I had the privilege of serving a mission for my church over 20 years ago. I lived and served in the Philippines from September 1995 – August 1997. I have incredibly fond memories and experiences that have had a great influence on my life. I worked in the Southern Luzon region which is the area to the South of Manila. I lived in the cities of San Pablo, Santa Cruz, Balayan, Pagbilao, and Lucena. Although these areas were not at the heart of the recent storm, Typhoon Haiyan, they were undoubtedly affected and are dealing with the aftermath. I have watched, in horror, the news of this terrible storm that recently tore its way across the Philippines and it reminded me of an experience I had while living there.
A little over a month after I had been in the Philippines, the 8th and soon-to-be 9th costliest typhoon in history hit and crossed right over my area. We knew it was coming and stayed in our home all day. We lived in what locals called a mansion. It was a two-bedroom, two-story house that was made of cement walls and was in a nice part of town. As I sat in an upstairs bedroom looking out the slatted glass windows (jalousies) the storm’s power was amazing and hard to comprehend, let alone put down in words. Palm trees were laid down vertically in the streets due to 190 – 230mph winds. The amount of water that was pouring down seemed impossible! Growing up in Las Vegas where, though it rarely rained, there can be some very severe rainfall when it does decide to come down. I was not new to flash flooding, however, this was something new entirely. I watched as roofs were ripped off and debris and animals were washed down the streets, which had become raging rivers in the flood. The storm continued all day and the water continued to rise. Our house was up higher than the street and seemed safe, however, that afternoon water started to creep in under the doors. A fellow missionary and I moved all our furniture upstairs and even put the fridge up on the counter in the kitchen…
The water kept coming…
The flooding continued until the water was chest high on the main floor of the house, which when it finally receded, left about 2 inches of mud and silt in our living area. Finally, the rains and wind subsided and the flooding slowly started to regress. Fellow Missionaries and I decided to go out to explore the damage caused by the rains, wind, and flooding. We wanted to check on our friends and neighbors and the community. We swam out of our house and swam down the river that had been our street. The destruction was incredible. Many animals had perished and residences were destroyed. We didn’t know it at the time but over 900 people would die due to the storm. One local area, which we had visited several times previously, was always underwater before the storm. The houses were bamboo huts on stilts and the residents had built up a stilted walkway between each house. I had fallen off the walkway once and the water was up to about the middle of my calf. When we went to visit this area that day, the 15-20 houses that had been there, housing many families, were completely gone! There was no trace of them. The water was well above my head (6’3″). I wondered what had happened to these families. I feared that they had washed away with their homes. I was in shock. However, we realized there was not much we could do that day so we decided to go back home and wait for the water levels to drop so we could start to help with the rebuilding efforts that would inevitably ensue. I prayed for those who were not as fortunate as us and hoped we would be able to help.
I was devastated! I was concerned. Many of my new friends’ lives had, as it seemed, been permanently and violently altered. I assumed that the upcoming weeks and months ahead would involve a long and trying rebuilding process (Think Hurricane Katrina). I was wrong. One of the reasons I have a lasting love for the people of the Philippines is their response to this storm. The families who lived in the bamboo huts had all of the houses rebuilt within 3-4 days. The families had moved to safety when it was clear that their homes would not make it, all survived. They grabbed their essential belongings and keepsakes (usually kept in gallon-sized ziplock bags) and moved to higher ground and shelter (local buildings). The community got together and went “downstream” and picked up the materials from the destroyed houses and brought them back to rebuild. They cut new bamboo and weaved new roofs. Everyone helped. Everyone chipped in. They made sure everyone had food and shelter. Families were displaced but no one complained. Within a week or two, things – though not 100% – were back to almost normal. There was still devastation in agriculture and transportation was affected by damaged roads but the people were able to cope with it quite well. Everyone shared in the burden. People didn’t blame God or the Government, they accepted the trial and moved ahead!
I was moved and still am.
As I watch the news and wonder at the terrible trials and pain this storm has caused and is still causing, I have hope and faith in the Filipino people. I know that they are a resilient and incredible people. I know that they can and will bounce back. I know that those who have lost loved ones due to the storm (around 4000 and counting) will mourn and feel much pain. I hope they can recover and I hope God will be with them. I know this storm is much worse than the storm I experienced 18 years ago, but I also know that Filipinos are stronger and better than they were then. And I know God will watch over them and help them to get back to living.
To this day I use the lessons of resilience and accountability that I learned watching the people of Santa Cruz rebuild and move on after Typhoon Angela. I know that when a personal disaster hits my life I can look to God. I can move ahead without blaming others. I can because I watched my brothers and sisters in the Philippines move on after a terrible disaster hit their homes and lives. They can handle it and are an invaluable example of how to get knocked down and then get back up and be better than they were before.
My prayers are with the Filipino people. They will ever be an example of strength and resiliency that I will look to for the rest of my life.