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When All Is Lost
Images like these from the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan are becoming all-too-common in an age of natural disasters supercharged by climate change.

It’s been a horrible year for the people of the Philippines. Just before Christmas Typhoon Bopha devastated the Pacific island nation, killing more than 1,000 people and displacing more than a million families. Then just a month ago, they were jolted by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, accompanied by weeks of aftershocks.

But even in a country accustomed to dealing with disaster, no one could have been prepared for the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped across two-thirds of the 1,150-mile-long Philippine archipelago last week. Haiyan’s sustained 195-mph winds turned debris into deadly missiles and churned up crushing wave surges of nearly 20 feet. Meteorologists believe it to be among the strongest storms in recorded history. And climate scientists warn that in the era of climate change, tropical storms may grow more intense (though perhaps less frequent), while sea-level rise will add to their potential for destruction (as with Hurricane Sandy).

Haiyan destroyed countless homes and businesses, at a total cost that has yet to be estimated. But we do keep hearing one sobering estimate: 2,500. That’s the number of lives feared to have been lost, a number that has gone down dramatically from earlier estimates of 10,000 casualties, but a shocking figure all the same. [Note: the death toll estimate surged back up to 4,000 on Friday, after this post was published, and is likely to continue fluctuating for the near future.]

As I looked through photos of the storm and its aftermath, I was first stunned, then staggered, then utterly enervated by the images of the dead. And the images of the survivors are no less haunting. Dazed by the speed and strength of what they have just experienced, they somberly patrol what is left of their cities, villages, neighborhoods, and homes; on their faces, we see that peculiar combination of fear, despair, and awe that—sadly—is becoming all-too-common a sight.

Residents of Santa Fe, a small city in the Philippines’ hard-hit Leyte province, wheel the coffin of a family member to their local cemetery three days after Typhoon Haiyan struck. This photograph suggests both a people and a landscape that have been completely battered: everything about it—the slow parade of mourners, the vestige of blown-apart infrastructure, the gnarled and leafless trees—hints at the true length of the nation’s formidable road to recovery.

Survivors evacuate to a makeshift shelter in Tacloban, a coastal city of 220,000 whose waterfront was reduced to rubble. A day before this photo was taken, Tacloban was placed under a “state of calamity” by President Benigno Aquino III after reports of widespread looting across the city. The sight of a crudely constructed lean-to amidst so much jungle-like vegetation is almost primal; here, this photograph seems to say, is a society with no choice but to start over.

An elderly woman and an injured man hoping to be evacuated from Tacloban are carried to a C-130 aircraft. Though thousands of people lined up on the tarmac, only a few hundred made it onto the plane. In the woman’s facial expression the photographer has captured, indelibly, what shock looks like.

In Tacloban, a young boy carries a valuable cache of potable water over what used to be a port and is now, for all intents and purposes, a massive landfill. A photo like this one is a forceful reminder that the daunting task of cleaning up the mountains of debris can’t and won’t begin until people’s most basic needs can be met.

Residents of Palo, an island in Leyte Province, carry a mattress they have retrieved from a destroyed hotel. Their masks denote a wretched reality: As officials continue to retrieve corpses one full week after the storm, the overpowering stench of dead bodies has become a fact of everyday life for survivors.

An aerial view of Tacloban suggests the mercilessness of the typhoon as it swept through the city. Earlier this week Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred Romuladez, urged those who remained in the city to flee, essentially acknowledging that authorities could not ensure their continued health and safety.

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔