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Witnessing Haiyan's devastation: 'The Filipino spirit is alive among us'

Story highlights

  • An expat Filipino, Armie Jarin-Bennett returned to her native land after Typhoon Haiyan
  • "To deal with this difficult assignment in my own backyard, I had to shut down."
  • She was struck by the resilience of her countrymen despite the challenges
  • Many chose not to heed warnings to evacuate, thinking the storm would not be as severe

In 17 years working at CNN I've worked on countless breaking news stories, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. But nothing prepared me for what I've seen in the past few days in my own country -- the Philippines.

As Super Typhoon Haiyan weaved its destructive path across the east of the country more than a week ago, I was drafted in to help with our coverage as the network scrambled into action.

It had only been nine months since I'd left my newsroom job in the United States to join our corporate offices in Hong Kong, but I quickly found myself in the city of Tacloban, one of the hardest hit areas, with my CNN colleagues. I am not used to being in the field, so to deal with this difficult assignment in my own backyard, I had to shut down.

Offering all they have

We wasted no time. We walked to a village nearby where we met Juanito Martinez. He was gathered with two of his friends in a shack, not far from the city's battered airport. Juanito looked at me with a smile and asked, "Have you eaten yet? Come eat!" I was astonished that his first words to me were to find out if I was hungry -- despite all that was happening around us.

Juanito and his friends were squatting under a few pieces of overlapping corrugated metal sheets reinforced only by broken tree trunks and pieces of wood. They had little to offer as they'd lost everything. A bowl of rice and a pot of boiled noodles was all they could muster on their makeshift table. But that's Filipino hospitality. Even at our lowest moments we offer all that we have.

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    Juanito proceeded to tell us his story. He was very matter of fact. "My wife and daughter died in the storm," he said. He pointed behind to where their remains still lay. In a gentle tone he added, "I just want to know where their bodies will be taken so I can light a candle for them."

    That was it. That was his only request. Juanito looked at me again and smiled. He repeated his invitation, "Come eat!"

    When it started to rain again I looked around me. There was not a single house left standing. There was nowhere to seek shelter. The entire area was completely flattened and littered with debris and the occasional body of another tragic victim. I couldn't imagine how people managed to survive day after day, night after night.

    People lined up in droves at the airport to get out of typhoon-ravaged Tacloban. One woman told me, "I have nothing left here. There is nothing left here. So we are leaving." But others chose to stay behind. Some did not have a choice.

    'Tsunami' shock

    Many of those we talked to said they thought it was just another storm -- the usual heavy rainfall and strong winds they were so used to. So they stayed home. But it was the unexpected storm surge that destroyed and killed. Some called it a tsunami. One woman told us the water went as high as a five-meter tree. Whispering in short phrases, she described how the water rose quickly and swept her four-month-old baby and her three-year-old from her arms. I'm a mother too and thought about my own children. I could not wait to hold them in my arms.

    Everyone had a story to tell: the little girl who waited patiently with her mother at the airport, the young mother who lost her husband, six children, mother and siblings. And then there was the man who wanted to end his life because his beloved wife and two daughters died in the storm.

    Courage

    But amid the widespread grief and despair, it was the extraordinary courage of my fellow Filipinos in Tacloban that struck me most.

    On our final day in Tacloban, I saw a group of people walking back to town. A man looked up to the sky and asked out loud, "How much longer? How much longer?" I wished I had an answer for him. There was little I could do, little that I could give. I only had some cereal bars and crackers in my backpack that I gave away to people at the airport before I got on a plane back to Manila.

    I eventually arrived back in the capital to numerous emails, texts, and messages on my cellphone and on my Facebook page from family and friends. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, their willingness to help. I was seeing first-hand how my fellow Filipinos were coming together before my eyes -- organizing and volunteering.

    I have lived overseas for almost two decades but my return to the Philippines allowed me to witness Filipinos at their worst and best.

    The Filipino spirit is alive among us.

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