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Rebuilding Homes and Hearts: My Life in the Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda

Anna Oposa | April 25, 2014

Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) broke the Philippines. The “perfect storm,” as it was referred to, shattered scientific records as it stretched 600 kilometers in diameter and carried a wind speed of 255 kph at its peak. It took over 7,000 lives and directly affected 10 million people in 51 cities and 41 provinces.

Yolanda also affected the rest of our 7,000-plus islands and Filipinos all over the world. It was easy to see how the storm broke houses and businesses, but one would need to dig a little deeper to see how it broke the Filipino spirit—the spirit that has always been lauded for its resilience.

Home was Where the Storm Was

The storm erased our family’s house in Bantayan Island, where I learned to love the sea as a little girl, and crushed Malapascua Island, where I had been working on a community-based marine conservation project for almost two years.

Time slowed down after the typhoon. It was all my family, friends, and fellow Filipinos could talk about. Where do we start? What can we do so we don’t experience the catastrophic impacts of another Yolanda?

Weeks passed, but the images of devastation still seemed unreal. My friends and I dealt with our disbelief and sadness by moving into action. We raised funds. We organized relief efforts. We listened to and told stories.

Project Earth Faces

In March, four months after Yolanda, I had the opportunity to join Earth Faces, a project that raises awareness for typhoon relief efforts and environmental issues by weaving together stories of Yolanda survivors and those who mobilized to help them. With a goal of amplifying 100 stories, the project highlights individuals and families through professional portraits. Most of the victims we met in the devastated, poverty-stricken areas had never had their family photos taken. For those who had, the framed photos became part of the debris lost to the storm.

To capture survivors on location, our lean team of six visited 22 families in four island provinces in seven days. The logistical nightmare became a dream-come-true. It showed us how beautiful the Philippines still is, and more importantly, how beautiful the Filipinos are.

There are millions of stories of heartbreak and hope, but I will share just a few that we had the privilege to listen to during our journey.

Two Sides to Every Story

In Tacloban, also known as ground zero, a number of businesses remain closed and electricity is not yet back 24/7.

The Gonzales family, composed of the parents and five children, moved into a stuffy tent because their house was washed away. Mommy Edna said the most painful part was being called robbers. The news often highlighted people in Tacloban attacking trucks, breaking into malls and banks, and grabbing anything they could get their hands on: televisions, dumbbells, canned goods, bottled water. Anything. Many judged and called them looters.

“We didn’t have anything to eat for two days. We were wearing the same wet clothes for three days. We didn’t have a choice,” she explained in the local language while wiping away her tears.

If Tacloban offered a story of what it was like to take, our trip to Malapascua Island offered a lesson on what it was like to be taken from. We visited Ate Lindy Daño, owner of the small convenience store where I bought personal care products and snacks during my time on the island (ate means older sister in Filipino).

Ate Lindy recounted how everything from her store was stolen when it collapsed during Yolanda, including 12 cases of beer. “I even saw my neighbor,” she shared.

To this day, Ate Lindy has not yet recovered emotionally and financially. But with the help of a donor, she was able to rebuild the store’s structure. Day after day, Ate Lindy continues to sell goods with her charming smile.

Circle of Life

Suyac Island in Negros Occidental is known for its century-old mangroves. When Yolanda roared through the island, the mangroves shielded the community from the wind and storm surge, leaving zero casualties

Noli Borlad of the Suyac Island Eco Tourism Association told us that as a “thank you” to the mangroves, they are prioritizing the restoration of the beach-forest and its damaged walkways. The survival of the residents and the mangroves shows that when we take care of the environment, it takes care of us.

What Now?

I flew back to Manila disheartened and inspired. Earth Faces magnified the many challenges of the Philippines not just in climate change, but in politics, (mis)education, and (un)employment. The scale and scope of the problems and solutions are overwhelming.

But we choose our own battles. As I write this, I am in my family’s house in Bantayan. We finally have a roof again, and windows are next. In May, I’ll be back in Malapascua to begin a livelihood program for the women and an arts and science program for the students. The battles are always where the heart is—home.

2013 Laureate Global Fellow Anna Oposa is a writer by profession and marine conservationist by passion. She is the co-founder of Save Philippine Seas, a movement to protect her country’s abundant but threatened marine resources.

Pictured to the left is Anna's #EarthFaces image, honoring the work she has done to rebuild hearts and homes after the typhoon.