A.G. Saño survived Typhoon Haiyan. Now he works for climate justice

October 27, 2020

A.G. Saño, far left, works for climate justice after living through Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (photo by Albert Lozada)

For the umpteenth time since 2013, A.G. Saño pleads with the masses not to let the loved ones he lost in the strongest storm to ever make landfall be reduced to numbers.

It is December 2018, and Saño is bundled up in his black and yellow winter jacket, trying to rally a group of 4,000 climate activists outside COP24 in Katowice, Poland.

Saño, his brother Yeb, and other pilgrims have walked to Katowice from Vatican City as part of the Climate Pilgrimage, their 1,500-kilometer journey that was inspired by Laudato Si’ and elicited prayers from around the world.

A.G. Sano, a Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) survivor, details the devastation the storm that was likely made stronger by climate change wrought upon his father’s hometown, Tacloban, Philippines.

“Three-fifty!” he yells, as in kilometers, the distance the winds sustained speeds of 190 to 195 mph.

“Fifteen!” as in the height of the waves that crushed Tacloban.

“Fifteen thousand!” the estimated number of people dead or missing because of the storm, although an exact figure may likely never be known.

Earlier, he shared the most painful number to him: three, the number of his loved ones who died during the storm. Saño lost his friend Agit Sustento; Sustento’s wife, Geo; and their three-year-old son, Tarin.

Save for losing his own life, Saño has endured the most painful effects from the worsening climate crisis. He had to fight for his survival, collect dozens of dead bodies, some of which were still warm to the touch, and endure traumatic nightmares for weeks.

Yet he remains a fervent climate activist who is passionate about Laudato Si’ and dedicated to climate justice. He creates street art and murals to promote the cause, and he teaches art as a form of therapy to youth affected by disasters.

Saño does all of this because of his lost friends, but also for the lives that he hopes to still save, the people who could be affected by the next Typhoon Haiyan.

“Being there, witnessing what’s happening, it’s like seeing a glimpse of the future of other nations, of other communities,” Saño said.

“I knew I had a responsibility to tell the story. Having survived, I figured I’m gifted with a second life, a second chance. And I don’t want to waste this chance.”

**

A.G. Saño works for climate justice after living through Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (photo by A.G. Saño)

A few hours into the worst stretch of his life, Saño stopped praying that he would survive.

He had already heard the roof of his concrete hotel rattle as if a dozen horses were trampling above him. He’d seen galvanized iron roofs fly off homes, exposing residents.

He’d watched frightened hotel residents, seeking shelter from the water leaking from the roof, scream as water shattered the first-floor glass door.

Saño stood in the third-floor hallway of his hotel, one block away from the ocean, and mentally prepared for the end.

“God, please let my body be found.”

Residents of Saño’s hotel in Tacloban take shelter from Typhoon Haiyan. (photo by A.G. Saño)

Filipinos are used to typhoons disrupting life. But while it remains difficult for scientists to link specifics about a certain typhoon to climate change, anthropocentric climate change has created conditions that can make such storms stronger.

A warmer planet means a warmer ocean, as the ocean absorbs much of the heat from greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer oceans can lead to more powerful storms, as the storms have more water vapor to collect while forming.

Melting glaciers and the loss of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets, along with warm ocean water expanding, have contributed to rising sea levels around the world, which make storm surges worse.

The Philippines and its 7,641 islands in the middle of the ocean are particularly at risk to all of these changes, despite the poor country having little to do with the rising level of greenhouse gas emissions.

A woman surveys the damage after Typhoon Haiyan. (photo by A.G. Saño)

“The deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.’” (LS 48)

Saño knew all this as he stood in the hallway. Loud, rumbling sounds – like a 747 flying above – accompanied the earthquake-like tremors. A powerful storm surge was underway.

He prayed again for his body to be found. But amidst the pitch-black chaos, he saw a person’s silhouette.

“Are you A.G.?” a woman asked.

“Yes, I am A.G. How did you know?”

She was the wife of a former security officer at Saño’s Manila apartment building, and the family was on vacation.

Saño had been out of touch with them of late, but he was the godfather of their oldest child and attended the baptism about eight years earlier, the last time he had seen her.

Talking with someone he knew, Saño no longer felt alone; he felt hopeful.

**

WATCH: ‘We have to speak now’: A.G. Saño opens up about surviving Typhoon Haiyan

In the days following Haiyan, before official rescue operations made it to the battered area, it was left to storm survivors to attempt to clean up the city.

Saño and a crew of six other people drove a dump truck around all day, collecting others’ loved ones, while avoiding looking at their faces, and praying they wouldn’t recognize the bodies.

Typhoon Haiyan caused nearly $6 million in damages and is estimated to have destroyed 90 percent of Tacloban. (photo by A.G. Saño)

The first two and a half days were spent cleaning up downtown Tacloban. Now they were on their way to the San Jose residential district, driving through a disaster zone.

They meandered past piles of cars and demolished homes.

Mourning families begged them to stop and help, but they continued past the dozens of dead bodies for fear they’d never make it to San Jose if they stopped.

Before reaching San Jose, however, Saño saw Ray Caminong, an acquaintance who knew Sustento.

Agit Sustento, his wife, and their child. (photo by A.G. Saño)

Sustento and his family were the reason Saño found himself in Tacloban in early November 2013. Saño was en route from Manila to Camotes Island, near Tacloban, to photograph a community conservation event a couple days later.

But he made time for a short visit to see his friend whom he had met five years ago when they were both living in Manila.

Their paths naturally crossed. Sustento was a tattoo artist, and Saño a street artist who specializes in murals. Sustento played the bass guitar and percussion; Saño, the percussion.

When Saño opened his first art gallery almost two hours south of Manila, Sustento attended and played background music for visitors. “It meant a lot to me for him to support my art gallery,” Saño said.

But they really connected through Tacloban. Sustento grew up there, as did Saño’s father.

In the Philippines, more so than other countries, each area can significantly differ. The country’s 7,000-plus islands boast about 175 different languages. “Almost every island has its own culture,” Saño said.

Growing up, Saño was interested in Tacloban but rarely had the chance to visit. His mother grew up near Manila, so he knew that side of his heritage well. “I had the feeling that it would complete me as a person to know my roots,” Saño said.

Back near San Jose, Caminong stared into Saño’s eyes and started speaking.

“Agit, gone.

“Geo, gone.

“Tarin, gone.”

Saño wanted to break down, to let himself react, even. But he told himself to forget what he’d just heard. He emotionally shut down.

“I can’t break down . . . I need to survive . . . If I break down, I won’t be able to escape. I need to stay sharp.”

“OK, please take care,” Saño told Caminong. “I’ll be in city hall if you need me.”

The destruction from Typhoon Haiyan. (Photo by A.G. Saño)

**

Upon returning to Manila, Saño grew increasingly irritable and endured nightmares for a month.

In one of the recurring dreams he had, he’s in a first-floor hotel room near downtown Tacloban. He’s sleeping and wakes to go to the bathroom, only to open the door to overflowing water and dead bodies.

“I would be submerged,” he said.

He overcame the nightmares by talking about what he experienced. Saño shared his story with Dr. Malou Barrameda, a local doctor who encouraged him to continue discussing his story with others. The next night, he had his “best sleep.”

Some climate activists have endured far less than Saño, who collected 78 dead bodies in total. Yet those activists can feel overwhelmingly discouraged.

But despite everything, Saño remains committed to climate justice for the most vulnerable among us, including his fellow Filipinos.

Saño and other climate activists completed the above mural in Italy during the 2018 Climate Pilgrimage.

He keeps working with the Black Pencil Project, a group of photographers that travels to impacted communities and supports them after disasters. During those trips, Saño teaches art as a form of therapy to help youth process the disaster.

“It’s a big part of relief efforts now. It has to go hand in hand with other relief efforts,” he said.

Saño also inspires hope through his murals, in which he often paints the outline of them and lets others fill in the gaps, a collection that includes his memorable “climate justice” polar bear mural that he painted on the Climate Pilgrimage to Poland.

He found real hope in Laudato Si’ and feels encouraged that the document has transformed millions of Catholics around the world to make caring for creation a priority in their lives.

Listen to A.G. Saño share his story on the Global Catholic Climate Movement Podcast

“I was able to use that to talk about how we can solve the crisis,” Saño said.

“We need to look beyond the corners, the walls of our home, looking at the whole planet as something we need to look after . . . We need to care for the world as a common home.”

Speaking with similar passion for creation, in Poland, Saño concludes his speech to the 4,000 activists by encouraging them to use their voices and rally for a better tomorrow.

“We cannot accept ourselves to be called statistics, or numbers, because we’re human lives. We are people, and together, we should have one, one consolidated voice!”

He ends his speech with a statement of faith that resonated true then and still does today. “We shall overcome!”