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A decade after Typhoon Haiyan: reflections from a survivor

In early November 2013, a massive storm called Typhoon Haiyan swept through Palau, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam. The storm’s high winds, rains, and coastal surges killed thousands of people, with the central Philippines being one of the worst affected. On the 10th anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, the author of this piece, who survived the storm, reflects on what went wrong and how disaster planning can be made more effective and inclusive.

Ara Joy Pacoma / Published on 7 November 2023

Vehicles collide due to storm surge caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Bakdaw Balangkayan.

I vividly recall the days leading up to Typhoon Haiyan’s landfall. The skies were clear, and life in the central Philippines was business as usual. There was no hint of impending danger except that the government storm warnings had led to people rushing into supermarkets to hurriedly stock up on supplies.

As dawn broke in my city of Tacloban on November 8, 2013, our world suddenly seemed transformed. The calm winds morphed into a violent tempest that started tearing through our homes and communities. The shelter we sought refuge in, which we imagined was impregnable, proved no match for the relentless onslaught of Haiyan.

For six agonizing hours, we endured the fury of Haiyan. There was zero visibility, but a screeching cacophony pummeled us as the high-speed winds arced around. My entire family, along with my aunt and cousin, decided to evacuate to my uncle’s house on the evening of November 7, 2013. We believed it to be a haven, as past experiences had shown it to be in a relatively non-flooded area, nearly two kilometers from our home. As the mighty winds relentlessly whistled a haunting tune outside, a sudden blackout plunged us into darkness. The windows began to shatter, and the doors creaked under the tremendous force of the wind. In the midst of the chaos, the roof of the bathroom gave way, forcing us to huddle together in one room, seeking refuge and safety. Our hearts were heavy with fear, and as we clung to each other, I distinctly remember my cousin, her voice trembling, whispering, “Will we make it out of this alive?” Time seemed to stretch endlessly, and it felt as though fear had engulfed us entirely, leaving us to confront the uncertainty of our fate.

When the storm finally subsided, we ventured outside, only to be met with a scene of unimaginable devastation. The streets of Tacloban were covered with mud and debris from the floodwaters. Many huge trees lay uprooted. The mountains, once cloaked in lush greenery, were transformed by Haiyan force into a somber and desolate landscape, painted in a depressing brown shade. But our nightmare was far from over. We heard the news that thousands had perished. Many more thousands who survived were desperately searching for food, water, and basic necessities. Our city was a mass of suffering and pandemonium.

All telephone lines were severed so we were cut off from the outside. Survivors desperate for food had started looting shops for supplies. Eventually, after two weeks aid arrived. But, for too many, it came far too slow or too late. We took weeks to clear the debris and bury the dead.

Strong winds and storm surge during Typhoon Haiyan. Video: Nic Jan Castillo.

Recovering from the disaster

The process of recovery was a challenging path, marked not only by the emotional burden of our losses but also by the uncertainty that loomed over our future. We were plagued by questions: Can we truly recover? Will life ever return to the way it was before? What does ‘normal’ mean now, and how will it manifest itself? Can those who suffered the loss of loved ones, and the destruction of their homes find the strength to rebuild their lives?

But amidst the suffering, I also witnessed the remarkable fortitude of Tacloban’s residents as we helped each other, willingly sharing whatever little we had. There was an outpouring of support and solidarity from people worldwide. This spirit of unity became our wellspring of resilience.

In the years that followed, I had the privilege of working as a research assistant to several disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster resilience projects in Tacloban. This helped me learn about the worsening impacts of climate change but also saw how local communities, especially marginalized groups (e.g., women, children, differently-abled persons, elderly) were increasingly vulnerable.

This sparked a desire within me to contribute to tangible solutions. I pursued a career in applied research, delving into DRR and climate change adaptation. The experience of being part of a community at risk and witnessing countless individuals and organizations working to reduce the impacts of disasters and to help people adapt, build resilience, and seek policy solutions, has given me strength to continue my work.

Through my work, I gained a unique perspective on disaster response and recovery. I saw the dedication of local communities but also recognized areas needing improvement.


A survivor searches for salvageable material among heaps of rubble after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall. Photo: Benjie Pacoma.

First, there were instances of inadequate coordination and communication between different organizations, especially during the emergency response phase. Tacloban’s city government, overwhelmed by the influx of aid groups, struggled to maintain effective communication. As a result, governmental and non-governmental organizations often operated independently, rather than in harmony.  Second, transitioning from humanitarian response to recovery and resilience also presented challenges, particularly in funding and incorporating local voices. Disaster resilience frameworks often overlook the practical input of affected communities, leading to a top-down approach that may not effectively address local needs and priorities.

Finally, the term “bayanihan” is often evoked to celebrate the resilience of the Filipino community in the aftermath of disasters. While it embodies the spirit of unity, it should not serve as the exclusive policy response. Overreliance on it might shift the focus away from the vital functions of government institutions and humanitarian organizations.

Despite these challenges, I’ve seen greater progress in disaster planning and preparedness in our region. There were lessons learned from Haiyan, prompting improvements in the use of hazard prediction. For instance, storm surge alerts are now issued that not only specify wave heights but also predict how far inland the flooding will extend.

This change was necessary because, during Typhoon Haiyan, both the public and local authorities struggled to grasp the enormity of the storm, as people had lived through destructive storms before. Additionally, local authorities understand that disaster risks are evolving, and there is a necessity to adapt and strengthen its disaster management capabilities. They are doing this, for instance, by keeping their disaster plans up to date with the newest information, technology, and ways of managing disasters.

Nonetheless, as climate change becomes an even more tangible threat, the need to adopt a more inclusive approach in DRR cannot be emphasized enough. The insights we have gained from our responses to disasters like Typhoon Haiyan and subsequent reconstruction endeavors should serve as invaluable guiding principles.

We must prioritize inclusive development that takes into account the needs and vulnerabilities of all members of our communities. The most effective way to address their needs is by understanding them.

It is not merely a choice but an absolute necessity if we intend to equip future generations with the tools to confront the potentially irreversible consequences of climate change and the many more Typhoon Haiyans that seem inevitable in the coming decades.

The Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has provided unequivocal confirmation that climate change is currently impacting every corner of our planet, and these impacts are projected to become more extensive, rapid, and severe. Specifically, in the Asia Pacific region, climate change is foreseen to amplify the frequency and severity of climate-related hazards.

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Ara Joy Pacoma
Ara Joy Pacoma

Research Associate

SEI Asia

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