Category Archives: Disaster

Post Earthquake Spirit in Morelos

After covering the earthquake damage in various zones of Mexico City, it became clear that the hardest hit areas were some rural towns closer to the epicentre of the quake where buildings were often made from adobe instead of concrete and rebar. Morelos, a state to the south of the capital, had reported multiple towns in critical condition, along with an unknown but growing number of casualties.

From the viewpoint of a videographer it was clear that we needed to go to Morelos, so a reporter from The New York Times requisitioned a car and we made the three hour drive to Jojutla.

As soon as we hit the town’s periphery it was obvious that the situation was critical. Roadblocks had been set up two kilometres away from the city centre to stop necessary traffic entering the damaged parts of the town and our vehicle was not allowed to pass. Only by hitching a ride with some locals in their beat up minivan could we get into the city, and for the rest of the day and into the night we tried to get a sense of the damage.

A local official estimated that 60% of the buildings had been damaged in some way, and many of them would never be fit to live in again. We met families picking their things from under the crumbled remains of their living room wall and others who had lost parents in the collapse. Entire street corners had fallen, bringing down as many as six homes at once. The devastation was massive, and the resources few.

But throughout it all the general spirit of the people seemed to be one of defiance and determination. “We will get through this,” was a phrase I heard more than once, and defined the mood of the day. Even though many of them had lost everything and the only home they’d ever known, they were already looking ahead to the rebuilding process.

“We are Mexico.”

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Documenting the Mexico City Earthquake

When I saw the news that Mexico City and the surrounding states had been struck by a powerful earthquake on September 19th, 2017, I was in JFK airport returning from a few weeks of meetings and visiting friends. In those first hours it wasn’t clear what the extent of the damage was, and so the plane took off for Mexico after only a short delay. It was when we landed, however, and the pilot announced we were stuck behind a backlogged queue of nearly 40 other planes, that I realized that maybe the situation was worse that I had thought.

The videographer/filmmaker part of my brain told me to immediately send emails to my contacts in the media, and luckily was able to connect with The New York Times. By the time I got out of the airport and through the gridlocked city it was nearly 3 am, so I closed my eyes for a few hours and prepared to get up with the sun.

I was planning to go and investigate the site of a collapsed school in the south of Mexico City, but no sooner had I jumped in a car with a few colleagues did we realize there was an incredible drama unfolding just two blocks from my apartment.

This kicked off more than a week of frantic coverage in a city that I have come to call home. Documenting a crisis in my own backyard, albeit an adopted one, was a new and difficult experience, but ultimately for me the earthquake was a narrative of selflessness and community spirit rather than of despair.

Volunteers poured into the streets in the thousands, and ordinary citizens opened their doors to help in rescue efforts. While the event was a horrific tragedy for Mexico City, the solidarity and social awareness displayed by the people who live here was inspiring to say the least. If such collective spirit could be put towards reforming other sectors of the nation, Mexico would be an even better place to live in no time.

 

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No Build Zone: Life in Tacloban After Typhoon Haiyan (Preview)

For most of the month of April I was working at a feverish pace in the Philippines, where I accepted a somewhat ambitious 11 assignments in a three week window. Despite an inconveniently timed three day fever (which caused me to pass out in front of about 50 Filipino cock fighting gamblers), unreliable communication networks, damaged equipment, and a visit from President Obama that brought air traffic to a standstill, everything miraculously got done.

Somehow, during the midst of all this running around, I found a few afternoons to visit some of the neighbourhoods in Tacloban most heavily damaged by typhoon Haiyan. The most powerful storm ever recorded to make landfall, Haiyan (or Yolanda as it is referred to locally), smashed into the central Philippines last November, killing thousands and rendering many more homeless. Nearly six months after the initial devastation, coastal residents of Barangay 68 – colloquially named Yolanda Village by residents – are struggling to rebuild what they lost.

Young men play basketball in front of a  beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan.  Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Young men play basketball in front of a beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Reconstruction in Tacloban

The catholic cathedral in Palo, on the outskirts of Tacloban, remains without a roof after it was torn off by the winds of typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Though cleanup efforts have had the full support of the community and assistance from international aid organizations, evidence of the destruction is everywhere. Several large cargo vessels rest unnaturally at the base of inland hills, roughly a hundred meters from the ocean. Shipping containers and other maritime debris can be found along the beaches and between rebuilt houses, like alien artifacts in the residential community.

For those who have managed to repair or replace the homes they lost, the challenges are far from over. A government mandated “no build zone” extends forty meters from the ocean, meaning that anyone who has rebuilt near the coast – and is therefore illegally squatting according to the law – could face homelessness again at any moment. While hospitality and friendliness are abundant for visitors to Yolanda village, for those who live there the road to recovery will be a long one.

Thousands of hardened cement bags are piled along the coast to build temporary piers and breakwaters. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Thousands of hardened cement bags are piled along the coast to build temporary piers and breakwaters. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Young men drink bottles of beer together  over the easter weekend. Many residents of Tacloban have lost their jobs due to storm damage and have little to do during the days. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Young men drink bottles of beer together over the easter weekend. Many residents of Tacloban have lost their jobs due to storm damage and have little to do during the days. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These images represent a short preview of a larger set of pictures that I will post when I’ve had a chance to organize my archive and thoughts – and repair a broken laptop!

Also posted in Blog, Philippines Tagged , , , , , , |

Underwater Gold Miners in Southern Leyte

I spent a month in Leyte last year while working on a story about independent (illegal) gold miners in the Philippines. When I heard about the magnitude of typhoon Haiyan, and that it had devastated Leyte’s largest city, Tacloban, I immediately thought of these guys.

I recently heard from a friend who used to live on Leyte, and still kept in contact with some of her old friends. Many have lost their families, and I fear the worst for the gold miners I met.

Working along the gold rich coasts of the island, these miners spend up to 10 hours a day dredging the sea floor for ore using only their hands and empty rice bags. They make their own goggles from coconuts and polished glass bottles, and most wear only flip flops as diving shoes. Their air comes through thin plastic tubes which is pumped from a small compressor on shore. Any tangle or kink in the lines would mean drowning.

The gold they find is extracted from the ore at handmade washing stations along the beach, and then sold to small-scale local buyers. From here the gold leaves the island and is taken to larger buyers who smelt the gold into disks or bricks of pure gold before shipping the product to the gold markets of Manila. For their part in the operation the divers will see very little of the profit, and despite finding gold nearly every day, are only just able to support their families on what they make.

As much as I would like to hope, I think it would be naive to imagine none of these people have been affected by the Haiyan disaster. These people had a rough life to begin with, and it has gotten much, much harder. They were extremely welcoming to me, and once things settle down I plan to make a trip to see what their situation is and how I can help.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

An underwater miner prepares to dive. The miners often make their own goggles out of wood and polished glass bottles.

An underwater miner prepares to dive. The miners often make their own goggles out of wood and polished glass bottles.

Two senior miners monitor the diving, watching the air tubes for kinks or signs of trouble. Since the divers are weighted with large boulders any failure in the air system can be fatal.

Two senior miners monitor the diving, watching the air tubes for kinks or signs of trouble. Since the divers are weighted with large boulders any failure in the air system can be fatal.

A miner hauls unprocessed rock from the seabed onto the beach.

A miner hauls unprocessed rock from the seabed onto the beach.

A boy washes crushed rock to separate the sand and mud from the gold dust.

A boy washes crushed rock to separate the sand and mud from the gold dust.

Liquid mercury is used to separate the gold from the sand and mud. Extremely poisonous, the use of mercury for mining is illegal in most countries, including the Philippines.

Liquid mercury is used to separate the gold from the sand and mud. Extremely poisonous, the use of mercury for mining is illegal in most countries, including the Philippines.

The raw gold is melted in ceramic bowls to solidify it into circular disks in a refinery on the neighbouring island of Mindanao.

The raw gold is melted in ceramic bowls to solidify it into circular disks in a refinery on the neighbouring island of Mindanao.

A disk of pure gold, ready to be sold.

A disk of pure gold, ready to be sold.

A low-level buyer weighs the day’s gold. When he has collected enough to make the trip profitable, he will transport the gold to the neighbouring island of Mindanao for refining.

A low-level buyer weighs the day’s gold. When he has collected enough to make the trip profitable, he will transport the gold to the neighbouring island of Mindanao for refining.

A gold market in Chinatown, Manila. Some of the gold from Pinot An makes its way to the nation’s capital, though the vast majority is smuggled out of the country.

A gold market in Chinatown, Manila. Some of the gold from Pinot An makes its way to the nation’s capital, though the vast majority is smuggled out of the country.

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