LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
We always send reporters to disasters such as last month's typhoon in the Philippines and the logistics are rarely easy, but it can also be difficult for other, more personal reasons. NPR's Jason Beaubien and NPR photographer David Gilkey have covered many of the calamities of the last decade from the earthquake in Haiti to the Japanese tsunami and the nuclear incident that followed in 2011.
Jason says he still struggles to convey the surreal experience of stepping off a comfortable commercial airliner and stepping into chaos. He sent us this audio diary of their recent trip to the Philippines.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It felt like we were in a dream. It was the middle of the night. David Gilkey and I were lying under a tarp next to the runway at Tacloban airport. U.S. Marine cargo planes kept rumbling over us all night long. A few hours earlier, we arrived here in the back of one of those C-130 aircraft.
DAVID GILKEY, BYLINE: This is bizarre. You just lay here all night long. Every hour you hear that incoming flight. Sort of wakes you up, but you're tired, sleep through it.
BEAUBIEN: We'd spend the night before at a Holiday Inn in the Philippine capital. It could've been a Holiday Inn anywhere, in Minneapolis as easily as Manila. Now, we were here in a city that had just been obliterated by one of the most powerful storms ever recorded.
Filipino soldiers were sleeping in and under helicopters 50 feet away from us, people wandered through the darkness. Barrels of jet fuel were strewn all around us. The whole thing felt post-apocalyptic.
GILKEY: The most bizarre thing was last night was getting off that plane. 'Cause you got off the plane and you walked over to the terminal, which you could clearly see there was some sort of light on the other side of it so it was all back-lit like a haunted house. And you realize there's probably, what, a thousand people cowering underneath plastic because it was raining, just huddling there. I turned on my headlamp and all I saw were eyes. Did you see that?
BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Really weird.
GILKEY: I've never come in anywhere where - like, even in Haiti where - Haiti we sort of knew where to go to set up a base. And this really was - we still don't have the foggiest idea what we are going to do.
BEAUBIEN: Even before daybreak, the airport buzzed with activity. Filipino and American soldiers driving forklifts shuffled pallets of rice, tarps and clothes on the tarmac. The refugees still huddled by the remnants of the airport terminal, waiting, trying to get on a flight out. So it's Friday morning at 7:30 and we've hitched a ride with Reuters in the back of their pickup truck that we're driving from the airport into the city.
And the destruction between the airport and the central city is just amazing. I mean, I can't believe that anyone survived who stayed here.
WOLFORD AVEA: I was here in the height of the typhoon. I was prepared. I have all, plus lights, food, everything.
BEAUBIEN: Wolford Avea(ph) was luckier than many of the other victims of typhoon Haiyan. At least his house hasn't collapsed.
AVEA: But because of the surge, all our food were drowned and then our rice. We could not eat anymore.
BEAUBIEN: Everything was destroyed, all the food was destroyed.
AVEA: Yeah, yes, food, everything.
BEAUBIEN: His biggest concern was how, without any clean water, he was going to clean up the huge muddy mess that used to be his home. Everything was in short supply for us. There was no fuel, no food, no rooms, no cars to rent. So we rented a single motorcycle. It's about around 10:00 in the morning now. David and I have rented a 125 motorcycle with the driver.
The two of us are going around the town squeezed onto the back of this motorcycle. But that's how we're driving around. Dead bodies wrapped in sheets had been placed by the side of the road for somebody to pick up. The distinct smell of rotting human flesh fouled the air. Can we go in there?
David had spotted a collapsed cigarette warehouse. Visually, it was spectacular. People were scurrying across a landscape of shattered concrete and brightly-colored cigarette packets searching for salvageable smokes. The atmosphere was almost festive, like a treasure hunt. This had become the new normal. You know, recently, there's been this genre of art, in which artists go to really poor countries and they ask people to bring out in front of their hut all of their worldly possessions.
This typhoon has sort of done the same thing. It's come in and wrecked everything and then everyone now is like dumping all of their worldly goods out onto the street in front of their house. There's something strangely sort of intimate about it. And then, after a week, David and I ended up back at the storm ravaged airport. Hundreds of people were still huddled next to the terminal waiting for military flights out.
We fought out way through crowds to get on a commercial jet to Manila. A couple of hours later we were back in the capital. I took a hot shower at the hotel and then collapsed on the bed watching an NBA basketball game on TV. On the Delta flight back to JFK, the food and the movies were the same as on the flight in. I was back in the world of normal, and it felt odd to be there.
WERTHEIMER: That was NPR's Jason Beaubien.
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