Skip to main content

Typhoon Haiyan crushed town 'like giant hand from the sky'

From Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Ivan Watson toured the typhoon-devastated region by air
  • Destructive power of storm surge most apparent around city of Tacloban
  • Seen from the air, forests of palm trees flattened, flooded villages
  • Red Cross fears death toll could rise when extent of disaster is fully known

Are you in the affected area? Send us images and video, but please stay safe.

Tacloban, Philippines (CNN) -- I was gob-smacked as we made our final approach into the ruins of the airport in Tacloban -- the first major population center in the Philippines to be struck by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Entire forests of palm trees on hilltops had been flattened by the sheer force of the storm.

I'd never seen anything like it.

It was a sight the other Filipino passengers on our plane had never seen either.

As we got closer to the town we could make out villages, their roads completely flooded. Then Tacloban itself -- it looked completely devastated. It was as if a giant hand had come from the sky and just crushed it.

Map: Typhoon's path  Map: Typhoon's path
Map: Typhoon's pathMap: Typhoon's path
Typhoon survivors desperate for help
Typhoon aftermath 'apocalyptic'
Volunteer 'touched by the generosity'
Aid agencies trying to reach survivors
Groups mobilize to help typhoon victims

READ: Conditions 'worse than hell'

The damage was primarily caused by a wall of ocean water -- a storm surge -- so powerful it had even lifted up ships and tossed them onto dry land -- onto what had been houses.

These scenes brought home the fact that an entire city of more than 200,000 people had been destroyed.

I was on an aerial tour of the storm-hit region with government officials. The scene was pretty overwhelming. You've got people wandering around in a city that's been leveled so they were looking for everything: water, shelter and hot food.

READ: 'Children ripped from arms'

Some were also concerned about lawlessness.

One of the first people I talked to expressed concern about the looting of what hadn't been destroyed by the storm in the town. He was the owner of a local chain of donut shops. He told me people were actually stealing furniture from one of his "Mr. Donut" franchises.

He said he and other property owners were now arming themselves for protection. He also wore a little green whistle around his neck -- they'd been using them as a kind of makeshift alarm system to protect their street.

IN PICTURES: Trail of destruction

"We have firearms, we will shoot within our property," he warned. "We are afraid of being robbed."

Back in the air, we flew west to survey other areas affected by Haiyan.

We saw damage caused by the record high winds -- everywhere you looked houses had lost their roofs -- but the damage was not on the scale of Tacloban because these areas had not been smashed by the wall of Pacific Ocean water during the storm surge.

I spoke to the chairman of the Philippines Red Cross, Richard Gordon. He was concerned about other communities along the eastern coast of the island of Leyte -- where Tacloban is located -- as well as the neighboring island of Samar.

He explained this was where U.S. General Douglas MacArthur chose to land his allied forces during World War II because of its easy access from the Pacific, which explains why it was also vulnerable to the tsunami-like effects of the storm surge.

READ: Why does the Philippines get hit so hard?

He told me he was afraid many other communities were also hit but couldn't give estimates of casualties at this point due to the difficulties accessing many parts of this region.

He said aid workers were in shock because they'd seen so many dead bodies already.

When you have whole communities destroyed, it's important to note that the first responders -- often from these same areas, they are also victims. That dramatically hampers the rescue effort because your policeman, fireman, ambulance man have also probably suffered enormous losses and are themselves in shock and trying to cope.

There are so many unknowns at this stage -- such as how many people could have been sucked back out to sea during the storm surge.

The Philippines Civil Aviation director I traveled with -- a former air force commander -- told me the local air force base commander in Tacloban was swept out to sea. Remarkably, he was found on another island hours later and is now recovering in hospital.

But in many areas the scene is depressing because it's clear the more rudimentary the construction of the housing, the more vulnerable they are to the force of the elements. The poorest people are always the hardest hit. What little they have is gone and they don't know where to turn to.

READ: How you can help

Tacloban is a small place in relative terms to the rest of the Philippines, but you're still talking about around 200,000 people made homeless in a matter of hours.

There are already signs of recovery in some areas less affected by the typhoon, as people set about rebuilding their homes and businesses.

At the same time -- even though they were away from the storm surge -- many of these people -- even those in their 60s and 70s -- say this was the worst storm they'd ever witnessed, and this is a country accustomed to at least 20 typhoons a year.

While the government issued warnings to evacuate ahead of the typhoon, no-one anticipated a storm that could generate a wall of water powerful enough to break through the sea wall protecting the airport in Tacloban.

It literally smashed open stretches of the seawall and washed away concrete buildings. That's something new for this country -- a country that is no a stranger to typhoons and even earthquakes.

ADVERTISEMENT
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.
ADVERTISEMENT