Skip to main content

Typhoon chaser: Water, wicked wind and fire add up to catastrophe in Philippines

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 2:27 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
  • James Reynolds and his production crew arrive in Tacloban just to film the super typhoon
  • They change hotels three times, only to find themselves filming rescues in flooded hotel
  • Water, water, everywhere, yet nary enough to put out a fire in town, he recounts
  • Then, in the blackout after the storm, the sky is afire with lightning and flames

(CNN) -- It was the cruelest of ironies unleashed by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

One of the strongest ever recorded, the storm put the Philippine port city of Tacloban underwater, and storm chaser James Reynolds was there filming the natural disaster at what's been regarded as its ground zero.

Then, when evening fell, the town caught fire.

There was water, water, everywhere -- yet nary enough to put out a fire, Reynolds said.

The surge of sea water was followed by a sea of flames.

A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths. A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths.
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon's path  Typhoon's path
Typhoon's pathTyphoon's path

Interactive map of the storm

The futility -- and absurdity -- of the moment was captured by one merchant using buckets of water against the inferno in his shop.

It was hopeless. The merchant didn't stand a chance, said Reynolds, who's from Oxford, England.

"One block of the city was up in flames, a raging fire was burning uncontrollably," Reynolds said in telephone interview from the Philippines.

"I honestly felt like it was some sort of disaster movie. It was so bad, it didn't seem real. This struck home hard that this was a city in a desolate state," he said.

'Worse than hell'

Nothing else like this storm

Haiyan was the worst storm that Reynolds, 30, has ever chased. Since 2005, he and his Earth Uncut Productions crew have filmed 35 typhoons -- plus a couple of major volcanic eruptions including Mount Merapi in Indonesia in 2010. They also covered the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami in 2011.

"It was without a doubt the most catastrophic event I've witnessed before my eyes," Reynolds said of the super typhoon. "To actually go through a disaster as it takes place and then be there afterward just compares to nothing. It'll probably be the only time in my life."

The experience wasn't without casualties to crew and gear, however.

One team member suffered a six-inch gash down to the bone of his leg, Reynolds said.

So the team managed to get a helicopter ride to the Tacloban airport. Road travel wasn't possible because downed trees and utility poles closed streets.

From the airport, the Philippine military was kind enough to give the film crew a plane ride Saturday to Cebu City, where medical care was available.

The storm also destroyed most of Reynolds' camera gear, so he used a small backup camera and even his iPhone to film the biblical-like flooding of Tacloban -- until his batteries began to die.

Philippines gets more than its share of disasters

The team had no choice but to cut short its extraordinary work in Tacloban.

Reynolds and his crew filmed the height of flooding while at a Tacloban hotel. There, guests on the first floor had to be ferried out of danger while afloat on mattresses, including one elderly woman escorted by good Samaritans wading through the waist-high water.

The first-floor guests couldn't open their doors against the rising water, so they smashed windows to try to exit. A CNN crew assisted; its members also were staying at the hotel.

"It was really put the cameras down, we've got to get out there and help these people. Otherwise possibly they could drown," Reynolds said.

The first-floor guests were taken to higher ground.

"The water was coming in everywhere, even in the heart of the hotel," Reynolds said. "And my camera gave up. All the batteries were drained, and there was no electricity."

'You could feel the whole hotel ... shaking'

Reynolds chose the hotel because it was made of concrete, was about five miles inland and had an elevation of four stories, well above the surge of ocean that was expected to sweep over the coastal city -- and did.

The crew got lucky: they checked into the last available room on the fourth floor. Even if there was no room at the inn, they would have slept in the hallway of the fourth floor, just for the safe refuge, Reynolds said.

"During the height of the storm, the scream of the wind was deafening. We could hear just thunderous crashes of debris flying through the air. At some points, you could feel the whole hotel, which was made of solid concrete, shaking," Reynolds said.

To film the apocalyptic moment, the crew arrived in Tacloban on Thursday from their Hong Kong offices. They initially checked into small waterfront hotel and then moved to a beach resort, but they abandoned both places as they received reports of the impending storm's ferocity.

Tacloban emerges as one of Typhoons Haiyan's most damaged targets

For all their efforts, they found the most cinematic moment in the silence after the super typhoon passed.

It was Friday night, and Reynolds was standing on his hotel's roof.

A blackout enveloped the town.

Then the sky became afire.

"You could see the city skyline illuminated by lighting. The city was up in flames. And it was surreal," Reynolds said.

For all the peril and loss, would Reynolds do it again?

"Yes!" he said.

But not for a while, he added.

How to help survivors

Part of complete coverage on
Typhoon Haiyan
updated 8:12 PM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
A dozen body bags line the street in Tacloban -- one of the towns hardest hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan -- as locals walk through the destruction of what used to be their homes.
updated 3:07 PM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
Cadaver dog teams are on the ground in the Philippines, helping to locate victims still buried in the rubble.
updated 5:02 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
CNN's Airmie Jarin-Bennett, an expat Filipino, returned to her native land after Typhoon Haiyan. Nothing prepared her for what she found there.
updated 11:27 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
As thousands of traumatized typhoon survivors struggled to escape the stricken city of Tacloban, Gina Ladrera was desperate to get back in.
updated 8:49 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
Karl Penhaul reports from the middle of the Tacloban devastation using a drone camera to get a bird's eye view.
updated 12:37 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
The USS George Washington is expected to leave the Philippines once two amphibious ships arrive there Wednesday, officials say.
updated 8:00 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
Australian Jason Day was out on the course at Royal Melbourne on Monday.
The golf community is rallying around Jason Day after it emerged the Australian lost eight members of his family during the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
The aftermath of Haiyan and the need for aid has celebrities working phones and taking donations. Max Foster reports.
updated 11:26 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
As an expression of hard power, they don't come bigger or more fearsome than the USS George Washington.
updated 3:21 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
The tiny, baby girl barely moves as she lies wrapped in a bundle of yellow plastic and green cloth on a peeling brown mattress made for a child far larger than she.
updated 9:04 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
The USS George Washington is on the front lines of the aid mission in the Philippines. CNN's Anna Coren reports.
updated 1:12 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
The day after the typhoon, Father Edwin Bacaltos stepped out of the compound of the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in central Tacloban and began his work.
updated 12:33 AM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
Explore stories from typhoon survivors, relief workers, and officials from eight regions across the Philippines.
updated 6:47 PM EST, Sun November 17, 2013
A distraught mother who lost her young sons in the tidal surge of Super Typhoon Haiyan feels her life is over.
updated 2:45 PM EST, Sun November 17, 2013
This video shows how strong the storm surge was during Super Typhoon Haiyan.
updated 9:02 AM EST, Sun November 17, 2013
CNN's Anna Coren reports from Tacloban's airport as Typhoon Haiyan survivors wait to evacuate.
updated 9:21 AM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
The Philippine govt. is defending its efforts against accusations people there are not getting desperately needed help.
updated 2:21 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
How charities and nongovernmental organizations from around the world are responding to the disaster, and how you can help them make a difference.
updated 6:54 PM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
The storm affected 4.3 million people in 36 provinces and displaced more than 340,000.
updated 6:33 PM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in recorded history, left thousands of victims in its wake.
updated 6:24 PM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
Troops and aid organizations help Filipinos struggling to survive the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in recorded history.
updated 6:59 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
CNN reporters capture sounds and images of Typhoon Haiyan's devastating trek through Tacloban, Philippines.
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
'I was gob-smacked as we made our final approach into the ruins of the airport in Tacloban,' says CNN's Ivan Watson.
updated 9:58 AM EST, Sat December 7, 2013
Flattened forests and flooded villages in the Philippines seen from the air.