Surviving, reporting Yolanda at ground zero: A journalist becomes part of the story

It looked like any ordinary day for coverage on a Friday morning, November 8, 2013, except that it was a very stormy day, with heavy rains pounding for more than 24 hours until that very morning.

Super Typhoon Yolanda, or Haiyan by its international name, was forecast to pass any moment in the early morning on that day, and it was expected to landfall in any part of Eastern Visayas.

“On that fateful day, 10 years ago, and close to 7 a.m., I was about to go out from our home to get a ‘situationer’ as I was tasked to report, at first, to the Radyo Inquirer, the Makati City-based radio station of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, my main outlet,” recalled Joey Gabieta, a reporter based in Tacloban City.

“As I was preparing my things — notebook, my pen, and cellular phone — I heard loud shouts from my housemates, saying that water was coming in the house and, in a matter of seconds, water was all over, reaching fast up to the roof,” Gabeita shared.

The Sto. Nino Church after the Super Typhoon Yolanda devastation, and now, ten years later. (Photo: PIA)

Survival mode

Tacloban City and its environs were hit the hardest by the strongest super typhoon that ever happened, on record, in more than 5 decades, as it made its way through. Gabieta lived in Barangay 6-A, Sto. Niño Extension, a location that was only a walking distance away from Magsaysay Boulevard, a stretch of road beside the sea, on the eastern side.

“Suddenly, we were all floating in the water—first bluish-colored, then murky and dirty—with things floating all over us, including a refrigerator, which turned out to be a life-saving one where two of my nieces and a nephew were placed.

“A portion of our roof that was blown away due to the howling wind actually saved us, as we were able to get out of the house using that hole, crawling slowly to the next house, a two-storey structure.

“There, we stayed in one of the house’s rooms with more than 20 people, including a newly-born baby. All were my neighbors. All were silent, even the baby. But I knew all of us were praying silently, asking God to stop the typhoon, which none of us had ever witnessed, much less experienced.

“After more than 5 hours, the howling sound of the wind stopped; the high water, later we learned as storm surge, subsided, though the water remained at more than knee-deep level. All of us that crammed inside that room just managed to hug and give a weary smile to each other. We all survived.

“Our house was destroyed. No dry clothes. No water. No food. But for some reason, none of us in the family complained of being hungry or thirsty. We were just thankful that we all survived Yolanda’s onslaught.

“We were only able to eat two days after the November 8, 2013 massive typhoon, making do with left-over rice from my sister-in-law’s brother and canned goods. On those days, I forgot that I was a journalist. My first thought then was how to survive with no food and a damaged house,” Gabieta said, recalling in vivid details the initial moments of Yolanda’s fury and its immediate impact on their lives.

Joey Gabieta (4th from right) with former PIA-8 Regional Head Erlinda Olivia Tiu (center) and fellow Tacloban media practitioners pose for a photo at the Grandstand, Tacloban City, on November 23, 2013, where the temporary office of PIA-8 was installed, serving also as a media center after the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda on November 8, 2013. (Photo: PIA Region VIII)

Reporting duty

More than 48 hours had passed before Gabieta came to his senses, ready for his reporting work, roaming around the city for the first time. Deaths were all over the place, anywhere the eyes could see. Several coastal villages in the city became wasteland.

“I saw for myself how Yolanda destroyed my beloved city. No words can be used to describe how Tacloban became ruined in just 5 hours of constant battering. I wanted to cry, but nothing came out,” Gabieta shared with PIA in a written essay sent by email.

A heartbreaking moment he saw was a father holding a dead baby. He wanted to get near the grieving father and console him but decided to turn his back instead, his eyes this time filled with tears. He cried to his heart’s content. He is back to his job; he told himself he should not be emotional and should be at a distance from his subjects.

But he failed miserably with this self-imposed thought. Every time he interviewed a fellow survivor, the interviewee cried at will while recalling the harrowing ordeal, and he cried too. He lost count of how many times he cried during coverage because they shared the same fate, and he can very well relate. Their experience was the same situation he also experienced; although he was “lucky,” none of his loved ones perished at the height of Yolanda’s natural, extra-strong force.

(L-R) Joey Gabieta, correspondent of Philippine Daily Inquirer and Leyte-Samar Daily Express, Neil Lopido of PIA Region 8, a UN OCHA representative, Sol Alarcon and Ahva Ebalde of PIA Region 8 pose for a photo a day before Christmas in December 2013 at the PIA-8 temporary office and mobile radio station at Grandstand Tacloban City. (Photo: PIA Region VIII)

“One of my unforgettable interviews involved a young mother who delivered a baby girl inside an evacuation center,” Gabieta said.  “She managed to survive by swimming amid debris and dirty water though she was heavily pregnant at that time, holding tightly her young son. Asked in jest if she would name her baby daughter as ‘Yolanda,’ her answer was quick and tinged with sadness. ‘No. Yolanda is nothing but destruction.’“

Tacloban City Hall after the Super Typhoon Yolanda devastation, and now, 10 years later. (Photo: PIA)

But there were also some light anecdotes amid devastation—an oasis of laughter, however passing it may be. A man was hanging from a tree for dear life without knowing that a snake at the other end of the tree was also clinging; likewise, for dear life.

Gabieta quoted the man, telling him he survived Yolanda, yet unsure if he could survive a snake bite in case he was bitten, when he was rattled on seeing he had company. Fortunately, the slithering creature ignored the frantic demeanor of the man and refused to take a bite. When everything had calmed down, the two went their separate ways.

Ground zero

The “good” side of the tragedy, from the viewpoint of a media practitioner who has recovered, or at least managed to live with the lingering pain and suffering as the days turned into weeks and months, was that finding news was never difficult.

Visitors from national and international fame descended into the city, now labeled as ground zero, bringing not just hope but much-needed assistance to the typhoon-weary residents.

The Santo Niño Shrine in Tacloban City was a picture of total mess and disorder then, but 10 years later, it recovered. (Photo: PIA)

“Who would have thought that international figures like former US Vice President Al Gore, ex-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Princess Margaret, and King Carl of Sweden would visit Tacloban, among other well-known heads of governments and organizations. Several international celebrities came to the city like South Korean singers, Justin Bieber and international beauty queens,” Gabieta narrated.

“Of course, who could forget the historical yet emotional visit of Pope Francis, the first-ever pontiff to visit Tacloban, and the rest of Eastern Visayas region,” he added.

Yet sending stories to his editors in the Visayas Bureau and later in Manila remained a big effort for him. “I lost my laptop due to Yolanda. Good thing I was able to save my mobile phone, which I used to send my articles, sometimes ranging from three to seven stories a day. And all those times, I sent my stories through text messaging. I thanked my editors for their patience with me,” Gabieta said, adding that another challenge was to look for areas in the city where there was signal so he could send the reports.

Former PIA Region VIII Head Olive Tiu conducted a press briefing with media practitioners, including Joey Gabieta, to her left, in Eastern Visayas on January 25, 2014, at the makeshift office in Tacloban City for the visit of His Excellency King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. (Photo: PIA Region VIII)

Lessons learned

“It’s now 10 years since Yolanda took not only material things but, more importantly, lives,” Gabieta mused. “While I will never, ever forget the pains brought by my Yolanda experience, I could still say that it was a sort of shining moment for me as a journalist—writing stories from ‘ground zero,’ telling the world the actual situation and how we managed to survive.”

As a practicing reporter who knows his trade, Gabieta learned that for any impending calamity, notably a typhoon, one must be ready by making sure the cellphone and laptop are fully charged for the expected action.

As part of the locals, the same readiness and alertness must be observed. He noted that people now evacuate to safer areas or identified evacuation centers at least two days before the projected landfall of an upcoming typhoon, bringing with them food provisions.

Governance has been shaped into a pro-active stance. “The local government here has established evacuation centers on top of the already existing evacuation centers, which are often government schools. Food and non-food items are being pre-positioned to be distributed to the evacuees,” Gabieta reported.

“The city government has also prohibited house construction 40 meters away from the coast,” he added.

2021 photo of Joey Gabieta (from Joey’s Facebook account).

In a nutshell, Gabieta’s experience both as a Yolanda survivor and as a journalist covering the major disaster can be measured in two words: beyond compare.

And, by his admission, being part of the story, the whole experience can still be summed up into just one word: unforgettable. (MMP/PIA Southern Leyte/With reports from Joey Gabieta)

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