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How to get from Manila to Tacloban... in 31 hours

By Andrew Stevens, CNN
updated 3:04 AM EST, Sun December 7, 2014
CNN's Andrew Stevens manages a smile despite having to board a helicopter after several hours of commercial flight delays -- as a huge typhoon made its way toward the Philippines. CNN's Andrew Stevens manages a smile despite having to board a helicopter after several hours of commercial flight delays -- as a huge typhoon made its way toward the Philippines.
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Planes, blades and automobiles
No clear skies here
Abandoning the flight
Two more hours on the road
Hello Tacloban
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Andrew Stevens was trying to get to Tacloban ahead of Typhoon Hagupit
  • After multiple flight cancellations, he chartered a helicopter then rustled up a van from locals
  • Trip normally takes 90 minutes with a direct flight from Manila
  • Tacloban suffered the brunt of Super Typhoon Haiyan 13 months ago

Manila to Tacloban, the Philippines (CNN) -- The weather forecasters had warned that Hagupit was one of the most unpredictable storms in memory.

Three of the world's leading weather agencies came up with three different paths for the storm as it slowly, but relentlessly, bore down on the Philippines packing winds in excess of 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph).

For me, that unpredictability turned traveling from Manila to Tacloban from a routine 90-minute flight into a 31-hour slog.

I needed to be there to cover the typhoon's impact on a town traumatized by the impact of Super Typhoon Haiyan last year.

It looked pretty simple at the beginning. Jump on the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong, head straight for domestic departures, where I would then board a flight to Tacloban -- a flight of little more than an hour.

People seek refuge inside a temporary evacuation center in Quezon City, Philippines, on Tuesday, December 9. Typhoon Hagupit tore apart homes and sent waves crashing through coastal communities across the eastern Philippines. People seek refuge inside a temporary evacuation center in Quezon City, Philippines, on Tuesday, December 9. Typhoon Hagupit tore apart homes and sent waves crashing through coastal communities across the eastern Philippines.
Typhoon Hagupit hits Philippines
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Typhoon Hagupit hits Philippines Typhoon Hagupit hits Philippines
Typhoon Hagupit drenches Philippines
Typhoon Hagupit hits the Philippines
Typhoon Hagupit's projected path

Except it wasn't.

TYPHOON TRACKER: Follow Hagupit

Planes...

10:30 a.m. came and went with no sign of a boarding call. I began to meet other journalists waiting for the same flight who were equally at a loss as to what was happening.

We were eventually approached by a Philippines Airlines manager, apologizing profusely. "Technical difficulties" had apparently grounded the aircraft but we were assured there would be another flight at 1.30 p.m.

All other flights to different parts of the Philippines were on schedule, so we were confident about this next take-off time. But as the time approached, no boarding call came. A brief announcement informed us the flight was canceled because of continuing "technical difficulties."

And so it went. Another airlines staff member presented us with new boarding passes for a 3.45 p.m. flight. Fifteen minutes before departure we were sitting patiently on the airport bus waiting to be taken out to the apron and it looked as if we would finally be on our way.

But the bus didn't move. We sat for 30 minutes until another announcement of another delay. We trudged back to the boarding gate, very frustrated. Other routes were being discussed but all ferries had been canceled and the direct flight still looked the best bet.

More than an hour later we learned that all flights were canceled because of the weather conditions in Tacloban. We appeared to be stuck where the story wasn't.

READ: Relief as typhoon spares Tacloban

Blades...

And so to Plan B. A hasty conference call with the Hong Kong news desk and a new plan: Charter a light aircraft.

Initial indications were good. A private operator thought they could get a few of us into Tacloban at first light Saturday. The final decision on weather conditions would be made at 4 a.m. At the appointed time the news came through: Conditions were too dangerous to risk it.

Another call to Hong Kong and we decided that it could be possible to fly to Cebu and take the short hop to Tacloban by helicopter. I boarded my flight at 11 a.m. and was on the island inside the hour to be met by the helicopter crew.

I knew I was in good hands when I met my pilot, retired military man Col. Andy Largo. His flying career included flying four former Philippine presidents around the country, as well as the late Pope John Paul II.

He had already flown two sorties that morning to Tacloban but my anxieties grew as he described the flights. He was forced to touch down early on both journeys because of the conditions -- and they were growing worse by the hour.

The biggest worry, he said, were strong wings that could literally break the rotor blades. If we encountered excessive winds he would reduce the flying speed and edge ahead, waiting for a break in the weather.

I was his only passenger but he took along an engineer to help "just in case." I buckled into the front seat next to Col. Largo and off we went into a murky cloud-filled sky.

It was surprisingly smooth. We flew at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet over a white-capped sea, towards increasingly thick clouds. Our pilot seemed unworried until we got to the tip of Leyte Island and the town of Beybey, which lies at the foot of a range of mountains separating us from Tacloban.

One look at the cloud ahead and he tapped me on the arm and indicated the flight had come to an end. We put down on a playing field and I jumped out.

And automobiles..

I was soon surrounded by a group of locals, who managed to rustle up a van. Ten minutes later we on the road driving along a virtually deserted road in heavy rain, towards the mountains and Tacloban.

It took two hours to make the 100 kilometer (62 mile) journey.

At 4 p.m., 31 hours after touching down in Manila, I finally arrived at my destination.

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Part of complete coverage on
Typhoon Hagupit
Get the latest satellite images and data as CNN tracks Typhoon Hagupit.
updated 9:01 PM EST, Sat December 6, 2014
CNN reporters Saima Mohsin and Andrew Stevens report from Legapzi and Tacloban amid heavy rain, wind.
updated 8:58 PM EST, Sat December 6, 2014
CNN Meteorologist Tom Sater tracks the path of Typhoon Hagupit as it drenches the Philippines.
updated 1:14 AM EST, Sun December 7, 2014
The typhoon sends thousands of people into shelters amid pouring rain that heightens the risk of flooding and landslides.
updated 9:10 PM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Powered by ferocious winds, Typhoon Hagupit is whipping towards central Philippines and could affect the same area hit by the deadly Typhoon Haiyan just 13 months ago.
updated 7:57 PM EST, Thu December 4, 2014
A year after Haiyan ravaged Tacloban, its residents again prepare for a huge storm. CNN affiliate 9TV reports.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Thu December 4, 2014
Typhoon Hagupit is bearing down on the Philippines. Meteorologist Tom Sater looks at where it might make landfall.
updated 10:58 AM EST, Fri November 7, 2014
Filmmaker and Philippine native Jeff Manibay shares his personal story of surviving Typhoon Haiyan.
updated 7:37 PM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
Meteorologist Tom Sater looks back at the chaos brought by Typhoon Haiyan one year after it devastated the Philippines.
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.
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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 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 12:33 AM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
Explore stories from typhoon survivors, relief workers, and officials from eight regions across the Philippines.
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This video shows how strong the storm surge was during Super Typhoon Haiyan.
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The storm affected 4.3 million people in 36 provinces and displaced more than 340,000.
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