Visiting the community for the first time in 2009, building homes and getting to know the locals for 6 months in 2011, avidly fundraising in 2012, completing construction of a community evacuation center in 2013, our director Elsa Thomasma has more than a close relationship with the village of Cangumbang. So when Typhoon Yolanda ravaged through the Philippines in November 2013, Elsa couldn’t bring herself to leave the devasted island of Leyte until she could see her family in Cangumbang.
Facing food shortages, threatened safety, and unknown days ahead, Elsa kept her heart focused on Cangumbang and her mind set on survival. After three sleepless nights and three grueling days, scouring the city for supplies and survivors, Elsa finally got the chance to venture by motorbike to Cangumbang, not knowing what state she’d find the village in. The following is a portion of her experiences on November 11th, 2013:
“Riding on the motorbike, my anticipation grew as we weaved through traffic, and more often sat in traffic. The National Highway still wasn’t cleared all the way and we had to pass by the one lone gas station open in the area, so there were many traffic jams along the way. When we reached the town proper there was one last cluster of vehicles as we passed a main intersection and then we were free to drive, carefully passing by mounds of debris on either side.”
“I hardly recognized the road, despite having rode down it hundreds of times. We rode in to the rice fields and on either side everything was gone, the homes were flatten, the coconut trees were fallen or snapped off, the vegetation had disappeared, and everything was brown, as opposed to the luscious green that once existed.”
My concern and anxiety rose with each passing meter, imagining the horrifying possibilities.
“I was nearly in tears when we approached the Barangay Chairman’s home along the way, I saw him standing outside and the driver slowed so I could speak with him. I asked, “Is the Center still standing?” His daughter replied from behind him “It’s still there, look” and pointed in the distance. There across the rice fields, which once held homes and trees blocking the center from view, the center stood. I began to cry and hesitated before I could squeeze out my next question “Is everyone ok?” The Chairman adamantly exclaimed, “No casualties, no causalities.” My heart raced and I thanked him as we drove off, my eyes glued to the remains of the center. My mind no longer jumped to horrific scenes, but only to the faces of the children traumatized. The tears continued to flow.
When we reached the center there were two children standing in the road, I called out to them..I hugged them so tightly. One after one each child, kissing them on the head as they giggled at my tears. The mothers looked concerned, but we were all thankful to see one another alive. With the children in tow as usual I climbed the center stairs, at the top stood Ate Corazon, she let out a cry before I reached her. We both held each other while we cried, I couldn’t imagine what I would have done if she was not ok. I picked up the twins, hugging them and kissing them over and over. I was so overwhelmed by it all that I sat under their tents in the center and we all just stared at each other for a while, happily expressing how thankful we were to see each other.”
“Then, we exchanged questions and answers for a while, they were shocked by the calamity I explained. They told me the center’s roof flew off around 8 am and the water was coming in to the center heavily, but they hid the children under the tables and the adults held them down so they wouldn’t fly out of the center. The men stayed in their homes, but one by one the homes collapsed and the men made their way to the center, struggling to make it upstairs to safety. The doors had flown off from the pressure of the wind pushing from all sides. The water rose to chest deep and though it was difficult, some families stayed in the first floor of the lone neighbor’s house that was still standing. The top two floors were effortlessly disintegrated.”
“As my eyes scanned the village I could hardly recognize where homes once stood, only 3 homes stood in the entire area, all of which were at least partially made of cement and all were also damaged somehow. How could I rebuild a whole village? I couldn’t think of that long term question, I tried to focus on immediate needs. No one was injured, but they needed food, and soon.”
“I continued to hug them and share with them what was happening in Tacloban and the rest of the world since the storm. I couldn’t stay for too long, as the sun was beginning its descent and I had no idea how long it would take me to get back, not to mention I had given the kids my own water and food for the afternoon because I couldn’t stand to eat or drink in front of them.”
“Each of them looked concerned as I put my helmet on and prepared to depart for an unknown period of time.”
“I turned away after blowing them a kiss, trying to hold back the tears of not knowing when I would see them again.”