Disaster follows disaster
Erik de Castro is Chief Photographer for Reuters in the Philippines. A veteran of disasters and hot-spots across Asia and other parts of the world, he was also Chief Photographer in Baghdad, Iraq from 2006-2009. In the past three weeks he has covered floods and landslides in the Philippines and a huge earthquake in Indonesia.
On Sept. 26, I was driving back from a holiday in the northern Philippines when I heard radio reports of flooding in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. At around 4 p.m. I was in Bulacan province just outside the capital when traffic slowed down due to waist-deep floodwater on the expressway.
Along the side of the highway, I saw residents on the roofs of their houses pulling up others to safety. Others were taking shelter on the elevated highway. Wet and cold, scores of women and children were cramped in a makeshift tent on the roadside.
By the time I was done taking pictures, traffic was at a complete standstill. Floodwater was neck-deep about 250 meters ahead and floods were rising behind so I was effectively stuck. I decided to edit and file my pictures right there, and waited for the water to recede.
Eight hours later, ambulances and trucks were able to pass and I followed suit, reaching home at 3 a.m. after slowly driving past stalled muddy vehicles along the road and mud and garbage strewn streets.
After barely three hours of sleep, I was back at work, this time in Manila proper. On Ortigas Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the upscale Mandaluyong area, I joined a team of rescuers on a rubber boat in chest-deep water. I saw chaos all around, people were frantic. Some had climbed electricity poles and held on to cables, others clung to walls of buildings to avoid being swept away by the flood, and everyone was screaming for help. It was really a terrible scene.
That same morning I proceeded to an upscale residential area, ironically named Provident Subdivision, and saw expensive cars piled up, turned turtle, or lying on their side. Residents who usually wear signature clothes were clearing their houses of flood debris, their faces and clothes all muddy.
The next day, in an area just south of Manila, I saw residents who had given up waiting for rescue boats and improvised their own rafts, using plastic and steel drums and trunks of banana trees.
There was not much time to rest. On Sept 30, a devastating earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra and I was sent there. I reached the city of Padang after a circuitous route through both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, and for five days it was non-stop photographs of death, devastation and despair. The one lighter moment was a colourful wedding of a couple in Padang who had already made all preparations, including food, and decided to go ahead with the ceremony despite the earthquake.
Back in the Philippines, another storm had formed. Typhoon Parma lashed the northern parts of the Philippines and in Pangasinan province, the main highway which I had travelled on a few days earlier turned into a sea. Residents held on to ropes– and to dear life – as they battled the strong current. After trying for three days I was able to get through to the hill town of Baguio and the landslides in different parts of Benguet province. I saw hundreds of policemen all over the landslide area digging earth. One of them told me hopes were high there were people still alive under the earth waiting for rescuers.
I went back to flood-hit areas in Manila a week after for pictures at an evacuation camps. At one, I saw a woman deliver a baby helped by a midwife who was constantly telling her not to have any more children because this was her sixth!
In evacuation camps, you would wonder how despite their misfortune, people still manage to smile as they queued for food and relief goods.
I also reflected on how disasters are dangerous and risky not only for people who are directly affected but also for journalists covering them. In the past several days of covering such situations, I saw the need for practical equipment such as rafts rather than boats, which are not stable, and safety gear such as a good pair of diving shoes to protect the feet from sharp objects while walking in floods, a rubberized diving suit to protect the body from debris, and ropes, harness and carabineers for safety while taking pictures.
I also recognized the importance of the “buddy” system with a colleague. In case something unfortunate happens to one, the other can help or at least seek help. And also, it always helps to assess the situation first before going into coverage so that you avoid ending up a victim.