Philippines: Small communities
still reeling from Typhoon Yolanda

Fairfax journalist Jonathan Carson and photographer Alden Williams travelled to the Philippines in November, 2015, on an Asia New Zealand travel grant, where they covered the recovery following Typhoon Yolanda and the remarkable life story of a young Filipino rugby player.

Women laying wreaths to mark the second year anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda

No one was answering their phones or replying to their emails. Our contacts had gone cold.

We were two journalists in an apartment in downtown Metro Manila with no story to cover.

This was the reality during our second week in the Philippines in November last year where we travelled to cover two stories: one on life two years after typhoon Yolanda, the worst storm in history, and the other about a young street kid turned rugby player who became the first homegrown Filipino to play for his country.

Aside from the fact that my luggage didn’t arrive with me in Manila, the first half of our trip went smoothly.

Alden and I travelled from Manila to Tacloban, the city that withstood the worst of the typhoon on November 8, 2013.

Watch Carson and William's report on Typhoon Yolanda

I was in the Philippines when the storm hit and travelled to the worst-hit regions to report on the aftermath. I always wanted to return, to revisit the places and people I had met and to see how things were progressing.

We had intended to produce an all-encompassing feature on the recovery efforts, but quickly discovered we were being far too ambitious. It is a huge area and the various issues at play were too complex for a couple of New Zealanders to sweep in and makse sense of. So we decided to focus our efforts on the small town of Basey which withstood the worst of the storm and is just across the bay from Tacloban. This is where I spent most of my time in 2013.

We didn’t have to walk far to find people who wanted to share their stories with us. White people with cameras stand out in such an isolated place and our translator seemed to know everyone in town.

We interviewed dozens of people - fishermen, farmers, survivors - to produce what, we think, is an in-depth look at how natural disasters continue to affect people in developing countries long after the news media and aid organisations pack up and leave.

The second story about Lito Ramirez - the rugby boy of Manila - came close to falling over.

I had learned of Lito’s story when I was there in 2013 - of how he was abandoned in the streets by his parents and discovering rugby at an orphanage.

I was surprised by the number of New Zealanders who were involved with rugby in the Philippines and had links with Lito.

I had several solid contacts but, for whatever reason, the day before they were supposed to come through, they went quiet.

The last tip I had was that Lito might be going to rugby practice the next afternoon at a stadium near where we were staying. So Alden and I just turned up.

There was no sign of Lito, so we waited. Practice started and he still wasn’t there. Then, about five minutes later, Lito walked into the stadium.

That afternoon we were able to interview him. We went our for lunch with him, exchanged numbers, visited his home in Muntinlupa City twice, returned with him to the orphanage where he first discovered rugby and shadowed him on the job as a rugby coach.

It goes to show that refusing to give up and being desperate can sometimes lead to access that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

We ended up with far too much information, video footage and photographs than we could possible use, but that’s better than returning home with not enough.

Oh, and those contacts that went cold ended up coming through in the end, too.

Stories published by Jonathan Carson and Alden Wiliams on Typhoon Yolanda