Seeing the destruction and the bodies and inhaling the smells of death following a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan isn’t the hardest part anymore. By the time we get there, wherever “there” is, we always know what we’re going to see. I imagine it's a lot like being an EMT worker.
The one thing that makes my job different though is that I hear people's stories. And they get me every time. More than the body bag on the side of the road, the smell of urine or thousands of leveled homes, the personal stories haunt me the most.
It's hearing just one more person say: "I lost everything."
I first heard those words while covering Hurricane Katrina and I lost it on the spot. You hear it on TV and it's a news story. But when another human looks you in the eye and plainly tells you it's ALL gone, it's gut-wrenching and emotional.
In Tacloban, one Filipino man told me, "This is my 2nd life. My 2nd life is survival."
How must it feel when you realize you've been stripped of everything but your life? Your home. Your clothes. Your wallet. Perhaps your friends and family. Gone. All that’s left is 24 hours in a day to figure out what's next. Life has been reduced to finding a bottle of water and food. And you’re dependent on the outside world to find a way to help you eat.
For two days of our coverage, we stayed at what was once a beautiful hotel on the Pacific Ocean in the town of Palo, just outside of Tacloban. The Oriental Hotel’s website boasts a beachside infinity pool, an outdoor bar and beautiful rooms. It’s just a few hundred feet away from a monument honoring General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in 1944.
Now, the hotel is a collection of sad, gutted buildings destroyed by Haiyan’s violent storm surge.
About a dozen young men -- employees of the hotel -- rode out the storm on the second floor. Maintenance workers, electrical engineers and concierge staff, all hanging on for dear life as the water crashed through the building.
When it all ended, they regrouped, set up camp and started their second life by building a fire to cook whatever food survived from the hotel's storage area. They salvaged a generator and ran it a few hours a day, charging whatever electronics they had on them when the storm hit.
The men began protecting the hotel from potential looters by working overnight security shifts.
When we showed up, they welcomed us to their food and their shelter. We took them up on the shelter. We slept on the hard floor in what is now a shell overlooking the ocean.
A week earlier, it would have been a vacation. This day, though, it was survival. Mother Nature has a way with irony.
The guys laughed as they told their own terrifying survival stories. We all listened, in awe of their spirit. They are so positive. They all seemed to believe in something bigger than themselves.
At night, they watched movies on a laptop in a wrecked outdoor foyer surrounded by standing water, debris and a rooster that somehow made it through alive.
Because of the time difference, we worked through the night, doing live shots for our Fox News Channel audience. Maker, the overnight security guy, was a ray of sunshine. Several times, he came out to our work area and offered us coffee with just the right amount of creamer and sugar.
I didn’t hear a complaint from any of them. Instead, they wanted to know what they could do for us. Living with just a few supplies, the clothes on their back and an incredible will to survive, these young men were concerned with making our lives easier. They succeeded.
It’s not easy saying goodbye to such kind-hearted, resilient people. I’m back in Los Angeles, where I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight. Meanwhile, they’re still doing their thing in the middle of hell, most likely with a smile. So to Albert, Willie, Bang, Maker and the rest of the crew, thank you for everything you did for the Fox News Channel crew.
The hotel plans to re-open at some point. If I ever return to the Tacloban area, I know where I’m staying. If you’re ever there, you should stay there, too.
The Oriental Hotel in Palo. In my book, it’s a 5-star property with one hell of a view. And the customer service is amazing.