In the eye of the storm: TV reporter tells his story
(Editor’s Note: Manicad is senior news producer and anchor for GMA 7.)
For the first time in the many years that I have been a television journalist, I prayed hard while I did my work, as if it were my last assignment.
My crew and I were right in the middle of the monster winds and whipping rain brought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban City.
We had kept the camera rolling to document this powerful storm that would leave thousands of people dead, millions homeless, and a people realizing that in the fight between man and nature, nature always has the upper hand.
A month after Yolanda (international name: “Haiyan”) struck, I can’t help thinking how fortunate my team was to have survived the storm’s onslaught.
Whenever I see stories about the survivors, especially the children, I am shocked at the magnitude of the devastation that the storm brought.
Yolanda was different from all other storms that I had covered.
I can never forget the waves turning sideways, to their left and smashing right onto communities, not the coastline. I would later learn that the waves pushed five or six ships into Anibong village in Tacloban, killing scores of people.
The storm surge also killed Roel Bacarra, one of three drivers we hired as soon as we arrived in the city on Nov. 6.
Roel was driving his newly acquired Mitsubishi Adventure, on his way to pick up our GMA News TV Quick Response Team (QRT) production people from their hotel when the water swallowed his vehicle.
His relatives found his body and his vehicle, as well as a laptop and lapel mic the QRT group left with him. His family returned these items to the team after informing them of Roel’s death.
I’m a victim, too
I was among the millions of people affected by this storm. This was the only time in my career that I considered myself a victim as well, not just a journalist who was sent to cover an event and report it.
Before Yolanda struck, I thought the assignment would be just like my other disaster coverage. I had never really experienced a direct hit because more often than not, the typhoons I covered changed paths.
My team, composed of video journalists Ding Lagoyo, Winston Lucas and me, went over the SOPs: make a list of the places we would rush to after the storm hits to get stories, do an ocular if possible, and stock up on supplies such as biscuits and water in case we get stranded while traveling.
On Thursday, Nov. 7, we went to the towns of Palo, Tanauan and Tolosa to get a feel of the preparations for the storm.
In Tanauan and Tolosa, mothers and their children were already in evacuation centers. The men were left to secure their homes. It was night when we arrived in Palo, where the mayor told us that the people had been advised that storm surge of up to 15 meters high was possible.
Back in Tacloban, I told our driver, Jun, to meet us early in the hotel on Friday. I told him we would have a tough day. It turned out to be an understatement.
At around 3 a.m. on Friday, I was awakened by strong winds. The glass windows in my hotel room started to rattle, as if they were resisting being blown in.
I managed to send a report to “Unang Hirit” and Super Radyo dzBB, where I mentioned that the walls of our hotel room were starting to crack from the pounding of the wind.
The whirling winds gave me the feeling that we were inside a washing machine. I saw the waiting sheds being toppled, and a coconut tree outside our room getting snapped in two. By 7:30 a.m., all communication lines, including the Internet, went dead.
Filming beside our hotel, we felt like ants being blown away. I saw a piece of tin roofing flying toward where we were standing. I shouted at Ding and Winston to watch out. I jumped back while Ding and Winston landed in a plant box in the hotel terrace.
After eight hours, the winds calmed. We decided to walk around the city to see the extent of damage from the storm.
Right away, we saw bodies—those of men, women and children—and animals.
Going on foot
We had a satellite in Palo. But since fallen trees and electric posts littered the roads, the only way to get there was by foot, which meant five to six hours’ walk.
We were worried about the team of my fellow reporter Micaela Papa. They were staying in a hotel that faced the sea. We had to find them ASAP.
As we waded through the flood and dodged debris, we saw how downtown Tacloban had been turned upside down. Vehicles lay on top of one another. Bodies were littered on the streets.
I was quite worried about leptospirosis, as I had a small cut on my left knee. But we had to get to Palo to get to the satellite. I decided I’d just have my prophylaxis later.
There were around 10 fatalities, mostly children, in Panalaron Central School that was used as an evacuation center. This was where I met Jaymar Caindoy who was carrying his dead child, 6-year-old Ellen Shane. She drowned in the evacuation center as the water rushed in.
This early, people started to ask for help—food and water, medicines for the wounded. But there were no authorities to hear the people’s pleas, boost their spirit or bring order.
We bumped into the Inquirer’s DJ Yap and Niño Jesus Orbeta in the streets of downtown Tacloban. They, too, had begun to record everything they saw. We all knew that our main problem was how to send our stories to Manila. Our best bet was our satellite in Palo.
People must know
Some journalists might think it was naïve of me to help DJ find a way to file his stories for the Inquirer. In a world away from Yolanda, journalists do not exactly help one another. You even find a way to keep the others from sending stories to ensure your scoop.
But this was no time for competition. People outside of Leyte must know what had happened to all of us who got caught in the storm. The more avenues for information to get out, the better.
I told DJ it might be possible for him to use our satellite communications, similar to an intercom that connects our team in Palo to our headquarters in Quezon City, and maybe, dictate his story, word for word, to a GMA 7 staffer in Manila, who would then e-mail it to the Inquirer.
Niño, on the other hand, could digitize his photos and our satellite engineer could send them to GMA 7 the way we send videos, then our staff in Manila would convert it again to photos and e-mail them to the Inquirer.
But we found our equipment wet and damaged, and the only thing we could do was to do a live broadcast.
Ding, Winston, DJ, Niño and I began our long walk to Palo. The biscuits and water we had started to dwindle. Some residents approached us and asked for some. We shared whatever we had, especially with the children.
We reached Palo by nightfall. The rain was pounding. Our satellite team was in their truck, still traumatized. Together with the team of Love Añover, they sought shelter inside the cathedral at the height of the storm, only to see the roof getting torn off piece by piece.
Broadcast from Palo
I managed to convince the team to set up the satellite. Ernie, our systems engineer, tried to blow-dry all our equipment. The others repaired the audio and lighting systems.
Finally, I got on the air on “24 Oras.” By 9 p.m., I was again back on the air, this time on “State of the Nation” with Jessica Soho on GMA News TV. After my 35-minute report, we decided to walk back to Tacloban to look for fuel and more supplies for the entire satellite team and mine.
It was eerie on the road. As the wind blew, damaged roofs squeaked. We were also aware that on the roads lay the bodies of the storm’s victims.
We arrived in Tacloban before dawn and found Micaela and her crew sleeping on the floor of our badly damaged hotel. I invited her team, that of Kapuso Foundation and Al Jazeera to share our room.
We all stayed in the hotel. The next day, people were a lot hungrier, thirstier and more desperate.
I, too, was already tired, hungry, but had to be positive. Like everyone else, I wasn’t a journalist anymore. I was a victim now. I was among those who walked the streets like zombies. But I couldn’t show this to my team. I had to be strong and act like a leader. Once again, I found myself praying. Really, really hard.
We returned to Palo, again on foot. People asked me for water, for help. I saw the looting. I saw one man stealing a cash register. I shouted at him: “Hey, can you eat that? Put it back! You’re shameless!” Others began to shout at him. The man dropped the cash register for a few seconds then picked it up and ran away.
We arrived in Palo in time for “24 Oras Weekend.” People started to swarm around me, thrusting pieces of paper at me so that I could read their names and tell their relatives that they were alive. (Later, our senior vice president for news and public affairs, Marissa Flores, would ask our team to post these “proof of life” notes online, and was later picked up and storified by The New York Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, BBC and CNN.)
As I wrapped up my report, I told my producers I was going to do a “walk through” of the people standing behind me so that their families watching our newscast would know they were OK.
Among those who stood behind me was Niño. His neighbors in Guinobatan town, Albay province, saw the newscast and ran to his parents’ house to tell them that he “had been found!”
I also learned that the Inquirer editors were much relieved to hear from me that DJ, who was too shy to face the camera, was OK as well.
Return to Manila
We returned to Tacloban, where we all took a C-130 flight to Cebu on Sunday morning—journalists and fleeing residents alike. From there, we caught a flight back to Manila and straight to our waiting families’ arms.
My wife, Marnie, told me she had been praying hard for me. My daughters, Sam and Sabina, told me how much they missed me. They were the ones who helped me adjust to the world away from an unspeakable tragedy.
A few days ago, Sam told me she wanted to share her and Sabina’s toys with the children in Leyte who had lost their own toys. My daughters, young as they were, could somehow comprehend the misery brought by Yolanda.
In search of closure
I will return to Tacloban this week—as a journalist and a survivor.
With P200,000 entrusted to me by about 2,000 boatmen of Pagsanjan town in Laguna province, I will start a soup kitchen for those who remain in the city, and perhaps outside it. And bring school supplies for about a thousand kids.
I also need to go back to meet my fears and deal with my trauma head on. This story, my story, has to have closure.
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