In the eye of a super-storm

In 2006, I found myself in the eye of a category 4 super typhoon. It was far more terrible than I could have imagined. 

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The morning of 12 May 2006, dawns flat and grey. There is a metallic, ionised taste to the air. My friend and I walk down the beach to the depot, to get the hours-long motorboat that will take us back to the mainland, where a car is waiting to take us back to Manila. When we get there, though, the office is locked. A man comes to tell us the boats aren't leaving. That's the first we hear of the storm.

It is the year before I go to university, and I am in the Philippines with two school friends – Jim and Boo – to work in an orphanage run by a cousin of Boo's. That week, the three of us, plus two of our Filipino hosts, had come to learn to dive on an island called Mindoro. We were young - all three of us 19, and too inexperienced and stupid to be properly scared of anything. In hindsight, our naïveté could have easily killed us.

The storm's name was Caloy, though it was called Chanchu outside the Philippines. Like Hurricane Irma – the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, which is currently bearing down on Florida after tearing through the Caribbean – Caloy was a record-breaker; the first super-typhoon ever recorded in the South China Sea.

On that day in 2006, we take a bus across the island to a more industrial port, where we have been told bigger boats will take us home. There is an added urgency to this; Boo has awoken ill and gone downhill fast. We don't know it yet, but later it will turn out that he has dysentery. All we know is that we need to get off this island and to a hospital.

It's noon. Our ears pop. The sky further darkens and rain comes in great splatters. Water infiltrates the back of the packed bus, soaking everyone to the skin. The passengers huddle.

The port is chaotic. Several large car-ferries bob like coracles in the rising swell. The rain stops, starts, stops again. We buy tickets and wait in the crowded hall, squalls rattling on the corrugated iron roof. After an hour or so, a uniformed man who we take to be in charge announces through a loudhailer that the storm has been upgraded to a typhoon, so no boats will be leaving.

Soon after, one of the ferry-captains announces that he will defy the harbormaster and go anyway, if he is paid double. We argue a little. Boo is in bad shape, but after phoning the mainland again where our host is watching the storm grow on the doppler radar, we decide not to risk it.

Eventually we find a low-slung concrete guest-house that looks sturdy enough, and check in to a room on the first floor with a small, high window. Jim and I head into town for supplies – water, biscuits, rehydration powder, lime cordial, and gin.

On our way back the rain comes again; this time huge, lumpen drops. Night falls in the afternoon as the sky, which briefly lightened after the shower, darkens again. The wind picks up; trees sway urgently.

With nothing else to do, we open the gin with the hotel's only two other guests, an American in his fifties and his Filipino wife. Someone has a pack of cards. Sitting in the corridor outside our room, we drink and play for hours, occasionally going to the door to watch the thickening storm. By midnight, the trees are like whips. Lightning crackles, and the rain is coming down in sheets.

Our new American friend gets too drunk, and retires. We are all drunk. We have run out of gin. Jim wants to go get more; standing in the guest-house's yard, we play-fight over whether to go out. It is all a lark. We go to bed.

I dream that I am walking down the streets of London during the Blitz; bombs are screaming to the ground and exploding all around me. I awake with a start, but the noise doesn't stop. This is what I hear: first, a banshee wail, as the gusts scream past; next, the leaden, concussive thump that I had taken for bombs, as the air is sucked back in to the vacuum on the lee side of the building.

By the time it passed over us into the warmer waters of the South China Sea Caloy was a "super typhoon", with peak wind speeds of 145mph – less than Irma's insane 185mph peak, but still brutally strong. Because it is always dark under a cyclone – and probably also because of the gin – it is hard to work out how the time passed. But some time later, in what could equally have been dawn or mid-morning, I get woken again, this time by an eerie absence of sound. The eye of the storm was over us.

On the first floor landing, near where we had been playing cards, the outer screen door was torn entirely away and fallen tree now bisected the verandah. Through the gap, the sky was violet.

After the storm, when we returned to the port, the scent of decay hung in the air. We saw the devastation Caloy had wreaked on the timber and plastic shanty-town slums. Barely one house in ten was still standing.

Overall, Caloy killed at least 25 people in China, and at least 44 people in Vietnam, mostly fishermen, with a further 190 missing. In the Philippines, 41 people died, including 21 who were killed when a ferry, the Mae An, capsized off an island next to ours. Another ferry, the Filipinas Princess, went missing with more than 700 passengers aboard but was later rescued by coastguards in a cove off Mindoro. We think one of those was the ferry we nearly took – though we left the port before the vessel departed and did not note its name.

Super-typhoon Caloy's winds were 30mph stronger than those of Hurricane Sandy. On Mindoro, after the storm, we saw whole blocks of houses, especially those not built of brick, that had been almost entirely flattened. Hurricane Irma is even stronger, and Florida lies directly in its path. More than five million people have been ordered to evacuate. Some are choosing to ignore the order and stay.

George W Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, which was weaker than Irma, defined the second term of his presidency. Whether September's hurricanes will similarly shape Donald Trump's chaotic presidency is still an open question, though the president's tone-deafness last week in Houston (he said, bafflingly, of Hurricane Harvey that it had “been a wonderful thing”, before signing off with “have a good time”) doesn't augur well for success. But there is no doubt that this storm is going to be devastating – in fact already has been, across the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.

On that day in 2006, Caloy was far greater and more terrible than I could have imagined. What Trump should be saying is if you're in Irma's path, listen to the warnings, pay attention to the official channels, take all the precautions you can, and stay safe out there.

It's not a lark, a storm like this. We thought it was, and we were stupid, and could have gotten ourselves badly hurt or even killed.

This piece was first published in September 2017.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.