A wake up call: One typhoon survivor's story

A young woman turns to look at the camera smiling. She is in front of water, mountains and palm trees.

25-year-old Joanna Sustento is from the city of Tacloban, Philippines. She is a Typhoon Haiyan survivor and is trying to make sense of the tragedy after she and her eldest brother lost their whole family to the storm. Joanna sought comfort and found a tool to heal through writing. It is through her stories that she aims to empower her community and hopefully the whole world, to resist and work for a future that will no longer fear or be threatened by the adverse impacts of climate change.

This important message was directed to world leaders at the Bonn Climate Change Conference 2017 to take climate action #foreverychild.


It was 5 o’ clock on a Friday morning of November 8, 2013, when my family was awakened by the unnerving wailing of the ferocious winds. We thought it was just another normal stormy day, so we sat together on the dining table and had breakfast. As the wind and rain got stronger, we felt the house vibrate and tremble because of the pressure. When we looked outside, trees were already uprooted; our concrete walls were destroyed, windows cracked and all of a sudden murky waters came rushing in. In just a matter of seconds, the water rose to knee level. I rushed to my room to get my backpack filled with my stuff- it didn’t even take me 3 minutes to do that- but as I went out of my room, the water was already up to my chest. We had no other choice but to go out of the house or else we will be trapped inside. Due to the strong current rushing in, I had a hard time getting out of the house but my mom pulled me out.

As the water was rising, we struggled more to stay afloat, and it became more difficult to stay together. My elder brother- the one who survived- was the first one who got separated from us. He tried to swim for the floating ice box, so we could put my nephew inside but we failed to do that. I saw my sister-in-law drifting away from us while she held on to a tree branch. Then, I saw my nephew with a lifejacket on- floating behind his mom. I saw his father- my eldest brother swim to their direction. But everything was so hazy- I couldn’t see well because of the strong wind and rain, and it was as if crushed ice were being thrown at my face. My parents were the ones close in proximity, thus we held on to a log. At that point, I could see the worry in their eyes that they were trying to hide. I never expected that the last memory I would have with my father would be in the monstrous floods of Haiyan. I saw him trying to surface the waters, gasping for air- three times- and that was it, I never saw him again after that. Then, I saw a refrigerator floating, so I held onto it and let my mom hold it as well. We found ourselves at the building near the back of our house. The waves were crashing onto the refrigerator we were holding that I was being pushed under the steel trusses, I was afraid to be trapped so I pushed the refrigerator away and held onto a log instead; that was the time my mom and I got separated.

Striving to surface the water as piles of debris were blocking my head, I felt like I was being spun inside a washing machine. I could not breathe and I seriously thought I was going to die. Not knowing what to do, I told myself if that was the day I was going to my watery grave, then so be it. Never in my life have I talked to God with deep remorse and in complete surrender. However, death decided to “postpone”, I was given another chance to live. Using my head I pushed the debris away until I was able to surface. As soon as I saw my mother, I immediately drifted towards her, grabbed her arms and tried to lift half of her body so she could hold on to the wood I was using to stay afloat. But when my hands slipped from her arms to her fingers, her body splashed into the water and there was no sign of her struggling to survive.

My mom was gone.

I found myself being swept away by the 15 ft. high storm surge to the steel frames of a water tank, as my mother died in my arms. Then, I was forced to face a question I never thought I could ask myself in this lifetime- should I continue to hold on to my mom’s lifeless body and die with her? Or should I let her go and save myself?

I could not even begin to describe the agony, the desperation, the guilt, and the chaos running through my mind because I was torn between saving what’s left of my family and holding on for my dear life. But at the back of my mind, something told me that there must be a reason why I was able to survive the storm and no matter how insurmountable it may seem, I want to find out what that reason is.

Thus, with all the love that I had- I asked for my mom`s forgiveness for everything I did that hurt her. I thanked her being the strong woman that she is, and for everything she has done for our family. I told her I love her again and again, I embraced and kissed her for the last time.

And that was it- I let her go and I never looked back...

It was indeed an unbearable dilemma- to this day, I still ask myself if I had made the right choice or if I could have done something more because living without my family just did not make sense. More than thousands of people lost their homes, livelihood and properties. Most of all, Haiyan displaced millions and claimed thousands of lives- five of those are my parents, my eldest brother, my sister-in-law and my three-year old nephew. We never found our father and our nephew.

The horror brought about by Haiyan bred by the warming waters of the Pacific, did not stop there. Different alarming stories spread like wildfire causing unexplainable fear and paranoia. Access to medication and basic necessities such as food, water and shelter went scarce, and the dramatic soap-opera unfolding brought to us by our government and their political alliances and clan wars added salt to the wounds- leaving everyone- especially children- in jeopardy.

Every day since the onslaught, we were in a place we called home but we looked around, and tried to find the city that once was, and by the end of the day we come to terms with the heart-breaking reality that it’s no longer the same- and it never will be.

Here in the Philippines- as in any other country vulnerable to climate change impacts- when disasters happen, it is children who are at risk the most. They suffer a deep trauma from going through an experience they do not understand. Imagine a child who is looking forward to get an education only to find out his school is damaged and he cannot study anymore. Imagine a child who has no access to food, health and medical security because his parents` livelihood has been torn apart. Imagine a child who has nowhere to go because his home has been washed away. Imagine a child who used to love the ocean but he cannot even bear to look at it anymore because it is the same waters that took his family away from him. Imagine a child who no longer dreams for a future because he finds no reason to make something out of himself. Imagine a child who receives no financial and emotional support- a child who has been left with no choice but to fend for himself. Imagine a child who has no family to hold on to- a family that would shower him with love and care. Imagine a child- especially young girls- going all through the direct impacts of climate change and is forced to deal with another nightmare- as she is sold in exchange for food and other scarce supplies, exploited into forced labour with a promise of a good job or a scholarship in exchange for sex. Imagine it all because this is the reality that we live in- not only here in the Philippines but in other parts of the world.

While it is said that the children are our future, let us ask ourselves if our present actions and decisions address the current problems and threats children are facing today. Because if these are given ample significance, we will be able to give justice to our children and create a future that is worthy to look forward to- a future that will not deprive them of the wonderful things we enjoy today, a future that is not filled with experiences of running away from storms, a future growing up with family and friends filled with love, a future so bright and far from calamities that they would not be afraid to dream again, a future where they could play and practice their advocacies, a future where health, safety and education are consistent and within reach, a future where food security is abundant, a future where our children enjoy and value their basic right to a safe, clean and healthy environment. The drastic change will not happen immediately. It would take several years and some would say that this ambition is a long shot- a shoot to the moon- even almost impossible- but I know that I could never forgive myself if I do nothing because I have already seen and experienced the worst- so far. The wrath of Super Typhoon Haiyan is an example of what`s to come- and this is an absolute injustice that should not be passed on to our children and future generations.