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The storm

All but defenseless, Philippine towns feel Haiyan’s wrath

© Japan Meteorological Agency

By Molly Bergen + Visuals by Tim Noviello

Editor's note: This story is the first chapter in the series “Turning the tide in ‘Typhoon Alley’,” a Conservation International special report documenting how communities in the Philippines are rebuilding from Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 — and using the power of nature to resist stormier seas.

After days of anxiety-filled storm preparation, it was midmorning when a voice on Susset Enolva’s radio relayed an urgent message: The typhoon approaching her beachside home on the tiny Philippine island of Polopiña (also known as Igbon) had hit “Signal 4,”  promising intense typhoon conditions and winds of more than 185 kilometers (115 miles) an hour.

Enolva and her mother gathered her three young sons and ran through the rain to her uncle’s house nearby. “We took our pots with cooked rice and then our uncooked rice container and some pillows — nothing else … No clothes. Because we were panicking. I couldn’t think straight anymore.”

Soon the roaring winds were toppling trees around her uncle’s house, and the roof began to shake. So the family fled to their last hope for refuge: the village church, where ocean waves were already lapping at the foundations.


“The kids were shivering from the cold … I kept on praying. I thought the coconut tree was going to fall on the church … I was also thinking about the storm surge. If the water got higher, we would be trapped … Where would we go? We would just die here.”

When Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) crashed into the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, it was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall anywhere in the world. The storm killed more than 6,000 people and left more than 4 million displaced, and its legacy is ingrained in the national psyche, leading many Filipinos to frame recent life events in “before” and “after” terms.

Two years later, communities are still recovering, and Enolva and her neighbors are concerned about the possibility of increased frequency and intensity of typhoons under a changing climate.

But these vulnerable villages can’t hold back the raging seas on their own. They need nature’s help.

A ripple effect

Although her family survived, Enolva lost everything else: her house and her possessions were swept out to sea. She now lives in one of a row of blue-painted concrete houses with iron roofs built for the village by Christian Aid, a humanitarian organization. The new houses are designed to withstand winds of up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) an hour, but their proximity to the water’s edge means that their safety is not guaranteed.

In a country of more than 7,000 islands, people’s lives are intimately connected to the ocean. Many live in island barangays (villages) like Enolva’s, which are only accessible by boat. Often backed by steep cliffs, these towns sit almost on the beach, giving residents — most of whom are fishermen — easy access to the water. Countless fishers lost their boats to Haiyan, but the storm’s impacts didn’t stop there.

On the nearby island of Iloilo, Haiyan’s pounding waves decimated coral reefs off the town of Concepcion. “Based on a study conducted by the University of the Philippines Visayas and commissioned by the local government of Concepcion, the storm reduced the coral cover from 70% of the area around Concepcion to 10%,” said Maria Josella Pangilinan, the climate change program manager at Conservation International Philippines.

With their habitat gone, most of the fish have disappeared, requiring fishers to spend more time at sea and farther offshore to bring in smaller catches.

“Before Yolanda, we were able to get four kilos in one day when we went fishing — and we didn’t even have to go far,” said local fisherman Remy Navarro. “After Yolanda, fishing was really difficult, and the situation has not changed even after one year; you fish and only get enough for the family’s consumption. Since Yolanda, people have been depending on relief assistance.”

Here as elsewhere, poorer populations are the first and worst hit by extreme weather events. Typhoons are nothing new to the Philippines — by dint of geography, it is the most exposed country in the world to tropical storms. But the number of annual severe storms has gone up in recent years, from an average of 20 per year to between 24 and 26; five of the country’s 10 deadliest storms have occurred since 2004. A growing tide of research points to global climate change as a driver of stronger storms.

Typhoons are becoming a bigger worry for Filipinos.

“After Yolanda, we feel like … we’re always on alert,” Enolva said. “The typhoons entering the Philippines are getting stronger every time.”

And when the storms come and the waters rise, there is less standing between the communities and the sea.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation International’s blog, Human Nature, where a version of this story was originally published. Tim Noviello is the marketing and communications director of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science.


More chapters in this series