From Journalist to Relief Worker: Santa Cruz Cameraman Has Revelation in the Philippines

Alekz Londos, a Cabrillo journalism student whose work has been featured on CNN, went from reporter to rescue worker

by Alekz Londos

How do I write out this story? 

I’m sure I could write you a great documentary of my own adventure from my personal perspective, leaving the country with only $44.72 after an airport fee (in exchange for 2000 pesos) maxed out my credit cards on a round trip ticket to the Philippines for three weeks ….or do I write this story from the voice of a journalist collecting facts or bias information as other reporters working for a major organization or corporation (for profit and financial gain) trying to express, describe what really happened here?

 I chose to write this story from the view of an activist expressing my anger and disappointment in the major corporations, and the industrialized nations from an environmental perspective.

I withdrew from my classes at Cabrillo College with this drastic idea I was going to leave California and fly across the world by myself. I was a volunteer, a single resource to help with the humanitarian relief efforts in an attempt to support and stabilize the country in the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda not knowing what to expect in this underdeveloped, partially industrialized country.

I arrived in Cebu then flew out the next morning on a Swedish Military C-130. It would be the first plane to land in the Ormoc airport since it shutdown before the storm. I traveled from the airport on foot by myself, further into the unpredictable city. The local government officials told me the main thing that this city now needed was diesel fuel to get operational. I went eastward with local villagers, a long difficult drive in a small van over and around debris and washed out roads across Leyte Island, through mountains covered with uprooted or snapped palm trees before arriving in the city of Tacloban.

With the equipment and supplies I brought in a backpack, I helped give first aid and medical attention to hundreds of victims, the seemingly endless task of cleaning, bandaging infected lacerations and puncture wounds.

 I independently carried and distributed food, clothes and cases of water from city hall (staging area) to those who needed it the most before distribution from any organization was in place. I helped with debris removal for tent deployment with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). I worked with French firefighters and Filipino search and rescue teams doing body recovery.

I had the honor and privilege of meeting with the mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez, and temporarily worked with the Philippine Navy as a consultant offering advice, helped with loading of military supply convoys and flew on multiple helicopter airdrop missions with food and clean water into remote villages. 

I helped deliver a baby, transported medical patients and medical supplies. I helped saved the life of a tetanus patient after successfully preforming an emergency tracheotomy procedure. We operated without proper surgical instruments in a damaged hospital that was filled over capacity (short staffed without a surgeon or doctor) our patient was suffering from multiple deep infected lacerations, and a punctured lung. We utilized the broken equipment, and few medical supplies we had. This was Tacloban, ground zero.

The only three roads entering and leaving Tacloban were inaccessible by vehicle. Debris, miles of cars, trees, power lines, parts of houses and collapsed buildings blocked access to victims, and the transport and distribution of relief aid. Heavy machinery, fuel and manpower were needed before the roads could be cleared. Even if the roads were cleared, they only led to another destroyed region, for hundreds of miles in any direction.

The main airport known as DZR sits at an elevation of 9’10” (3m), was not operational. Debris needed to be cleared from the runway, there were no working runway lights, the tarmac was unsecured, communications were down, and the flight control tower was damaged. The first flights were small planes limited in cargo capacity, only had visual navigation and no air traffic controller.

The Port of Tacloban in the Cancabato Bay stands at an elevation of 3.3 feet (1m). Before vessels could dock, communications had to be repaired and the port needed to be secured so cargo and supplies could be offloaded. During the storm, ten massive vessels anchored at the port were dislodged, blown across the bay, and beached further inland. 

Regardless of the port’s condition, first, donations and funding had to be available for an action plan to be implemented. Manpower, recourses, logistics, and loading of supplies need to be organized before a ship can depart with aid and then it would take vessels 48-72 hours to sail from even the closest countries.

Right now I stand in this drastic change in time, in history, in my lifetime. I am witness to people from every side of the world that can now feel the effects of our climate changing: hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, drought, forest fires, record temperatures, melting glacial icecaps and our deteriorating eco systems when this can be prevented. 

We are creating the future right now. These are the super storms scientists predicted decades ago would come if we didn’t change into a caring society and transition into a sustainable world. This is the direct result of our over-consuming society wasting resources, dependent on fossil fuel, buying and owning things we don’t need, killing off our wildlife and polluting our environment when every one of us has the responsibility every day to make conscious choices on the way we live our life, from the companies we support, through the things we buy, even to the choices we make on how we choose to spend our life that will impact our world. I am an influence of change.

 I was witness to the unimaginable widespread destruction of this catastrophic super storm. Documenting and assessing the damage, I made my way through destroyed oceanfront neighborhoods over piles of unstable, twisted debris. Locals not accustomed to seeing an American in this region of the island watched me, followed me, and constantly approached me, asking me where was I from, when is help going to arrive, we need medicine, we need food and clean water. I saw people suffering, saw children suffering, people begging for food and water. 

Some people were still struggling emotionally, desperately digging through debris searching for their missing or deceased family members. I tried to give them hope, assuring them that more help was on the way from countries all over the world. I then realized that the victims of this disaster were dependent on us; all the children here relied on us.

 They were completely dependent on the supplies and resources that the international response would provide. I didn’t know at the time that the first responders and additional supplies wouldn’t make it into the Eastern Visayas region of the Leyte Province for several more days, or even weeks.

 While volunteering in the area of Tacloban known as Barangay 52 I came across victims, I listened to the stories from the people there who escaped the high winds and violent ocean that morning by climbing into the attics of houses and buildings while the roof above them was being ripped off, they saw many people die in the 18-foot rise in sea level. 

I heard from people who lost their entire houses, their entire families and many friends, feeling the unimaginable pain of losing what they loved most. Some survived the ocean by swimming through houses of debris scared, emotional, cut up and injured, holding onto what they could to stay above water, screaming for help or saying prayers to God. Some people lost everything and continued to stay strong. They told me, “I’m a survivor.”

The government tried to evacuate the areas in the typhoons path, but with Tacloban having a high dense population of approximately 221,174, it was impossible to inform everyone in distant villages who did not have the luxuries of radios and TVs. Then, some who were informed decided to stay and shelter in local schools, churches and government buildings, ignoring the pre-emptive evacuations.

 Others were incapable of evacuating and stayed because of disabilities, lack of money, misunderstandings or disregard of the unfamiliar meteorological term “storm surge” A storm surge is when the height of the ocean level rises above the 19-year averaged mean sea level in a specific area. Storm tide is the height of the storm surge added with high tide. This will be much more severe during spring tide (that happens twice a year), when the sun and moons pull on the ocean is at its greatest.

This isn’t the first time the term “Storm Surge” has been disregarded as an insignificant threat. The universal term that is known worldwide is Tsunami. I feel that the governments, local municipalities, as well as major news networks have the responsibility to accurately informing the public of the life threatening danger they may face in the terms/language they will understand.

 In the future, the long-term rise in sea level caused by global warming and the melting of the glacial ice caps will continue to erode and destroy costal cities, making more areas uninhabitable, pushing populations further inland to higher elevations.

There were 11 million affected, and 5 million people displaced and over 29,000 injuries across the country. The Philippine population density of 797/sq mi (308/km2) compared to the US is 88/sq mi (34/km2) in some areas, including whole islands, mandatory evacuations were declared.

Thousands of refugees in Tacloban were left to survive on their own. The sick, the wounded, the disabled, the women, the orphaned children and the elderly homeless and isolated from the rest of the world with no communication, medicine or immediate medical help were now the most vulnerable victims of this disaster.

Many needed sutures that would later become infected. The antibiotics and tetanus shots were running out. Measles virus, typhoid fever and polio vaccines were being sent into the area. There was a moderate epidemic from the parasitic disease leptospirosis and tetanus entering open wounds exposed to the contaminated floodwaters. I was exposed to tetanus as well as the EMT and nurse when we performed the tracheotomy. 

We all had took the same strength shot that was given to the tetanus patient to eliminate the virus from our bodies. The tetanus shot we received was a much stronger dose than the shot we get every 5 years in the US. Like everyone else trying to survive in the city, I also caught giardia after two weeks in the city.

There were many health and safety concerns, hazards I couldn’t have imagined, rusty nails, broken glass and other sharp objects littered the streets. There were some people walking around without shoes or sandals, and some had deep wounds and cuts on their feet.

Resources were scarce: no running water and no clean water without toxic chemical pollutants, rust or metal contaminants, pathogenic microorganisms like E. Coli, cholera, or giardia that, when ingested, lead to severe dehydration (bacillary or amoebic dysentery) and possibly death. 

If electrolyte additives were not immediately available to assist in the re-hydration of a victim, a saline fluid solution IV was necessary. The hand pumped well water from the underground aquifers were now saturated by the salty ocean water and unsafe for drinking. This was caused by the over-pumping of the fresh water aquifers in the coastal areas beyond their recharge rate.

We all faced the environmental discomfort from the torrential downpours, high winds and thunderstorms triggering memories of the typhoon then rapidly alternated back to extreme high temperatures with high humidity. This increased risk of heat exhaustion, since most of us were dehydrated, added to the difficulty of many of our simple tasks and objectives. Approximately 90% of the structures in Tacloban were destroyed leaving few places for people to shelter from the elements. 

High heat and high humidity are conducive for the proliferation of viruses, bacteria and protozoan. These conditions also accelerated the decomposition of the corpses and dead animals that lay on the sides of roads, on the beaches, in trees and buried underneath debris. Even with the mass casualties body removal at this stage was not a priority.

Few government vehicles even ran. Limited fuel, manpower and resources were allocated to getting communications back up. Focus was on support of the living and food distribution.

There was a mass infestation of flies, cockroaches and rats feeding on what was left of the city. Rotting food and piles of trash were sickening. Poor sanitation compounded the problems. Mosquitoes brought the risk of malaria, chikungunya fever, and dengue fever. Most people were without proper mosquito nets, any type of insect repellent or traps.

Shortages continued. All around me I saw contaminated and spoiled food, psychological devastated, malnutrition, people digging through the rubble and destroyed homes in hopes to find food or bottled water. Looters began stealing from shops, stores and warehouses in desperation. There was little security for many people in the city. The day of the storm, 181 inmates escaped from the Tacloban city jail. 

Some were apprehended and some eventually turned themselves in. There were constant reports of rape and widespread violence. Armed militias held up many truck convoys at gunpoint demanding supplies. These disturbances drew a lot of attention, causing relief organizations to be more cautious in the distribution of supplies until sufficient forces were available.

The initiation of martial law to prevent complete anarchy was recommended by officials as a counter measure President Benigno Aquino declared a state of emergency and deployed Philippine Armed Forces and additional Philippine National Police to assist. As advised by Tacloban officials, Benigno Aquino then initiated an 8pm street curfew that was strictly enforced by the military and police.

Cities had no lights or electricity. Many people had no way to even start a fire for light or warmth or cooking. It would take many hours, many volunteers and government-contracted companies working together in an organized, systematic approach to repair the electrical grid. Cleaning up and removing the damaged transformers, telephone poles and power lines that tangled along the streets needed to be done, before new lines could be put in place to have power restored.

There were massive fuel shortages across many islands in the central region of the country. Some of the gas stations were damaged or needed electricity to pump gas. Some of the business owners that shut down their station before the storm were now scared to reopen because of the risk of violence and looting. 

Thousands of abandoned vehicles that had the fuel siphoned still had their gas cap left open. While we were on a medical helicopter-refueling mission at an unsecured field in Guiuan (Eastern Samar) people heard the helicopter land and began running up to us from every direction with plastic containers. 

After finding out we didn’t have food or water, they began begging for what was left in the oil drum after we were done refilling the helicopter with diesel fuel. Overwhelmed, we gave them what was left in the bottom of the barrel. They turned it upside down and poured out the rest into their containers. 

The fuel shortage caused more tension. Most of the public transportation, heavy machinery and power generators, which are dependent on fuel, were inoperable almost to a standstill.

Combined with a shortage of manpower, this created a logistical challenge, drastically reducing the potential progress of the recovery efforts until more resources arrived in Tacloban. 

The mayor requested that gas stations open while having military and police guards standing by. Once they started pumping gas, there were long lines of people with containers and vehicles. There was an inflation of fuel prices, increase by as much as 400%.

The banana and coconut palm trees that once covered the tropical mountains of central Philippines are now largely wiped out. Coconuts washed up on beaches and the streets, and were buried in debris. We drank from them. Some people survived off them. 

Small farmers that lost their plantations to this storm will have to clear the fields then somehow acquire new seeds to replant. They will need government support or will not be able to recover from the loss of income. It will take a minimum of 4-6 years before coconut palms will start to produce coconuts, depending on the species. This will impact the national economy, since fruits and coconut oil are some of the main exports of this region.

In the days and weeks following the typhoon, many people went and waited at airports in hopes of receiving aid, getting medical help, or to get on a flight away from this apocalyptic prophesized bible revelation. 

Some looked to churches and hospitals for sanctuary and security. Some stayed near where they once lived, collecting what they owned, what they had left, the sentimental belongings and possession all brought back into a pile they placed where their house once was. Some of the victims eventually transitioned into one of the 43 self-established shelters in the surrounding area.

The ocean front astrodome was the largest shelter in the city. Right before the typhoon it was an evacuation center that housed people and saved many lives. It also killed many people, when the water washed out the lower levels. Its state was similar to the astrodome in New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina, but on a smaller scale. After the storm, the Tacloban astrodome housed 1661 refugees, 57 infants (0-1 yrs. Old) 44 senior citizens (60+ yrs. Old) and 46 were pregnant women.

In the city, sludge like bluish green muddy oil covered the streets. This was probably a toxic combination of dangerous chemicals, fertilizers, household cleaners, motor oil, human/animal waste and ocean mud that washed ashore. The sludge covered people’s legs and arms. 

Parents all over the city were concerned about their children’s symptoms of red, irritated watery eyes, probably caused from playing with their broken toys in contaminated areas. Here chemicals and germs got on their hands, then they touched their eyes, toxins entered through their skin. The conditions here were horrible. No one should have to live like this.

It was difficult to see the children hurt and in pain. The soap and water needed to wash their hands wasn’t immediately available for several weeks after the storm. When water was available, my diagnosis was proved correct and there symptoms went away.

It took electricity to operate the water treatment plant at full capacity to clean and purify and pump water to the city. The local health authorities stated that any water in Tacloban was dangerous and not safe for drinking. It was strongly recommended that any water in the city be boiled for 20 minutes to kill infectious microorganisms.

In the beginning stages of clean up, everyone was helping everyone. The streets full were of people. There were many volunteers, some people working for food, some working with churches or for money from the government. Volunteers were removing debris from heavily damaged costal neighborhoods. 

They constructed their own brooms, shovels and rakes from anything they could find industrious people doing everything they could to clean up and rebuild their community. Filipinos are very strong and resilient. Everyone I came into contact with was friendly. Kids always asked me, “What’s your name? Where you from?” The government distributed tents. People collected lumber to frame shelters, covering the outside with tin sheeting, broken pieces of plywood, plastic or USAID tarpaulin.

People worked without gloves and, worse, without masks, fires of oil-soaked trash, plastic, and chemically treated wood burned everywhere in the city. The inhalation of dust, airborne chemicals, and black smoke posed a real threat. I passed out the rest of my gloves and N95 masks to volunteers.

Bicycles were the main form of transportation, and motorcycles the main motorized transportation. The city was now running on generators. I informed people how it was unsafe to run their generators indoors or in confined spaces without proper ventilation, especially with the fewer restrictions on the purity and refinement of the petroleum sold in this country. Smog began to mix with the smoke and dust in the air, causing acute repertory infections, pneumonia, headaches, and sore throats. Foreign and domestic medical groups began to establish field hospitals in the city.

Once the port was secured and operational, foreign vessels arrived and off-loaded shipping containers full of supplies. The containers were unpacked by volunteers organized by DSWD, and loaded onto 5 ton M923 cargo trucks protected by armed soldiers. Transported to the Tacloban airport and then the aid was loaded onto Philippine Army helicopters creating air bridges to remote villages only accessible by helicopter across Leyte Island. As many as five helicopters made multiple airlift missions every day.

There has been criticism on a local and national level regarding the initial response in the Philippines that can be linked to several different causes. The main priority was informing the public of the potential dangers, focusing efforts on evacuating as many people as possible, then securing and shutting down the city. I believe that the local government in Tacloban did their best within the timeframe, resources and information they had before the storm.

Yet the Philippine government’s response was similar to the American government’s response after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and Staten Island in New York in Super Storm Sandy in 2012. Even with the US government’s wealth, advanced technologies, equipment, and structured incident command system, the US was slow in responding.

I’ve invested much of my time studying tropical cyclones, analyzing the annual rise in surface ocean temperatures and atmospheric barometric pressure systems in the northern hemisphere. I watched and researched the formation of this storm off the coast of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean. This was the 5th major hurricane I’ve covered. 

I’ve been through three hurricane; Gustav, Isaac Sandy and was in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I very apprehensive towards the fact that I can access maps, charts, dada, infrared and satellite imagery to calculate or approximate storm surge in specific areas. Based on the hurricane's size, center pressure, forward movement speed, circulation speed, angle of approach, coastal elevation, ocean current, ocean tide level, ocean floor angle and depth on my Samsung Galaxy S4, 7100 miles away.

Help takes time, which is why we need to improve protocols and red tape to respond more quickly to the changing environment around us. We knew that there would be widespread devastation from Yolanda, so why wasn’t the international community more prepared? How many disasters will there be before we learn? Why does it take a week before a ship sets course? Why can’t we have one of the many US aircraft carriers already stationed at US bases overseas prepared with supplies, waiting safely off coast to deploy once the hurricane passes?

This was the most powerful typhoon in recorded history, with approximately 195mph (315 km/h) wind speed sustained for 1 minute, 145mph (230 km/h) wind speed sustained for 10 minutes, 235mph gust, and forward speed of 34mph, with 895 mbar (hPa) 26.43 inHg, hurricane force winds over 370 miles wide, over 1,120 miles wide to the outer cloud bands. On the northeast side of the typhoon, the forward speed would be added to the wind speed, plus the wind gusts to equal 270mph winds, breaking all scientific intensity scale records at 8.1 on a scale that before only reached 8.0.

As of November 18, 2012, 1.1 million houses were damaged in the Philippines. 52% of those were partially damaged, and 48% totally damaged. There were 242,400 houses total damaged in the islands that make up the Eastern Visayas region.

Many technology experts are currently calling for rebuilding areas destroyed by hurricanes with solar and other renewable power sources designed to be more durable. These long-term investments with the priceless advantages of maintaining electricity during power outages, and the environmental benefits of these alternative energy sources.

 We are just beginning to see the consequences of our biosphere’s imbalance. It will affect billions of people in this and future generations. It is unjust that the non-industrialized nations of the world, living simple, sustainable lives suffer the consequences of our pollution; it’s not right that the 5.4 million children living in the Philippines were affected by this disaster; it’s not fair to the 6200 people who were living in small houses, shanties and shacks to have died this way.

I hope my story might generate more help, money or resources directed towards this disaster as well as a better awareness regarding disasters in the future. The Filipino people will face many obstacles. They will continue to need our compassion and support for many years. If you would like to make a positive difference in the lives of the victims affected by this disaster, I recommend donating to:

Gawad Kalinga http://www.gk1world.com

World Food Program http://www.wfp.org

They are both effective and well-established in the region.


I want to give a special thanks to the people and organizations that made things happen. These are some of the people that took the extra effort to go out of their way and get things done.

Luke; not many people know who he is. An American with the US army and a vidergamer stationed at the Cebu airport base which was the largest staging area for this disaster. He was in charge of the logistics branch of the unified incident command system. He spoke with ambassadors, organized the personnel, equipment and supplies coming in from over 15 countries from around the world. He then distributed the supplies between all the affected islands. He got families flights out of the region and helped thousands of people, potentially saved thousands of lifes. If it came down to one person, I believe he saved this country, second to the US president in his decision to authorize relief aid.

The Philippine Navy officer 2nd general Raymond.

The Philippine Navy Doctor that I only know as Ray. 

The Malaysian military medical team stationed outside of the Tacloban airport.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) is a government funded organization with amazing employees and great volunteers.

Kuya Mari and the volunteers from the organization Gawad Kalinga.

The Tacloban city Mayor Alfred Romualdez and his office staff at city hall.


Here are some simple ways you can help curve climate change and the complete destruction of our planet!

Stop supporting the corporation that produces individually wrapped products with excessive packaging of paper (contributes to deforestation) and plastic just that creates more waste. NEVER LITTER.

Convince business owners to take the responsibility to provide recycling for their customers and employees. Work with your city government to incorporate a functional recycling program at the cities waste facility. Many cities around the world and even in the US lack an efficient recycling program.

Shop for organic food and products as much as possible, even once in a while will make a difference! Buy products that are free from pesticides, preservatives, GMO’s (genetically modified organisms that disturb our eco system) and chemical fertilizers that pollute our bodies and environment.

Stop supporting chemical companies and stop buying household cleaners. There should be chemical limit regulations imposed on those who live in low elevation coastal areas susceptible to flooding. Every hurricane I have seen washes out everything in your house or garage out along the beaches as far as you could see. This is a preventable cause of ocean pollution (Environmentalist nightmare). Beach front property in a hurricane prone region should become a moral choice to not buy chemicals, or keep cans of motor oil, paint, solvents, pesticides, fuel containers in your garage. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to recognize and address this issue.

Turning lights off when you’re not using them. Buying energy star appliances, and conserve water by purchasing low flow faucet/shower fixtures it’s fun and easy! : )

Please!!! Stop buying fake (plastic) or dead Christmas trees every single year. They consume many of our resources to produce. Try buying a real Christmas tree in a pot this year, then planting it in the ground after Christmas. I wish the Christmas tree farmers around the world would start specializing in the growing, marketing, selling and delivery of potted Christmas trees that would greatly benefit of our future.

If every one of you sends this story to 10 different people it will circle the entire globe, change the perception of what’s important in life and help make this world a better place : )

See all of Alekz's photos here.  


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