I was walking down my favorite street in the Philippines saying hi to pineapple vendors and playing with kids as they yelled “Barbie!” and “Americana!” at me. It was then that someone told me that a super typhoon was coming toward the island. My heart broke thinking of the people I knew and loved. Despite their struggles, they were filled with joy, perspective, and a sincere desire to make others happy. I stopped by one of my favorite nanays’ (grandma’s) houses to say hi to her and her adorable down syndrome son who lived next to the freeway in a small cardboard hut. They had become some of my favorite people in the world. I pleaded with them to evacuate; but as with most typhoons and hurricanes, many people couldn’t bear to leave their homes.
As the storm reached the shore, it grew stronger, faster, and more destructive.
That night, as I said my evening prayers, I felt the question arise in my heart, “Am I prepared to return to my Heavenly home?” I told God that I was willing to do His will.
It felt surreal to allow my to heart accept the fact that I could die. I wanted to live. I wanted to get married and have kids. No matter how hard it would be to survive. My soul was talking to my Heavenly Father and I whole-heartedly trusted Him no matter what.
I woke up a few hours later to wind crashing through our house. Telephone wires were sparking on the pavement; wind was blowing through my worn-down island-style home as if there were no walls. The eye of the storm was heading directly toward us. I gathered with the nine girls I lived with in a bedroom on the second floor of our house; we got on our knees and prayed for those we knew and loved in their little bamboo homes on the beach. We prayed for safety and the ability to help those we could when the storm ended. As hours passed the storm got louder and louder. The morning sky darkened, debris started flying through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, and the ocean started surging, creating giant waves. In the midst of it all, we knelt in the tiny bedroom, prayed to God, and sang hymns for peace.
We looked out the window to see the ocean flooding the streets of our neighborhood. As we opened the bedroom door, we saw black, dirty ocean water rapidly flooding the first floor of the house and rising to the second.
All the windows, barred for our protection, made it impossible to escape. All I could think of was what we could do next to survive.
We walked down the stairs, into the dirty water, and swam for the only exit—the front door. It was jammed by the water pressure on both sides. We started to panic and searched for other ways out. One of my good friends swam from one room to the next until she reached the laundry room, where she discovered that a small piece of ceiling had been torn off by the wind. She began to punch the hole in the ceiling until she created a gap large enough for us to climb through to the roof.
Once we got on the roof, we again knelt and prayed. We prayed for the people that we knew were suffering much more than us; we prayed that our families and friends would be comforted; we prayed for protection against the debris and strong winds; we prayed that the water would stop rising. Soaking wet and freezing cold, we laid on the roof cuddled together for warmth and protection.
After a few hours, miraculously, the water stopped rising and some kind, Filipino men climbed through the debris and helped us down from our roof. They took us to the neighborhood school where they had found refuge from the storm. The first floors were flooded. The top floor was covered in broken glass and rain water, with wet families huddled around each other. I saw one of my neighbors who told me that she didn’t have a house anymore. We were all wet, and the wind was blowing through the now-windowless school. I was pale, shivering, and exhausted when a stranger handed me a bag of chips. This stranger didn’t know where her next meal would come from, or if she would ever eat again, but she shared with me—a privileged, American girl.
We survived on the kindness of others and the tender mercies of the Lord for the following days. The destruction was unimaginable and the city was unrecognizable. The smell of death, lack of food, and loss of hope drove a mass exodus of survivors to other islands. The U.S. Air Force provided flights off the island to safer areas in the Philippines, where I stayed until I was able to return to Tacloban a few months later.
The following days and months were some of the hardest and most beautiful months of my life. Leaving the people I had come to love so deeply, not knowing who survived, and knowing that thousands died, threw me into depression. Through prayer, scripture study, and serving others, I learned that Christ suffered in Gethsemane, not only for my sins, but my heartache and depression also. I learned that He didn’t suffer for me to only be cleansed from sin, but to become the woman only He knows I can become. His strength, if we trust Him, allows us to take our blessings and trials to enable us to grow to become more than we could ever become on our own.
I went to the Philippines to serve the Filipino people, but ultimately, they taught and served me infinitely more. Their examples of selflessness, humility, and unconditional love carried me through the following days of hunger and fatigue, and months of heartbreak and depression. As time passed, I found healing through serving and loving others. God gave me a taste of His love, and that was the healing salve that my soul needed. Now, when I get caught up in “first-world” heartbreaks I try to remember Jesus’ example as He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and healed His captor’s ear, and as He suffered on the cross and remembered to care for His mother and forgive His accusers. In losing everything, I found hope in humanity, depth in myself, and faith in my God. I will never stop striving to live life with the Filipino spirit; healing, trusting, and loving.
Special thanks to