Satellite imagery of Typhoon Haiyan at peak strength, overlayed on a map of the Philippines. Marked in red is the city of Tacloban. (Modified from NASA imagery)
On the morning of November 8, 2013, Supertyphoon Haiyan made landfall in Tacloban City, Eastern Visayas, Philippines. Several hours earlier, the Hong Kong Observatory put its 10-minute sustained winds at 285 km/h (180 mph), the highest ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The eye of the storm passed just south of Tacloban, leaving the city at the mercy of its strongest winds. Many were injured by flying debris, and nearly every building in the city lost its roof.
The storm surge wrought even more destruction. 4-6-meter (13-19-foot) waves devastated the city’s low-lying population centers, sweeping up to a kilometer inland and killing thousands. Residents of low-lying waterfront neighborhoods describe returning to their old neighborhoods and being unable to find any trace of their former homes.
In the days after the storm, power was out through much of the region, and many had difficulty accessing food, clean water and medical assistance. The majority of the survivors I interviewed turned to looting in those desperate weeks.
Drone footage of the aftermath of Haiyan/Yolanda in Tacloban. For footage of the storm itself, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZhItkcs9qw Warning: graphic images (Death)
Extreme weather is a constant companion in the Philippines. In a typical year, the Philippines see 19 tropical cyclones or storms, 6-9 of which make landfall. These storms range from tropical depressions, with winds in the 30-60 km/h (20-37mph) range, to supertyphoons like Haiyan, whose winds top 220 km/h (137 mph). In the most extreme cases, such storms have caused 2.02 billion USD in damages (Haiyan, 2013) and cost more than 20,000 Philippine lives (Haiphong, 1881)
It is notoriously difficult to determine the influence of climate change on any given weather event, but scientists warn that increasing global temperatures will likely amplify the impacts of tropical storms on coastal populations.
According to the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is likely that rising sea levels have already contributed to a rise in extreme sea levels, such as those seen in storm surges, and that they will continue to do so going forward.
In a section on key risks stemming from continued human interference in climate systems, the same report lists “severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods resulting from storm surges, sea-level rise, and coastal flooding,” and “extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services.”
It is important to note that there is little evidence linking climate change to any long-term increase in tropical storm frequency. The major threat that global warming poses to places like Tacloban is not in a greater number of storms passing overhead, but in the impacts of those storms on the lives of their people.
I visited Tacloban in February of 2016, just over two years after the storm. Some buildings still stood in ruins on the city’s outskirts and many bore Haiyan’s scars, but the city’s downtown was bustling and its public market thriving.
Communities on the margins of the city are the ones that are still fighting to recover their livelihood. There are families still waiting on government-built housing more than two years after the storm, and neighborhoods threatened with eviction to make way for a new seawall. It is them that the UN IPCC refers to them when it says, “climate change impacts are projected to… make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones.”
Walking through those communities, I met many survivors who are now activists, working to document and speak out about what they see as “inept” leadership and injustice in the recovery process.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll publish 4 stories from survivors of Haiyan/Yolanda.
I have tried to represent the stories as much as possible as they were told to me. Translation was necessary for three of the four interviews, as will be noted. In each case I made small edits when necessary for clarity, and changed the order of certain quotes to help with flow. I have tried to communicate the stories as much in the words of their tellers/subjects as possible.
Dean Lacandazo and Marissa Cabaljao, young leaders from the organization People Surge, helped identify communities for canvassing and with translation work. People Surge is an alliance of disaster survivors in the Eastern Visayas region, where Tacloban is located. They focus their efforts “working for accountability, climate justice, social justice and system change.” I would like to thank them both for their help and their work, as well as everyone who told me their story. None of that is easy, and I admire your courage.
A personal note:
I set out on this journey to collect stories and share them. But before this project took shape, my goals were more personal. I wanted to understand what climate change means for all of us, not just politically or economically or rhetorically, but so that the knowledge would become a part of me and my world and my work.
I learned young what it can mean to hear a story in person. The memory had faded, but I remember now clearly hearing the stories of ex-guerillas who had fought in the Salvadoran Civil War. I was in primary school still, and the violence was beyond what I had thought real. There it was, though, coming from the mouths of survivors in the shadow of a church.
There is no way to capture that story. There is no medium. Even the actual, the original, the place and time, is just a fraction of its full existence. Even experience and memory don’t cover it fully, relived and reinterpreted as they are in the years that follow. These are only worlds, giant little stones, to a galaxy.
My tools are weaker still. These are not my stories, but I’ve done my best to transcribe them as they were told. These pieces lent meaning, for me, to the hard-won evidence of scientists and historians, to the slogans of activists and politicians. These are the worlds we have (un)made in our industry and this is how their subjects-tellers have remade them, in battles and in stories turned back on their victors.
These are humans of climate change.