Living in Typhoon Country

In the Philippines, climate change intesifies already extreme weather

Typhoon Ruby hit the Philippines on December 6th, 2014. One million people were evacuated as the storm brewed. Still, by the time the wind and rain had died down, more than 20 were confirmed dead, tens of thousands of homes had been damaged or destroyed, and millions of dollars worth of crops had been ruined.

It will take months to repair the damage, but Ruby was a spring shower compared to last year’s Yolanda which killed more than 6,000 and left millions homeless or displaced.

Photojournalist Veejay Villafranca has been shooting in the Phillipines, his home country, since 2006. His project Signos (whose pictures appear here) is an attempt to bring awareness to the lives of refugees after the emergency crews leave and what he sees as an inadequate government response.

At first covering typhoons was just a day at the office, but in 2009 a series of vicious cyclones rocked the country. People who typically escaped the full fury of nature found themselves in the midst of a disaster, including the 12 million people living around the capital.

“Typhoon Ondoy struck near home and paralyzed Metro Manila for a few days, leaving over 700 people dead and thousands who used to live near waterways displaced,” says Villafranca. “And then it was followed by Typhoon Pepeng, and then an intense monsoon season a few months after.”

Villafranca filed images of crisis and ruination. He photographed relief work and newly homeless Filipinos standing in front of their destroyed homes. He knew that it was only half of the story — that once the initial emergency had been dealt with people devastated by the typhoon would slip into depression and post-traumatic disorders.

By then the international media would have moved on to the next big story, and he wanted to find a way to show the long-lasting effects of enduring the worsening storms, and by extension the human face of climate change.

Weather is extreme in the Philippines. The annual monsoon can dump nearly 200 inches on portions of the country and the islands are assailed by tropical cyclones every year, but as seas warm and patterns shift storms are growing stronger and the season is lasting longer. Coastal towns, especially in the east, are ravaged and places outside the traditional path of typhoons are now being flooded.

Villafranca’s grandfather worked for a national paper and his father prepared media for the government housing agency. During university Villafranca got his start with the newsweekly Philippines Graphic, a position he landed with no experience and only a crash course in reporting from his dad when he interviewed. They hired him for a six month probationary period and he stayed for four years.

“I cherish how my father would emphasize the value of information and how to absorb and use it,” Villafranca says. “I think that’s one of the main driving forces that I have now in my job, how to transcend information that I was entrusted with so that it can stir opinions, formulate discussions and hopefully move people.”

Dropping the editorial photography approach once Ondoy receded from the world’s memory, Villafranca focused on refugees who had decamped from the countryside for the cities. His particular interest was seeing how the Philippines, a country on the frontline of climate change by virtue of geography, was working to implement protections against future crises.

The reality was that endemic government corruption and dysfunction had led to haphazard urban development and widespread poverty, neither of which would help people weather the next storm.

Typhoon Yolanda was one of the strongest recorded storms to ever make landfall, tearing across the Philippines on November 7th, 2013 and leaving horrific devastation in its wake. Villafranca watched from Amsterdam where he was attending the 2013 Joop Swart Masterclass.

Even when he returned home it took several weeks to pick up an assignment which would send him into the worst hit towns. By the time he arrived roads had been cleared enough for relief trucks but teams were still collecting bodies. Survivors and agency workers showed him around and kept him up to date with the evolving tallies of missing, displaced and dead.

Entire cities lay in ruins, but as always the public face of Yolanda were stoic men and women dusting off their hands and getting to work. In photos and on TV plucky survivors got to work with stiff upper lips, nearly robotic in their uniform response to having their lives torn apart.

“I was saddened by the general public view of the idea of resilience,” says Villafranca. “Everyone was beaming resilience and it felt disrespectful to the survivors and those who lost their loved ones. And to add icing to the cake, there was a music video of a famous singer’s R&B song using the rubble of Tacloban as a backdrop.”

As I shot different scenarios of floods, relief, displacement, covering it from a news angle, as some news wire agencies called and also news publications, I suddenly remembered why I went freelance. To look at issues with a more inquisitive eye. To have a wider scope of the story and exhaust all angles and think of a different creative approach to the story.

Villafranca continued to make trips to the hardest hit regions, spending time in emergency shelters packed with thousands. After the initial recovery work wound down and the news cameras wandered off, rumination and desperation finally settled in. People had lost family, homes, jobs, everything, and now there was nothing but time in which to feel the heartache and despair.

This is the psychological toll that the world hardly sees, and that those who are “resilient” are left with each day when dust of all the aid workers and media has settled. The trauma and depression that they battle, forced to work odd jobs in order to survive. Initially people are smiling and accommodating while they tend to their daily chores. But once you sit them down, the avalanche of emotions pours out, often expressed in a stream of tears and sense of disbelief.

Once true feelings had been laid bare Villafranca was surprised to see strength and optimism remained. But personally he felt shame. Not just upset with the idea that everyone wanted to be too tough to cry, but with the fact that the same people will have their lives turned upside down again and again, with little effort being made on a national level to deal with the fact that stronger storms would come more frequently.

Most of all he’s ashamed by the government’s immediate response to Yolanda. International aid groups hit the ground running while local officials hid behind press releases or seized the opportunity for politicking.

While the government manages to avoid putting together a plan of action Villafranca has become a proponent of alternative fuels and cuts to carbon emissions. He’s not certain that Signos will find a place in the national conversation about preparing for the future, but he does hope to have a book out in time for the 2015 UN conference on climate change in Paris.

Between storms, refugee camps and the survivors Villafranca has been focusing on issues of faith and religion. He recently completed a project on terminally-ill patients, inspired by the recent loss of his father to cancer. He continues to take editorial assignments but has no desire to return to the daily grind of a salaried reporter.

All photos by Veejay Villafranca

All typhoons in this article are referred to by the name used in the Philippines.

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