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Witnessing a disaster: A journalist shares her experience covering the Yolanda aftermath

The smell of death still lingers in the mind of Cebu-based journalist Carmel Loise Matus as she recalls the first time she stepped into Tacloban City airport after Typhoon Yolanda ripped through Leyte in November 2013. 

Ang baho sa lugar, dili masabtan (The smell coming from dead bodies, it’s hard to describe),” says Matus, who was then a reporter of the Visayas Bureau of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Matus was dispatched to Tacloban in the immediate aftermath of the super typhoon’s devastation. 

She cannot forget other things as well. Corpses scattered everywhere. Some hanging from trees. Storm survivors resorting to looting establishments for food and clothes. Long lines of people desperate to board a Philippine Air Force C-130aircraft to escape the misery and hopelessness that gripped Eastern Visayas. 

One of the strongest typhoons on record, Yolanda, battered the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, and left a trail of destruction in 175 cities and towns in 14 provinces in six regions. 

More than 6,000 people died in the aftermath of the storm.

Ten years on, Matus – now a reporter and anchor of the state-run Radyo Pilipinas – shares her experience covering one of the deadliest typhoons to hit the country, and how witnessing Yolanda’s aftermath in Tacloban City changed her as a journalist and individual.

A mother is breastfeeding her baby on what used to be the baggage carousel inside the storm-hit Tacloban City airport. This was one of the scenes that met Carmel Loise Matus upon her arrival at the Tacloban City airport in 2013, when she was covering the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.((PIA-7/Photo courtesy of Carmel Loise Matus)
Massive destruction 

Before Yolanda struck in 2013, Matus had long been reporting about disasters. 

She wrote about the bus accident that killed 21 Iranians in Balamban, Cebu in June 2010 and the collision of two ships off the waters of Talisay City, Cebu in August 2013 that left more than 30 people dead. She also stayed in Bohol for a month to cover the destruction caused by the earthquake that struck the island on October 15, 2013. 

Although she was no stranger to reporting on disasters, Matus remembers feeling overwhelmed by the destruction she saw in Tacloban City. 

“During the Bohol earthquake, the debris wasn’t that much. But in Tacloban, I was overwhelmed by the destruction. I couldn’t even manage to take pictures of the bloated bodies out of respect for the victims,” recalls Matus. 

She clearly remembers seeing the lifeless body of a baby by the roadside. “The bodies were still uncollected at that time. I think the government forces were mainly focused on restoring peace and order first in the area,” she says.

No appetite for food 

After receiving the call from her editor that she was to go to Tacloban City, Matus packed essential items for five days. Anticipating the worst, she packed medicines, fried chicken, canned goods, cup noodles, and bread as part of her personal provisions in an assignment that was supposed to last for only five days.

But Matus would soon find out that eating in the middle of a disaster zone posed a challenge. She had no appetite for food amid the stench coming from rotting corpses. She also could not muster eating while surrounded by storm survivors who have not eaten for days.

Ikaw nag-kaon unya sila nga mga taga didto, nag tan-aw nimo. Makiramdam na lang ka sa imong palibot (It’s hard to eat when you’re surrounded by the victims. You would also want to show compassion and commiserate with those around you),” she says. 

Aside from the meager food supplies, the internet and electricity were cut off in the city. Matus had to get creative in securing a signal to communicate to the outside world.

 “You have to climb the highest part of the grandstand to get a signal. But this is for text messages only, no calls unless you have a satellite phone,” she recalls.

Journalist Carmel Loise Matus holding the abandoned puppy she found leashed near the multicab where she slept overnight during her coverage of the Yolanda aftermath in Tacloban City in November 2013. (PIA-7/Photo courtesy of Carmel Loise Matus)
Kindness in the middle of the disaster

Matus says she will never forget the kindness of strangers, who  helped her survive Tacloban City. 

“There was one time we went out looking for anyone who could sell us food. We came across a family who offered to share their food because, according to them, they knew how it feels to be hungry,” she shares. 

A couple also gave her a ride on her way to Ormoc City, some 50 kilometers away from Tacloban City, and  dropped her off near the port where she could  get  boat tickets for her trip back to Cebu. 

Matus recalls feeling sick at that time after five days of coverage in Tacloban City. 

“This couple pointed me to a pension house where they said media people are staying. They told me to just tell the owner that I’m part of the media. Strangers were kind to me,” says Matus. 

She also remembers the resilient spirit of the Yolanda victims during her coverage. Their smiling faces in the middle of a disaster made her experience worthwhile. 

“They can still manage to smile despite what they were going through. That was the time I thought it was worth it to go there. You get the picture of what is happening on the ground, and you get to share their stories with other parts of the country and the world,” says Matus. 

Upon arriving back in Cebu City, the first thing she did was eat at a fast food chain at the I.T. Park. “I ordered the largest size of Coke, with lots of ice,” she said. 

Matus explains the relief that washed over her being back safely in her hometown. 

“It felt comforting. I thanked God that my family is safe, that we haven’t been hit hard by the storm,” she adds. 

She also met up with her friends to talk about her experience as a form of de-briefing and de-stressing. “In a way, my outlet at that time was my friends who listened to my experiences during the coverage,” says Matus.

Carmel Loise Matus hosts the “Government on Line” program over Radyo Pilipinas Cebu, where she now works. She says her experience covering the Yolanda aftermath in Tacloban City has changed her as a journalist and individual.(Photo courtesy of Carmel Loise Matus)
‘No story is worth dying for’

Witnessing the aftermath of Yolanda has given Matus some life lessons that changed her as a journalist and as an individual. One of them is the realization that no story is worth dying for.

“While we understand that it is work, our bureau chief has always emphasized to us, that safety first. Your number one priority is your safety,” says Matus. 

She has also become more sensitive in her reporting, especially when reporting on disasters. 

“You need to be sensitive in your stories about people because it’s a disaster area. The least you can do is to be sensitive to others. Dili ra ka pataka ug interview, kalit ra ka ug record diha, kalit ra ka take ug photos or videos (Don’t just interview, or record interviews, or take photos and videos without asking for consent),” Matus says.

Tips for covering disasters

Matus shares three survival tips for journalists who will be covering disasters:

  • Bawal ang arte (Don’t be nitpicky). During her Yolanda coverage, Matus said she slept anywhere - an abandoned multicab, on the bleachers in the grandstand, or inside a classroom. She also advised reporters not to be choosy with their food. She survived for five days straight eating sardines. 
  • Stay alert. Reporters should not panic easily and keep calm and cool in the middle of untoward incidents. 
  • Never be complacent. “You never know the agenda of other people,” said Matus. Although she has not had a personal experience with this, she advised reporters to be on their guard as not all disaster victims have pure intentions. 

About the Author

Rachelle Nessia

Assistant Regional Head

Region 7

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