Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tacloban - Typhoon Yolanda, Ground zero - Part 2

Pastor Lemuel shared that he and his wife and three daughters stayed inside their church as the typhoon beat upon it.  They clung to each other and hid by the beam that they believed to be the strongest part of the church as it was collapsing all around them.  There was no where they could run and any attempt to leave while the 200 plus mph winds were ripping through their city and hurling wood, metal roofs and anything else in the storms path would be fatal.  At one point, they noticed that it grew quite.  It was the eye of the storm and as it passed over them they decided to flee to a safer place.  Hours later, after the typhoon had passed they returned to the church only to find it completely collapsed.  If they had not fled during that small window of time, they would all have perished.

Pastor Lemuel, his wife and their youngest daughter
            After our meeting with many pastors we drove to visit a few of their churches before it got dark.  Power to most of the city was still out and only those fortunate enough to own a generator had light.  When we arrived at pastor Rodin’s church, we saw tarps covering where the roof used to rest.  The sanctuary was filled with tents, a few burners for cooking and people still in the process of rebuilding.
“Warzone” is the word that comes to mind when I think about how to describe the way the city looked.  I saw cars that had been tossed, crushed and thrown around as if they were toys. Mile after mile we saw nothing but buildings and homes that had their roofs torn off.  We even saw a fairly large ship resting in a village after it had been carried about a quarter mile inland by the ocean surge.  

When it dawned on me that all the destruction that littered the city was already two months old, I realized that the clean up and reconstruction is going to take months –probably years in many cases– and that some of the scars to the land, property and people would never heal. 
The next morning I woke up to choruses of rosters that went on for about a half hour.  This was accompanied by the sound of a pump being manually operated to draw water from a well and to fill buckets of water to provide for our washing and bathing.  Not long after that you could hear the sound of a chain saw echoing through the valley.  Not doubt, downed palm trees and pieces of wood that had been launched by Yolanda were being cut up so that they could be disposed of or used for rebuilding.
We drove about four hours from Dulag, the city we stayed in over night, to the city of Ormac.  We made as sobering pit stop as we visited one of the mass graves in the city.

Mass grave in Tacloban

Although Ormac did not have the near total devastation that Tacloban did, it did suffer significant damage from very strong winds.  Most of the heavy structures remained in tact, but many structures made of light materials such as those with coco lumber beams, ply wood walls, and metal roofs were blown away or flattened.  Sadly, that describes the kind of construction of many of the churches in Ormac because they don’t have the means to build sturdier structures.
We met with about 30 pastors for lunch and then we transferred to one of the churches that had survived the typhoon so that we could have a time of sharing.  We could see and hear workers in the background as they were repairing the roof of the church, which had been torn off.  The reports were similar to those we heard in Tacloban.  The churches and homes that were made of light materials were destroyed.   Some were literally blown away to unknown locations by the typhoon, some were washed away by the waters and others collapsed into piles of rubble.  As with the pastors from Tacloban, they also reported that the attendance of their churches had gone up significantly.  Rain or shine, people were crowding many of these churches, even though some only had dirt floors, tarps for roofs, no walls, no sound systems, no place to sit and no bibles.  God had grabbed the attention of thousands of people and these pastors are remaining faithful to shepherds these scattered sheep.
We began our trip back to Dulag and when the evening arrived, everything was extremely black and the roads were very dark because there is no power in most of the cities.  To make matters worse, any light that would have normally illuminated us from the moon and stars was not to be seen because there were storm clouds in the air. 
On Tuesday we meet a pastor and his wife who shared how they had to stand on top of the walls inside their house to survive as about 10 feet of water rushed in from the ocean.  This water swept in about a half of a mile carrying cars, trucks, trees and remnants of homes.  It devastated almost everything in its path.  They explained that while the winds of the typhoon was battering their roof, you could hear an eerie high pitched sound.  At the time, their house was still under construction.  The rough structure was complete and the roof and windows were attached, but it remained un-painted and without a ceiling.  From inside you could see clear up to the roof and the tops of the walls were exposed, revealing where an attic would be if it had a ceiling.  They explained that, as the water began to rise, they and their children had no choice but to climb on top of the walls in the house and to holding on to the columns that supported the it.  Several neighbors joined them there to ride out the storm because their homes were not as sturdy or as tall.   
After some hours the waters receded and returned to the ocean.  The waters came and receded two more times before they could begin to clear the mud and debris.  Several families whose homes did not fare as well took shelter in their home.  Because the floors were soaked and they only had a few beds, people took turns sleeping while sitting on plastic chairs or on top of other furniture.  They had no food for about a week so they ate old muddy rice to survive.  They thanked God that their house remained largely in tact and that they did not get sick from the food that they ate.
We drove through Tacloban town proper again and went along the coast.  This was one of the places we had seen pictures of on the Internet and on television reports.  Thousands of people lived there in small homes made of light materials.   If somehow, any parts of these homes remained after the high winds, what was left was no match for the 20 to 30 foot ocean surge that hit the land like a freight train.

Tacloban - Typhoon Yolanda, Ground zero - Part 1

The sky was blanketed with clouds so I couldn’t see the devastation as I looked down from the window of my plane.  I wondered what it would look like in person.  Would it look like the images I had seen on television and the Internet?  Circumstances had prevented us from getting there earlier and I thought that a lot of the damage would be hidden or at least cleaned up by now since it had been about two months since Typhoon Yolanda had struck. 
            Once the plane broke through the clouds I saw the ocean, the edge of Leyte Island and mountains covered in tropical forest.  As our aircraft banked left, parts of the city came into view.  We descended lower and I began to see some signs of damage.  Palm trees that looked as if they had been licked by the wind.  Piles of twisted metal and damaged homes began to emerge.  Because the airport was on the edge of the town, this was only a glimpse of what was to come.
Pastor Rey Farol, Chad Dexter and I (Sean Ransom) landed at the Tacloban airport in the early afternoon.  After taken dozens of flights over the last 25 years of my life, this landing was the roughest I had ever experienced.  When the plane touched down, it made several loud jarring noises and then came to an abrupt stop.  I had to put my hand on the seat in front of me to stop my forward momentum.  Once we reached the end of the runway’s single landing strip, we made a U-turn.  As we taxied back to the terminal I could see what had cause the hard landing.  Even thought the Tacloban airport had been cleaned up and re-opened, the scares from the Typhoon remained.   First I noticed a few pieces of sea wall that must have weighed several tons lying broken along side of the runway.  It appeared that they had been tossed like a child’s toy as they rested several yards away from their places in the sea wall.  After this, the potholes in the runway became visible; this explained our rough landing.

Bagage claim at the Tacloban airport
As we deplaned I saw that most of the walls of the terminal were gone and that in some places, you could see through the terminal to the parking lot and reception area.  The metal roof was repaired and reinforced, but a lot of work was left to be done in rebuilding the Tacloban airport.  We all gathered around the remnants of the baggage carousel and waited for our bags.  With no walls, we could see the plane being unloaded and small carts bringing our possession over to us. 
            We went straight from the airport to a restaurant that had 21 pastors waiting to meet us and tell us their stories.  

Our first meeting with pastors in Tacloban
As the pastors began to share what they had gone through I began to realize how great their needs are and how great our need would be for God’s wisdom as to best help minister to these men and their churches.
Pastor Reymond
Of the many stories we heard that day, Pastor Reymond’s story touched my heart the most.  As His family and other church members sought refuge from Yolanda, they thought it best to ride it out in their church building because it was made of cement blocks, reinforced by steel.  I’m sure they reasoned that this would be safer than their less fortified homes.  Their thinking was right when it came to the almost 200mph winds, but they did not anticipate that the sea it self would rise up and attack the shore.  Someone said that the water was higher than the palm trees, which stretch 3-4 stories high. 
As the water rushed into their church the people scrambled to get above the water.  They climbed into the rafters to get away, but many were not fast enough or strong enough.  I can only image the horror that Pastor Reymond witnessed as the storm surge carried off his two daughters, his wife, mother in-law, father and two brothers.  I asked one pastor if they were carried out to sea. 
He said that they do not know if their bodies are at rest in the ocean, one of the cities mass graves or under one of the thousands of piles of debris throughout Tacloban.  I was told that Pastor Reymond was silent for several days, probably in shock as he processed what had happened.  As he shared his story with us, he smiled and thanked God.  He had a peace that surpassed understanding.  A peace that is impossible to have without the gracious and comforting hand of God upon you.  My mind shifted as he spoke, what would I have done if I were in the situation?  How would I handle it afterwards?  Could I?  Pastor Reymond shared that he thanks God that He is still alive to make Him known.
He went on to describe how he and his members began to pick up the pieces of their lives by rebuilding the church and each other.  He and several other pastors repeated what became a theme, the Typhoon was causing many people to turn to God and their destroyed churches were actually growing. 

Another common story that we heard from these pastors was that their homes were destroyed so they, their families and many of their members were living in what remained of their church buildings, with many of them having to sleep on the floor.  

This pastor stands with his family where their Church meets

Others pastors shared how it was their churches that had been destroyed and that now, their homes served as the places where their churches gather together to worship the Lord.  Still for others, their homes and churches were destroyed and they either meet in the homes of members, under tarps and temporary structures or have paused corporate worship altogether until they can rebuild a place to gather.    ...To be continued.