, and ending up in the chaos of a natural disaster the next.

We'd spent the night before at a Holiday Inn in Manila. It could have been a Holiday Inn anywhere. It had a minibar. There was a mall underneath it that you didn't even have to go outside to get to. Now, hours later, we were in a city that had just been obliterated by one of the most powerful storms ever recorded.

Even before daybreak, the airport started to buzz with activity. Filipino and American soldiers driving forklifts shuffled pallets of rice, tarps and clothes on the tarmac. Planes and helicopters lifted off, landed, lifted off. The refugees were the only constant, huddled near the rubble of the airport terminal trying to get on a flight to the capital.

Around 8 in the morning, we hitched a ride out of the airport on the back of a pickup. The entire city was destroyed. Neighborhoods appeared to have been picked up by a monster, crushed and then hurled back to the ground. Trees stood bare, stripped of all their leaves. What at first looked like pieces of plastic flapping in the wind were actually strips of twisted sheet metal. Buses lay hurled about willy-nilly. Houses were turned to piles of splintered timbers. I marveled that anyone survived here. In some areas, not a single structure was left standing.

But people were returning to try to salvage what was left of their homes. Along a stretch of road where most of the buildings were inundated with flood debris, a guy was selling fresh-roasted pork by the kilo in clear plastic bags. He carved the meat off a whole pig impaled on a stick.

The people next to him were desperately trying to find clean water to clean the remnants of their houses.

The municipal water wasn't working. There was no electricity. No fuel. All the grocery stores had been destroyed. We'd brought thousands of dollars to try to set up a reporting base but money was useless here. There was virtually nothing to buy. No food (aside from the roast pig.) No fuel. No rooms. No cars to rent. David and I ended up renting a single motorcycle with a driver. The three of us squeezed on to the machine to get around town.

I clung to the back rack as we slowly made our way through streets lined with mountains of debris. Dead bodies wrapped in sheets had been placed by the side of the road. The distinct smell of rotting human flesh fouled the air.

David spotted a collapsed cigarette warehouse. Visually it was spectacular: People crawled across a landscape of shattered concrete and brightly-colored cigarette packets searching for salvageable smokes. The atmosphere was almost festive, like a treasure hunt. This had become the new normal in a destroyed city.

In every disaster that I've covered, there's usually one image that gets stuck in my mind; one person I can't stop thinking about. In Haiti, it was an old woman in a field of white, crumpled cement that used to be her neighborhood; in Sri Lanka after the Asian tsunami, it was a naked body being scooped up gently by backhoe; in Fukushima, it was a school hit by the tsunami where only the kids on the upper floors survived.

In Tacloban, it was a young woman standing in the moonlight clutching a tarp. The United Nations' refugee agency was passing out plastic sheeting from the back of a tractor trailer. A growing crowd swirled around the truck. The neighborhood had been almost entirely washed out to sea. The relief workers were trying to give tarps to women first, but the crowd was jostling to try to get closer to the truck. Fires burned in the background. This woman was standing off to the side watching. She'd lost her house, her husband and her three kids in the storm.

She didn't sob. She didn't wail. Her face seemed emotionless. And then the moonlight illuminated the tears on her cheek, betraying her stoicism.

A week later, David and I were back at the storm-ravaged airport. Hundreds of people were still huddled next to the terminal waiting for military flights out. We fought our way through crowds to get on a commercial jet to Manila. A couple of hours later, we were back in the capital. I took a hot shower at the hotel and then collapsed on the bed watching an NBA basketball game on TV.

On the Delta flight back to JFK, the food and the movies were the same as on the flight in. I was back in the world of the normal, and it felt odd to be there.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We always send reporters to disasters such as last month's typhoon in the Philippines and the logistics are rarely easy, but it can also be difficult for other, more personal reasons. NPR's Jason Beaubien and NPR photographer David Gilkey have covered many of the calamities of the last decade from the earthquake in Haiti to the Japanese tsunami and the nuclear incident that followed in 2011.

Jason says he still struggles to convey the surreal experience of stepping off a comfortable commercial airliner and stepping into chaos. He sent us this audio diary of their recent trip to the Philippines.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It felt like we were in a dream. It was the middle of the night. David Gilkey and I were lying under a tarp next to the runway at Tacloban airport. U.S. Marine cargo planes kept rumbling over us all night long. A few hours earlier, we arrived here in the back of one of those C-130 aircraft.

DAVID GILKEY, BYLINE: This is bizarre. You just lay here all night long. Every hour you hear that incoming flight. Sort of wakes you up, but you're tired, sleep through it.

BEAUBIEN: We'd spend the night before at a Holiday Inn in the Philippine capital. It could've been a Holiday Inn anywhere, in Minneapolis as easily as Manila. Now, we were here in a city that had just been obliterated by one of the most powerful storms ever recorded.

Filipino soldiers were sleeping in and under helicopters 50 feet away from us, people wandered through the darkness. Barrels of jet fuel were strewn all around us. The whole thing felt post-apocalyptic.

GILKEY: The most bizarre thing was last night was getting off that plane. 'Cause you got off the plane and you walked over to the terminal, which you could clearly see there was some sort of light on the other side of it so it was all back-lit like a haunted house. And you realize there's probably, what, a thousand people cowering underneath plastic because it was raining, just huddling there. I turned on my headlamp and all I saw were eyes. Did you see that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Really weird.

GILKEY: I've never come in anywhere where - like, even in Haiti where - Haiti we sort of knew where to go to set up a base. And this really was - we still don't have the foggiest idea what we are going to do.

BEAUBIEN: Even before daybreak, the airport buzzed with activity. Filipino and American soldiers driving forklifts shuffled pallets of rice, tarps and clothes on the tarmac. The refugees still huddled by the remnants of the airport terminal, waiting, trying to get on a flight out. So it's Friday morning at 7:30 and we've hitched a ride with Reuters in the back of their pickup truck that we're driving from the airport into the city.

And the destruction between the airport and the central city is just amazing. I mean, I can't believe that anyone survived who stayed here.

WOLFORD AVEA: I was here in the height of the typhoon. I was prepared. I have all, plus lights, food, everything.

BEAUBIEN: Wolford Avea(ph) was luckier than many of the other victims of typhoon Haiyan. At least his house hasn't collapsed.

AVEA: But because of the surge, all our food were drowned and then our rice. We could not eat anymore.

BEAUBIEN: Everything was destroyed, all the food was destroyed.

AVEA: Yeah, yes, food, everything.

BEAUBIEN: His biggest concern was how, without any clean water, he was going to clean up the huge muddy mess that used to be his home. Everything was in short supply for us. There was no fuel, no food, no rooms, no cars to rent. So we rented a single motorcycle. It's about around 10:00 in the morning now. David and I have rented a 125 motorcycle with the driver.

The two of us are going around the town squeezed onto the back of this motorcycle. But that's how we're driving around. Dead bodies wrapped in sheets had been placed by the side of the road for somebody to pick up. The distinct smell of rotting human flesh fouled the air. Can we go in there?

David had spotted a collapsed cigarette warehouse. Visually, it was spectacular. People were scurrying across a landscape of shattered concrete and brightly-colored cigarette packets searching for salvageable smokes. The atmosphere was almost festive, like a treasure hunt. This had become the new normal. You know, recently, there's been this genre of art, in which artists go to really poor countries and they ask people to bring out in front of their hut all of their worldly possessions.

This typhoon has sort of done the same thing. It's come in and wrecked everything and then everyone now is like dumping all of their worldly goods out onto the street in front of their house. There's something strangely sort of intimate about it. And then, after a week, David and I ended up back at the storm ravaged airport. Hundreds of people were still huddled next to the terminal waiting for military flights out.

We fought out way through crowds to get on a commercial jet to Manila. A couple of hours later we were back in the capital. I took a hot shower at the hotel and then collapsed on the bed watching an NBA basketball game on TV. On the Delta flight back to JFK, the food and the movies were the same as on the flight in. I was back in the world of normal, and it felt odd to be there.

WERTHEIMER: That was NPR's Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.