Tanauan: Stronger than the storm

A unique look at the recovery of one small town in the Philippines on the five-year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan.

Haiyan victim
A photograph of a victim of Typhoon Haiyan is tied to a cross in a sea of graves [Al Jazeera]

In November 2013, the small town of Tanauan, on the Philippine island of Leyte was smashed to smithereens. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall, left a trail of devastation across the town’s shoreline.

Entire families were swept away by seven-metre waves that battered the coast. Known locally as Yolanda, the superstorm killed more than 6,000 people and left four million homeless across the middle of the archipelago. 


Twin brothers Elmer and Mariano Labada fought hard to stay afloat with their wives and children in the storm surges.

“It was a struggle to survive. We were all drowning. I lost sight of my wife. When I emerged from the water, my youngest son was being swept away. When he went under, I thought maybe I wanted to die. He called out ‘Papa, Papa’. I couldn’t reach him,” Elmer said.

Both lost two children.

After the storm, the brothers searched for their loved ones in the debris and rubble. Eventually, they found the body of Elmer’s daughter at the morgue.

They didn't want to open the bag for me because of the smell. She was a beautiful child. I wanted to hold her but I couldn't because of the way she was. They gave her to me and told me to bury her the next day.

by Elmer Labada, Typhoon Haiyan survivor

Elmer said he could only recognise her from her clothing. “They didn’t want to open the bag for me because of the smell. She was a beautiful child. I wanted to hold her but I couldn’t because of the way she was. They gave her to me and told me to bury her the next day,” he said.

Devastated by the loss of their daughter and son, Elmer’s wife left him and moved to the capital, Manila. Elmer then lost his full-time job at a soft drink factory in Tanauan.

“Many times I wished the waves killed me too. My family, house … Everything was gone in four seconds, the blink of an eye. Now life is pointless,” Elmer said.

Mariano said he was luckier than his brother. His wife and two other children survived. He was also able to keep his job riding a pedal cab.

“I feel guilty. It’s harder for Elmer to move on. Two of my kids died but two survived. What I learned is, if it’s your time to die, it’s your time,” Mariano said.

A cargo ship washed ashore by Typhoon Haiyan's waves sits among the debris in Tacloban, Philippines.  [Al Jazeera]
A cargo ship washed ashore by Typhoon Haiyan’s waves sits among the debris in Tacloban, Philippines.  [Al Jazeera]

For journalists and photographers in Asia, covering natural disasters comes with the territory in the most disaster-prone region on earth.

Across the continent, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and mudslides befall communities frequently and ferociously. But the pressures of the daily news cycle can often limit the media’s capacity to document the long-term effects – environmental, economic and emotional.

What does recovery look like when you’ve lost everyone in your family?

Since the storm hit five years ago, Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme has revisited Tanauan three times returning to the same survivors to follow their roads to recovery.

From their stories, we crafted Tanauan: Stronger than the Storm, an interactive documentary to build a conversation around climate change and its effect on people.

Tanauan’s survivors are its storytellers.

A makeshift grave marks one of the thousands of lives lost during Typhoon Haiyan.  [Al Jazeera]
A makeshift grave marks one of the thousands of lives lost during Typhoon Haiyan.  [Al Jazeera]

In Tanauan, 1,380 people were killed by Typhoon Haiyan – the second highest number of fatalities in the disaster zone.

In the days after, the survivors were cut off from help and the town hall was turned into an emergency triage centre.

Today, signs of recovery are easy to see. Local Mayor Pel Tecson utilised government funding to rebuild.

“Every time I have the opportunity to speak with my people, I tell them that we have to set aside the painful experience of Typhoon Haiyan and we have to start moving forward and we can turn this crisis into an opportunity to rebuild the town. That’s the best way to honour those who’ve died. We can rebuild this into a much greater and more beautiful town,” he says.

Behind the town hall, where a mass grave was dug in the storm’s aftermath, lies a new amphitheatre, basketball courts and memorial site where the disaster is commemorated every year. 


“This is our living room in the town. If you come back here at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, you will see a lot of people down here. Life is back in Tanauan,” Pel says.

Today, Tanauan is one of three towns in Leyte to build a seawall along the shore. Mayor Pel hopes it will protect his community from future storm surges.

But not all recovery has been smooth. After Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines government promised to build more than 200,000 houses for Leyte’s storm survivors.

But five years later, critics say not even a quarter of them have been built and many that have are already in a state of disrepair due to poor construction. Villagers who depend on the sea for their livelihoods have been forced to move away from the shore, which has been turned into No Build Zones.

Five years on, Mayor Pel admits storm survivors still need help but insists poverty rates are dropping.

But the Labada brothers say they find it harder to make a living now than when the typhoon hit.


by ”Mariano

on new buildings.”]

During the aftermath, there was aid and assistance. Today, they say they must fend for themselves. They criticise the rebuilding around Tanauan, calling it commercially focused on projects that lock locals out of possible jobs.

“I’m a bit disturbed, the big companies are able to build near the sea. But the poor, whose source of livelihood is there, are being chased out. Development doesn’t help storm survivors because we can’t get jobs [working] on new buildings,” Mariano says.

His brother Elmer gets the odd shift back at the soft drink factory, a wage he desperately needs to support his family.

In the past few years, he has remarried and now has two new children.

“I really, really love my children like my first two children. Of course you need to stand again and start again. What happened was a tragedy, but I’m okay. I’m adjusting to my new life,” he says.

The Philippines remains one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, but despite the dangers, the brothers have rebuilt their home on the same plot of land that Haiyan destroyed.

“I don’t care if another disaster strikes or if this house won’t survive,” says Elmer. “This is where I live.”

Source: Al Jazeera