COVER STORY

Apocalyptic yet inspiring: Reflections on covering Typhoon Yolanda

CNN Philippines Senior Correspondent David Santos talks about his experiences covering the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.

Yolanda-Anniv2_CNNPH.jpg Houses in Guiuan, Eastern Samar were ravaged by the onslaught of strong winds and heavy rains during Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.  

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — As a long-time journalist from Mindanao, I have witnessed a fair amount of violence in different forms.

From being caught in the middle of heavy firefight between government troops and hardcore terrorists to being held as a "captive" for a few days. From documenting the retrieval of cadavers of slain soldiers inside a rebel camp to having seen a severed head of a decapitated kidnap victim.

Yet nothing prepared me for the fury and violence of nature that was Super Typhoon Yolanda (International name: Haiyan) in 2013.

Western Mindanao, though perennially facing threats to peace and order, is also often spared from killer typhoons.

It was also my first time in Leyte.  When people said they were used to having to deal with extreme weather since the island is on the country's typhoon path, I honestly had no idea what that meant or entailed.

Throughout my more-than-a-decade career, I had not covered a major storm or typhoon. I wasn't really sure what to expect when our newsroom decided to deploy me to pursue Yolanda.

But like a battle-hardened soldier, so to speak, I psyched myself up to be ready to face any situation. I believed some of my dangerous assignments in Mindanao should have prepared me for this coverage.

On the eve before Yolanda made landfall, we were instructed to travel to the coastal town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar because the weather forecast kept changing as to the direction of the typhoon.

My team -- cameraman Alvin Villafranca and assistant cameraman Harold Paras -- and I reached Guiuan just before midnight of November 7.

yolanda-anniv_CNNPH.jpg The team of David Santos, cameraman Alvin Villafranca, and assistant cameran Harold Paras. (FILE PHOTO)  

Guiuan was already a ghost town at that hour. It was eerily quiet and all you could hear were trees swaying and iron sheets of roofs creaking because of the winds blowing from the sea.

I knew it was going to be a long day ahead so we decided to catch a few winks.

About three hours later, we were roused from our beds by the heavy downpour and strong winds.

The roof of the inn we were staying in was about to be blown off so we immediately collected our belongings. We thought we should find a sturdier structure to seek refuge from the storm.

It was a risky, last-minute decision. Outside the inn, we could barely walk through the very forceful winds. Add to that the risk of being hit by the flying sheets of iron and all sorts of debris. It was a terrifying scene.

But we knew we had to transfer, as the inn, which was largely made of wood, would not withstand the typhoon's fury.

Once we got into our car, our driver, a resident of Tacloban, figured it was both difficult and dangerous to be driving in such extreme weather. Also, none of us knew exactly where to go. I had wanted to go the town hall but we did not know the way since it was our first time in Guiuan.

We ended up transferring to a building nearest the inn -- the Immaculate Concepcion Clinic and Hospital.

A burly man in white coat, who happened to be the hospital's resident surgeon and whom we initally asked for directions, prevailed on us to stay for our own safety.

"Huwag na kayo tumuloy. Delikado [Forget about moving out. It's dangerous out there]," the man, Dr. Oscar Perez, told us while making a hand gesture for us to come in.

Thus, the hospital became our refuge. Despite being concrete, you could actually feel the structure shaking when Yolanda made its first landfall in Guiuan before daybreak of November 8.

Having surveyed Yolanda's catastrophic impact in Guiuan hours after the storms has passed, we saw the urgent need for help to come in. The local government unit distributed the relief packs it had prepared days before. But it was not enough. Some residents had resorted to looting business establishments which were also damaged by the typhoon.

The local police force, backed by a small contingent Philippine Army unit, despite their very limited number, tried their best to respond to calls for assistance.

Many of the injured crowded the Immaculate Concepcion hospital, the only medical facility that remained open. Cadavers of the dead also began to pile up.

Yolanda-Anniv5_CNNPH.jpg Some fallen power lines blocked roads in Guiuan, Eastern Samar after Typhoon Yolanda ravaged the town.

Utilities including telecommunications were all down.

We waited the entire day for any sign of disaster response. It never came. So I took matters in my own hands. I felt the need to put the news out on what had happened to Guiuan and that people were desperately needing help.

On November 9, Saturday, we decided to travel to Tacloban. Taking the motobike was the only option since fallen trees and power lines littered the streets. Some parts of the highway were also destroyed and were impassable for four-wheel vehicles.

What should have been a four-hour ride to Tacloban took us 16 hours. We needed to clear the streets from felled trees. At times, we had to carry the motorbikes over the road obstructions. We ran out of gas. We had to replace flat tires. We hadn't had anything to eat except drink 'buko' juice.

We arrived in Tacloban in the wee hours of Sunday, November 10, and our worst fears were realized. Contrary to what we had initially thought, the situation in Tacloban was far more dire than in Guiuan. It was apocalyptic.

I still vividly remember walking in the rain, while carrying our LiveU pack which I protected with my raincoat, crying out of frustration, hunger and sheer exhaustion.

Later in the morning, I was able to call one of my bosses to relay to him we survived Yolanda. We were instructed to pull out of Tacloban.

While on the plane back to Manila, I kept on looking back to what happened to us in the past 72 hours. I realized that I could never have prepared enough for Yolanda. Or maybe I was like some of the residents - complacent, fatalistic, ill-prepared.

Yolanda-Anniv3_CNNPH.jpg A body being transported in Guiuan, Eastern Samar in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. More than 6,000 people have been reported dead after the Category 5 storm hit the Philippines.  

But when confronted with difficult situations, one has no choice but to step up. You have to make crucial decisions for your team and the people around you. You simply could not wait for things to happen. In Guiuan, it took a while for rescue teams to descend to the town to deliver aid. I strongly felt the need to act.

Aside from having to brave Yolanda, travelling for a gruelling 16 hours under the punishing afternoon sun and intermittent rains were the most difficult part of that coverage. It was not only physically challenging, it was also nerve-wracking.

But soon, these too seemed puny compared to what other people had to endure. People lost their loved ones - some, like those engulfed by the sea during the surge, didn't even have bodies to bury. Almost everyone lost their homes, properties and some even their dignity. And many more, because they didn't have the means to go anywhere else, or simply chose to stay and rebuild what is left, had to stay behind and endure more suffering.

While we got out of Tacloban, I saw it as an opportunity to connect to the world and report on the situation in Guiuan. While Tacloban was understandably getting most of the global attention, my team and I saw the need to do our share by also sending out information about that isolated town.

For me, Yolanda was and never will be about us - journalists being praised to have survived the typhoon. It was about the people who showed extraordinary strength to inspire us to do our jobs better. These were the people, who despite extreme personal circumstances and difficulty, had the generosity to help, spoke to us, shared their meals and their time to make us understand what they were all going through.

And through their eyes, we told the world their stories.

[Editor's Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author.]