In the Wake of Typhoon Haiyan, a Paradise Lost & Found

by Todd Lawson. Excerpted from the print edition of Mountain Life Annual.

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan’s record-breaking 315 kph winds made a direct hit on the central Philippines, pummelling the landscape into a living hell. Over 48 hours, the most powerful tropical storm ever recorded—seen by many as a vanguard of climate change events to come—obliterated the homes of some 11 million and claimed 6,268 lives. The unfathomable destruction sent shockwaves throughout the world and shook the country to its core. But the friendly Filipinos have a knack for rising from the ashes; between volcanic eruptions, tidal waves and typhoons it wasn’t the first harsh card they’d been dealt.

Volunteering on a sustainable relief project called FIX PHIL, helping the people of Isla Sombrero to build 'bangka boats' after the devastation of Typhoon Yoalnda wiped out 90% of their tiny island village. TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.

“Can you imagine the strength it takes to be living in shock… sleeping on the streets next to the body of your dead children?” asked veteran CNN reporter Anderson Cooper in the aftermath. “I can’t. And I’ve seen that strength day in and day out here in the Philippines.”

We couldn’t imagine either when, stepping from the boat into the tiny community of Isla Sombrero (400 kilometres east of where Haiyan made landfall), our family was greeted by the kind of smiles seen at a carnival, not a construction site. Although still reeling from the devastation of three months earlier, islanders led us arm-in-arm up the beach to an abiding paradise that had been more-or-less flattened—save for the “mountain” which eventually saved the lives of those who hadn’t had opportunity to evacuate. It was to a cave in this rocky outcrop that, during the height of the storm, 40-year-old Sylvia Rayo-Aggrawal and some 200 other inhabitants fled when wind and water breached her cinder-block-and-rebar home where they’d all been sheltering.

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TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.

The islanders lost 90 per cent of their homes and bangkas, the elegant, handmade, spider-like boats that are their lifeblood—a means to fish, travel and transport goods. Arriving from a stand-up paddleboard sojourn in El Nido, located in another Philippine province some 1,280 km distant, we joined eight others in helping build boats with FIX PHIL, a Philippine-based grassroots organization who’d launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for relief. For a week we chiselled, hammered, planed, scraped and painted eight new bangkas under the guidance of experienced craftsman—and hordes of interested kids. (Young Filipinos first slice the sea with a paddle at a young age, cementing their lifelong relationship with both water and boat.)

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TODD LAWSON PHOTO.

Although they didn’t openly talk about the typhoon, islanders did share an important word encapsulating both their experience of survival and our time among them: bayanihan means “spirit of communal effort,” of which there was no shortage on Sombrero.

TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.

“Thanks to the help we’re rebuilding again,” said Rayo-Aggrawal, a burlap sack stuffed full of abalone shells propped against her legs. “One day it will be like it once was, with our homes and also a new community area and basketball court. We’re happy here. It is hard to see people struggling right now… but we’re all together and we will be fine.”

FIX PHIL is an ongoing effort, with volunteer construction and other projects in the works.

TODD LAWSON PHOTO.
TODD LAWSON PHOTO.

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