Local humanitarian and photojournalist Alekz Londos captures a powerful look at relief and despair in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
At first glance, Alekz Londos may appear to be like other Santa Cruzans. He’s healthy, boasts a tremendous amount of creativity and has a strong desire to contribute something valuable to society. But the 33-year-old is definitely in a category all his own. Equal parts bold humanitarian and intrepid daredevil, Londos’ relief efforts in the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) in November of 2013 makes him one of the more visible agents of change, both locally and internationally.
Typhoon Haiyan devastated Southeast Asia and the Philippines in particular. More than 6,200 people were reportedly killed and more than 1,780 people went missing. Cost of the devastation: $1.5 billion. It is the deadliest Philippines typhoon on record.
That Londos dropped everything to travel to the region may be impressive, but what he discovered there in three weeks time was life-changing—personally and beyond.
This wouldn’t be the first time Londos offered aid where it was needed. After doing extensive research on hurricanes over the last decade, he’s delved into several intense situations, particularly Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. He says he typically flies to a city before a storm hits— in the case of the Philippines, he had to wait due to airport closures. In addition to relief efforts, Londos documents the area and its people through photos as a photojournalist for various media outlets
Born in Reno, Nev., Londos moved to Santa Cruz County when he was 8. He attended Soquel High School before entering the fold at Cabrillo College. There, he immersed himself—and still does—in an eclectic mix of courses, absorbing all that he can on a slew of heady subjects: environmental geology, physics, an EMT course, fire behavior and combustion, CPR, meteorology and hazardous materials—and even a course on becoming a nuclear chemical biological first responder, which, despite the emotional weight of its moniker, manages to sit well on the brain and provoke further thought and reflection.
“So much of our society is obsessed with sports, video games, TV and smoking pot, and I wanted to try to do things to make a life and a future that I could live in,” Londos says before directing me to a litany of other courses he’s taken—everything from an immersion with the Red Cross to his six-month endeavor at the Felton Fire Station where he learned about debris and body removal, as well as earthquake and disaster relief for a Community Emergency Response Team certification.
His latest excursion is the creation of an Advanced Disaster Relief International Survival Kit, an emergency kit which will be sold and distributed around the world. The kit, which is also available to the general public, includes items designed to help people recover during the aftermath of a disaster before help arrives. (See page 18 and AdvancedDisasterRelief.com for more details.)
Here, Londos opens up about his mindbending journey and shares his compelling photographs with GT in an illuminating photo essay.
Good Times: What prompted you to go?
Alekz Londos: I have press credentials and I had experience doing relief work. I had gone to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina [in 2005] for 10 days and have been through three hurricanes in all—Hurricane Gustav in New Orleans , Hurricane Isaac in New Orleans , and Super Storm Sandy in New York just last year. When things started happening with the storm in the Philippines, I was in a meteorology course at Cabrillo College and watching oceans around world, studying the rising temperatures and climate change, so I was paying attention to hurricane season. I saw the low-pressure system and a hurricane starting to form, so I knew I was going to get a ticket and go. When it hit, I knew it was going to be serious and if I could have left sooner, I would have been able to save so many more people.
Some people would find this daunting. You must experience some fear.
I am the type of person who thinks, “OK, I am going to do this. I am doing this. This needs to be done and then … oh, I bought my ticket. Too late. I am doing this!” It’s pretty much like any decision I make. I felt like I was in a place in my life where I could do this. And sometimes, it was intense. I was almost jumped and robbed for my belongings or my organs—who knows? And I was in very dangerous places and felt very vulnerable, but I made the decision that I could to do the most amount of good for people. I stayed there several days after most organizations and the military piled out. It was more intimidating after that.
Tell us about the journey there.
I was on the first Military C-130 to land in the Ormoc airport [in Ormoc City, Philippines] since it shut down before the storm. I then traveled with local villagers across Leyte Island, before arriving in the city of Tacloban [in the North]. I was one of the only Americans in the region. People constantly asked when help was going to arrive, saying things like, “we need medicine, food and clean water.” Some survived the ocean by swimming through waves of debris, but they were scared and injured, screaming for help or saying prayers to God. They told me, “I’m a survivor.” With my own supplies and equipment I was able to give medical attention to hundreds of victims. I also independently carried food, clothes and cases of water to those who needed it the most. I didn’t know that additional resources wouldn’t make it into the region for another week.
Can you talk more about the people and the conditions?
Thousands of refugees were left to survive on their own. The sick, the wounded, the disabled, the women, the orphaned children and the elderly were now the most vulnerable and isolated from the rest of the world with no communication, medicine or medical help. There was a moderate epidemic from the parasitic disease leptospirosis and tetanus from the contaminated floodwaters. The antibiotics and tetanus shots were running out. Resources were scarce; most of the water was contaminated with toxic chemicals or pathogenic microorganisms. There was no electricity and little fuel. Flies, cockroaches and rats were feeding on what was left in the city.
I met with the mayor [Alfred Romualdez], did debris removal, and worked with search and rescue teams doing body recovery, went on military supply convoys and flew on helicopter airdrop missions into remote villages. I helped with the delivery of a baby, transported medical patients and medical supplies. I even helped save the life of a tetanus patient after successfully performing an emergency tracheotomy. I did everything I could and it never felt like it was enough.
Tragic events. What do you feel is at stake here—really?
I stand in this point in history, in my lifetime, where I am witness to people from every side of the world who can feel our climate changing. These are the super storms that scientists predicted decades ago; warning us they would happen if we didn’t transition into a sustainable world. We are creating the future right now—our over-consuming society wasting resources, our dependence on fossil fuels, buying things we don’t need, polluting our environment, killing off our wildlife and endangering species. Every one of us has the responsibility to make conscious choices each day on how we live our life—from the companies we support to the products we buy.
This was the most powerful typhoon in recorded history, breaking all scientific intensity scale records. International aid is crucial when the scope of a disaster overwhelms local resources. The international community needs to reevaluate existing procedures, be more vigilant and adapt to the changing environment around us. We are just beginning to see the consequences of our biosphere’s imbalance that will affect billions of people throughout future generations.
Why do you help?
When you know people are suffering … it’s knowing you can do something to alleviate that suffering. Nobody should have to live like that. I’m disappointed in the industrialized world’s contribution to our changing environment. I try to help people wherever I am at—to help them make it through difficult times in life with whatever skills I have. That’s why I got into this field of EMS Rescue.
Looking back, what are few things you learned—about yourself, about humanity?
As far as the people in the Philippines, they are resilient and very strong. It upsets me that a simple, mostly sustainable community in a third-world country in a remote region of world would have to face something of this magnitude and have to rebuild their lives.
But what about you? What have learned about you?
I think that if I had the right amount of money and resources, I would be able to do extraordinary things. I feel as if I have a lot more potential that I can’t access.
For an extended report on Alekz Londos’ journey, including photos and more information about the Advanced Disaster Relief International Survival Kit, visit AdvancedDisasterRelief.com. Email Alekz at [email protected]