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.