Elsa Thomasma is the Director of the GoAbroad Foundation and an active philanthropist who is living and working in Tacloban City, Philippines. Her vision and drive made it possible to construct a storm shelter in Cangumbang, a village south of Tacloban, that saved countless lives during Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda). As she continues to work to rebuild the communities devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, she shares with us her personal experience preparing for, surviving, and recovering from the Typhoon.
Tell us about your work in and around Tacloban.
Before Typhoon Haiyan my work in Tacloban was centered on working as a Content Manager and Editor for GoAbroad.com and organizing informal feedings and activities for kids living around Volunteer for the Visayans Community Center in Cangumbang, which I fundraised for and helped construct in 2012 and 2013.
What do you remember about preparing for Typhoon Haiyan?
My roommates, two American who were interning for GoAbroad.com at the time (one of whom has been a very close friend for a long time), and I gathered all our valuables and decided to sleep with them by our side. We put our refridgerator on top of a table in our kitchen, our couch on our coffee table and dining room table, brought food and water upstairs, and also moved our gas stove upstairs.
We did everything we could to prepare for flooding on the first floor of our apartment so we brought all the essential items for survival upstairs, not knowing that we’d actually end up taking shelter on the first floor 12 hours later.
The afternoon of November 7th, we went to the grocery store to buy some emergency food, I remember literally buying 3 cans of tuna, 1 kilo of rice, 2 packs of instant noodles, and a dozen eggs. We had 2 large jugs of water at our house, and we thought we were prepared enough for what we thought would be 2 days without stores being open.
Where were you during the Typhoon? What happened?
The typhoon woke me up at 4:30 am when the electricity turned off and the house became eerily quiet. I fell back asleep for a few minutes before being woken up by text messages, worried texts from kids in Cangumbang who had already evacuated to the community center. At 5:00 am, the shaking of the tin roofs in our neighborhood gave me chills, so I got up to take a look out the front of our house.
The wind was blowing the palm trees and the electrical wires were swaying, but the rain was only light. I couldn’t see anyone outside, and there were no clear signs that the worst storm in history was on its way. I got a text from my co-worker that I should collect water in case the water was shut off after the storm, so I began collecting tap water in buckets and jugs we had in the house.
While the buckets and jugs were filling I woke up my roommates, as the wind was getting stronger and I was getting anxious. When I got back downstairs I saw there was water coming in our back door, so I quickly put the buckets and jugs on the counter top and went upstairs to tell my roommates I thought we should stay upstairs.
We all laid down around 6 AM, after we watched our neighbors roof literally peel off and fly across the street. Within minutes there was water coming in from every direction and we all jumped up trying to figure out what was going on. We were yelling at each other just to hear one another, as the wind was getting increasingly louder. Realizing the upstairs was no longer safe, we took all our valuables downstairs. Before I could get back upstairs my roommate yelled from his room that his roof was caving in, I remember looking into his room in utter disbelief that it was really happening.
We knew we had to create a safe spot to ride out the storm downstairs, so we propped ourselves on the dining room table and used our couch and pillows to protect ourselves from the breaking glass flying in as our windows shattered.
We had no choice but to wait and see what would happen, all communications were cut and it was too dangerous to venture outside for any reason.
Shortly after the visibility was so bad outside we couldn’t see more than a foot outside our front windows, we saw 3 mean run by the front of our house. My friend instinctively called out to them and ran over to the door to let them in. They were shirtless and shoeless, shaking from the cold wind, and clearly disturbed by the state of the world outside our apartment. Moments passed and we all anxiously watched the storm progress.
It wasn’t long before they opened the door and one of them slipped outside and made a run for it, by that time the water was past our ankles in the house. All I heard the men say was “bata” (meaning children in the local dialect), and my heart dropped. I immediately realized we were not experiencing a normal typhoon and the next few hours were a blur.
Child after child, family after family, were brought to our house to seek refuge from the storm. Some were injured, some were distraught, a 10 month old baby came in blue in the face and thank god my friend was a CNA and sprung in to action to provide emergency care. When they baby let out a cry I thanked god, at that moment I thought that would be the worst thing that could happen.
By 11 am there were around 40 people in our home, from 10 months old to 70 years old. We huddled on the first floor watching in awe as the world literally flew by us outside. When the storm died down, the men went out to check on the state of things, the women began to clean up the murky sludge that was left on our floor, and my roommates and I began cooking as much food as we could for the children that were safely propped on our couches, dressed in various pieces of our clothing and covered with anything dry we could find so they wouldnt freeze.
At 1 pm, our house was clear, and we began our journey outside the walls of our apartment, into a literal apocalypse.
How did you deal with the aftermath of the Typhoon?
All I could think about was surviving, doing everything I could to see my loved ones alive, both in the Philippines and across the world. I focused on our goals each day, extending our survival by locating essential resources, and attempting to remain calm through everything. It was not easy, I could never act like it was.
What does the one year anniversary mean to you?
The one year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan means revival for me. Though we have experienced unimaginable loss, we are still alive, the city has come back to life, and the people are willing to do everything to survive and rebuild. The strength of survivors is incredible, and inspiring.
To help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan rebuild their lives, consider taking the GoAbroad Foundation Pledge now.