I was enjoying lunch in a small, dark Chinese restaurant with my fiance of two months when the phone rang: “A big typhoon has hit the Philippines and we are sending a team in. Do you think you are ready?”
It was November 8, 2013. I was not expecting this. I had just returned from filming in the remote jungles of Myanmar. My rugged work boots were still caked in mud and elephant dung. There would be no time for wedding planning this weekend.
It was my first time covering a disaster and I was not sure how I would react to the stench of dead bodies. But when I met 19-year-old Mary Nino in Tanauan, one of the worst hit areas in Leyte, those fears seemed unnecessary. Like me, she had long hair, big eyes and a close relationship to her mother.
She took us to the place where her house once stood and only a kitchen stove remained. When our camera started rolling, Mary climbed onto the kitchen stove and started relating how she clung to a wooden beam as five-metre high waves came crashing down on her. Heartbroken, Mary told us how after the storm she’d found her mother, dead in a coconut tree, clutching a family photograph.
Mary re-lived typhoon Haiyan like a filmstrip running through her mind. She started gasping for air and we had to stop our interview.
After I came home to Malaysia, Mary’s story haunted me. I was motivated to do more than tell stories of grief and loss. My fiance, who is also a journalist, suggested we do something to help the victims of Haiyan. We told our wedding guests that we would donate part of our cash gifts to help rebuild lives in Leyte.
Through a mutual friend, we met a former Singaporean soldier, Julian Tan, who was rebuilding schools and homes in Albuera, three hours outside of the capital city Tacloban.
Julian told us the Singapore Red Cross had already donated $250,000 to build a school. Our wedding donation would go towards building a second one in the area.
When I went back to Leyte to film “After Haiyan” for the Al Jazeera programme “101 East” this year, I visited to see how the project had turned out.
Calvin Khong was from a construction company providing pre-fabricated walls and equipment for the schools and his candidness surprised me. He was disappointed that the school was not being well maintained after being handed over to the local community.
Several classrooms remained empty, the front yard unpaved and there was a drainage problem after rain. The problem, Calvin said, is that donations are not enough. Maintenance has to be done by local authorities, who have not invested the resources.
I left with mixed feelings. On one hand, it felt good to make a difference to potentially hundreds of lives. At the very least, the school stands a better chance than the surrounding wooden huts in the next typhoon. But it takes more to sustain a recovery effort than providing aid. I’d have to hold the equivalent of 10 more weddings to sustain the vision.
As the media spotlight shifts away from the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, how many actually remain in Leyte long enough to help rebuild lives? What will the school look like one year from now? I don’t know. I feel that this was a step in the right direction, but real recovery will take a long time.
As for Mary Nino, she has moved to Manila to start a new life. I left a message to find out how she is coping. She has not replied.