The First Hours of Typhoon Yolanda

Trip Start Jun 28, 2013
Trip End Aug 25, 2014

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Flag of Philippines  , Visayas,
Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hello Everyone,

Saying my life over the past two weeks has been turned upside down would be an incredible understatement. The world I live in has been destroyed, damaged, devastated, terrified, horrified, and ultimately challenged beyond anything I could have ever dreamed.

I experienced Typhoon Yolanda firsthand, without knowing that the world would come to know it as the strongest, most enormous storm on land in history. When I awoke at 4 am on
November 8th, little did I know how much my world would be altered in the two
weeks that followed. Despite all these hardships, for years to come, no matter where my life takes me, I can confidently say that I am most thankful that I was able to survive the storm, because many individuals throughout the Philippines were not as lucky.

I was awoken on the day of the storm by the electricity being cut, leaving the house oddly silent and the air flow slowed. My roommates Carter and Sebastian remained sleeping in my bedroom, we had all come together the night before in preparations for the unknown day which was ahead of us. I fell asleep briefly but was awake at 5 am by text message ring tones. After recognizing why I had awaken, I noticed an unfamiliar sound all around me, the foreshadowing sound of tin roofs beginning to shake in the wind. I read the text message on my phone immediately, the first message from one of the children in Cangumbang, "Ate Elsa the wind is very, very, very strong. The roof of the house is flying and the other houses are broken." I was instantly alert, concerned, and anxious to establish more information. The next message from another child came in at 5:30 am, "Good Morning Ate Elsa, were so very scared here."

I myself was scared too, instantly by my worry for their well-being, however at the time I felt confident the storm would not affect me much in my concrete town house.

I responded in the only way I knew how, "Okay, just stay near the floor and stay close to your family. The houses can be fixed, just stay safe. Pray! I love you all" and "Just stay in the center, stay low. Lock the doors and cover the windows. Stay with your family. Pray, it will all be ok."

At that point I got out of bed and woke up my roommates with my concern for Cangumbang. The sound of the tin roofs shaking outside was growing louder. I went to the bedroom at the front of our house where I could observe my surroundings. The rain was only light at that time, but the wind was already blowing the palms in one direction. I watched as portions of my neighbor's roofs flapped in the wind and power lines swung.

When I got back to my phone just past 6 am I had more messages, "Ate Elsa the roof of the building it is flying. And the floor has water..the babies are getting wet!" The message was followed by one from another child, "Ate Elsa, there is water in the center from the rain but there is not a flood yet, the roof it is damaged."

My heart was beating extremely quickly by that point and the rest of the messages were a series of clarifications, concerning directions of anything I could propose to keep them safe. I once again found myself at the window, this time I saw my neighbors roof detach and fly away. The cell service went out shortly after and all I could do was hope, pray, and wait.

After I collected some water downstairs, in case we were without water access for a while, I glanced around the room to make sure everything was off the floor in case of flooding. The wind was louder at that point making it difficult for Carter and Sebastian to hear me from upstairs when I started yelling that there was water coming in the back door. Already prepared with all our supplies and valuables upstairs, we all settled in to my bedroom to wait out the storm.

It wasn't more than 10 minutes before we felt water droplets, it took us a few moments to realize where they were coming from, and then it was almost pouring through the ceiling of our bedroom. Almost instantly, it seemed, the window locks gave out and the shuttered windows began slamming and the wind's howling amplified greatly. We all started yelling various things, grabbed our valuables and ran downstairs to store them some place safe. Our first thought, the refrigerator which we had set on top of a table in case of flooding the night before.

We all ran upstairs to collect more of our important items we thought would be safe from the expected flooding on our second floor, which were instead being damaged by our failing roof. When Sebastian entered his room we realized the roof was going, half of his roof was gone and the remaining portion of his ceiling appeared to be caving in. We immediately went downstairs and stationed ourselves on top of our dining room table, surrounded by our couches raised up on our coffee table with pillows to protect our heads.

At that moment my thoughts slightly settled, in part because the situation didn't seem real at that point. It brought me back to my elementary days of tornado drills, stationed in the hallway of our school on a sunny day with a book about animals propped above my head, whispering to my friends while we all tried to act like the drill was the real deal. We all anxiously watched out the window as the visibility quickly worsened. Our windows began slamming scattering glass across the floor, Carter and Sebastian got up to secure the ones they could. We waited as more and more debris flew by, the sounds outside resounded in the house.

Suddenly, three men ran by our window yelling in Waray trying to protect themselves from the debris, wind, and rain. Carter jumped up and called out to them forcing our door open so they could take shelter inside. We asked them if they were all ok, yes they responded and all huddled just inside the door shivering and anxiously speaking to one another in Waray. I used the words I knew to ask them the necessary questions, their home was gone. For the next 20 minutes we all continued to watch in horror as more and more homes were blown away before our eyes and water slowly trickled in to our house leaving standing water on the first floor.

Again, rather suddenly, the men started yelling outside and two of them ran out the door. There outside, in the river that was now rushing by just outside our complex, was an entire family struggling to get to higher ground. The men helped them inside and we once again insured everyone was ok and got some dry clothes and towels for them; we passed along sandals and any shoes we could find to protect their feet from the broken glass hidden by the multiple inches of water and mud that covered our floor.

This was one of the points where reality again was sinking in, we were taking people in to our home who had literally just lost their homes and had no where else to go. My mind jumped from friend, to coworker, and of course to Cangumbang, imagining the experiences everyone else was dealing with a that moment. Throughout the whole storm, these moments of reflection were rare because people in need continued to consistently present themselves.

Over the course of the 4 hours the storm was in full swing, we took in over 40 children and adults in to our home. Each time the men already safe in our home would run out to help the children and women in to the house, I would run upstairs and grab dry clothes and try to dress the children, while Carter treated their parents injuries or their parents changed in to dry clothes. Sebastian continually rearranged our furniture so people could sit down far enough from the windows to be safe from the storm, and kept an eye on our valuables to make sure they weren't swept away in the storm.

At one point one of the men ran out in to the storm and began vigorously swimming across the chest deep river which stretched across what was once a neighborhood just outside our complex. I heard the people inside saying "bata," which means child in Waray. My heart began to race, moments after he disappeared amidst the wind, rain, and debris he emerged with a bundle in his arms, clearly a baby; his wife gripped his arm from behind fighting the currents to stay together and hold on to her other son. This time I had no reservations opening the door and letting Carter run out in to the dangerous storm to help them climb over the wall to our complex. Carter rushed to the couple and took the baby from the father's arms and swiftly brought him inside. His mother followed us upstairs and I immediately ravaged through my suitcase full of baby clothes donations and blankets, mostly dry and readily available thanks to so many generous donors in October, the mother was hysterical. The babies lips were blue and for the first few moments, there was no cries from his mouth. Once we undressed him and wrapped him in a blanket he began to cry and Carter and I exchanged relieved glances briefly. I let Carter take over with the mother's help and I moved to the landing below to undress his older brother who was drenched and shivering, dressing him in any dry clothes I could find and stationing him safely on the couch with a blanket.

This process continued throughout the storm over and over, from an older man in his 60's to the 10 month old baby, each person was taken in, clothed, and safe inside our home. The water rose gradually filling our first floor with 3 feet of water, but outside the water was well over 4 feet. Luckily, there were no more people needing shelter at that point so we were able to keep the additional flooding outside. But I also recognized that we needed a plan just in case the flooding rose, as the storm didn't appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Carter, Sebastian, and I all remained calm, but we discussed our options. Our roof was now extremely damaged upstairs and water and debris was easily coming in the second floor, the water flowed down our stairway like a waterfall. We decided if the water level rose higher than our waists or the door handle that we would move all the children on to the stairs, the top of the stairs was still dry and the roof was intact. If the water rose over 5 feet we decided we'd need to make sure everyone was upstairs, and if god forbid it was any higher we would just have to wait for it to lift us out of the roof of our house and hope for the best. We all agreed that no matter what, we had to stay in whatever shelter our house could provide us with, because outside the current of the water and the flying debris would surely injure us all and drown some.

At around 11 am the storm finally seemed to be slowing down. We each took turns carefully going outside and surveying if anyone needed a safe place or first aid, but everyone in our area appeared to be somewhere safe and off the streets. As the water level began to lower, we started cooking rice and eggs, some our own and some from the individuals who had taken shelter in our home. The atmosphere of the room slowly changed from despair and stress to a more light-hearted relief.

The little boys dressed in my tank tops down to their knees began to tease each other and wrestle on the couch. The little girls began to smile and curiously peer around the room. Some of the adults went outside to see if they could access what was left of their homes. We served plate, bowl, and cup, one after another, until all the eggs and rice were gone. One of the women started doing the dishes, while another pair began cleaning the floor. A few men tried to mop out the remaining water, while the children sat propped on the couch munching on salvaged bread. I picked up pieces of wet clothing, handing it to the right owner. Carter and Sebastian helped finish cooking the food, surveyed our own belongings, and checked for a safe exit route outside. Everyone was full, safe, and for the time sufficiently able to deal with the situation, despite the horrible event we all just experienced.

By 1:30 pm almost all the families and children had left our home. I fashioned shoes for the little ones out of plastic bags, we filled empty bottles with water, and helped everyone gather their things. Carter, Sebastian, and I packed our backpacks with everything dear to us, including our electronics which survived the storm with our passports tucked away in the fridge. When our bags were full, we collected all our food and set off on our trek to locate our friends and coworkers and find a safe place to stay. At that point we really had no idea of the extent of the damage just outside our complex.

When we exited our complex we were confronted with the National Highway, filled with people walking in all directions instead of the usual bustling vehicles. Power lines and poles lay across the road, intertwined with debris and trees. It was an unbelievable scene, the road and surrounding buildings were more foreign than familiar.

The first four hours were terrifying, a roller coaster like adrenaline rush, but the following hours opened our eyes to a world filled with question marks, destruction, and unknown solutions.

It will take me quite a while to recount the events of the following days, of the two weeks after the storm. But a promise I will share my story, because the entire world needs to know what the typhoon on November 8th has done to the Philippines. The wrath of destruction will permanently affect the lives of many, and we must not forget the extent of need that will continue to exist for months and even years to come.


You Can Help The Victims...

Visit Volunteer for the Visayans Donation Page:
Help the GoAbroad Foundation Reach Their Funding Goal:
Provide Relief Through Victoria's Campaign:
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Jonathan Thomasma on

Thank you for sharing your story, I can't imagine how difficult it is. We pray for you and everyone affected by the storm everyday.

Mom on

We are so proud of all you've done. Someone stopped me at the bank yesterday and wanted me to let you know that "the whole Sturgis Community" is proud of all you and Carter have done and are doing to help there and raise funds here.

Aunt Mary B (to Betsy & Jeff) on

God is smiling and I am certain He is saying "job well done". I only know of the three of you thru Momma Betsy's e-mails but I am so proud of you and your love for others. Your faith has taken you where you can do the most good. If that was a test, you passed with flying colors. God bless you all.

Diane Brown on

Words can not express how proud I am of you & Carter for your strength, love, determination and kindness you poured to the people in Tacloban throughout this whole ordeal. You are my HEROS! Thanks for sharing your side of the story. Everytime I listen to Carter talk about it, I find out a little bit more of what it was really like to have survived the biggest storm recorded in history. I pray for your health and safety daily and look forward to big welcome home hug when you return to Sturgis.

Victoria Mita on

Thank you for sharing this, Elsa. It takes time, courage and a clarity of mind which, you continued to amaze us with, despite all that's taken place. Love you so much and thank God for you, along with many others each night.

Nina Lydersen on

Hi Elsa, I was one of the volunteer you spoke with in Bliss after the typhoon. Thank you very much for your help, and thank you for writing your story that could be mine too. I wish the best for both you , Tacloban and Filiphines in times to come. You said to me that I would be stronger after this, I think this is true.

Tracie Pueschel on

You are amazing! I am an awe of your courage and bravery!

elsat on

Thank you all for your support! :)

Alison Oatey on

Truly inspirational to read your story Elsa, what an amazing selflessness and generosity you showed in such a horrifying and anxious time. I take my hat of to you and am sure that it will be a story you tell for the rest of your life. It would be so lovely to meet you one day.

drbrew-gvsu on

Thinking of you Elsa!! Thank you so much for sharing your story of survival and all that you did from the start of this event. Proud of you and always thinking about you. Stay safe and doing wonderful things :)

Jackie Brazo on

Elsa- I am in awe of your story, your bravery and your sacrifices for the people you are serving. God Bless you and the lives you touch.

Randi on

So happy you were able to make it , and that you and Carter were able to help so many others survive!

Aunt Sue on

What a strong, brave, compassionate woman you are, truly an angel.
Aunt Sue

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