As a little girl growing in the hinterlands of Mountain Province, my fondest childhood memory was diving into the flowing Chico River from the tallest rock and having the noisiest splash and widest ripples as I fall into the rapids of the winding river.
Little did I know that the skill of swimming, which I acquired naturally from crossing the rivers, would save my life and the life of an 11-year-old errand boy named Ramil when Super Typhoon Haiyan swept across Tacloban City with its 15 feet high storm surge on the early morning of November 8, 2013.
Little did I know that the skill of swimming, which I acquired naturally from crossing the rivers, would save my life and the life of an 11-year-old errand boy named Ramil
I was in Tacloban City during the onslaught of the typhoon, working as a Health and Nutrition Consultant for child rights organisation Plan International. On the eve of the typhoon, I was coordinating with staff from the Health Department as my team and I were assigned to give assistance to the People’s Convention Center, a reclaimed area by the sea where families from Tacloban City had been evacuated. The team agreed to be there at 7 am of November 8.
No one could have anticipated what happened the following morning.
By 5:30 am, the typhoon started to flatten Tacloban City. Had the storm came past 7 am, none of the team would be alive today for the strong cemented posts of the convention center were uprooted and the 200 evacuees perished.
I wanted to be at that convention center early. But while taking a bath, I saw the water from the toilet bowl gracefully overflow like gentle waves. I stared at it amazed, asking myself why the water was moving when no one was using the water closet. In retrospect, I regretted that I missed the sign that the water level was rising. If only my finite mind comprehended nature’s language, I could have saved my wedding ring, my new red Nikon camera given by my daughter from Saudi, and my laptop.
Before I could dress up, the water was already at my ankle. I called Ramil to help me put the cavan of rice on the dining table. But as soon as it was on the table, the water rose up to my chest, then to my head. The water was already 15 feet high.
I swam from the dining room to the living room where I saw my 72-year-old landlord trying to open the door to get out. I shouted and stopped him as I could see that the house was already surrounded by water. I told him to step on the window grills and put his head up to the open ceiling, to save himself from drowning. I think the stress of losing his house and collection of vintage long barrel guns took a toll on him for he passed away eight months later.
While swimming I saw Ramil bobbing up and down the brownish murky water. I pulled him, told him to hold my backpack as I swam to my roofless room. I stepped on the floating bed, then to the door knob and jumped to the roof beams and sat there for a few seconds to be safe from flying cars, CGI sheets and whatever the howling wind could carry. As I ducked my head, I noticed that my wrap-around towel has fallen, and I was naked. Since I was still clutching my wet dress, I put my dress on.
I told Ramil, who was hanging on the upper edge of the door, that if the water continues to rise, we will walk the beams to reach the water tank. But he told me that the water was going down because the hooks where I hanged my bags were already showing. True enough, in less than 20 minutes the water subsided.
I jumped down to the floor thickened with slimy mud and I also saw two medium sized sea snakes. It was at that time that I cried and thanked God that we were alive. I realized, “I could have died in a snap.” I realized my survival from the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan was because of divine providence.
After the typhoon, I grew anxious. My cellphone was no more functional and I had no way of calling home and my husband who was in Baguio City. I could not go to the office either as the streets were not passable due to fallen electric posts, broken glasses and appliances, dead animals, twisted steels, and piles and piles of debris.
On November 10, Sunday, I heard the children in the neighborhood shouting “Plan, Plan.” When I went out, I saw my colleagues from Plan International, Jennifer and Edgar, walking towards me and asking questions. It was my co-worker Totch who announced that I was found to our main office, which relayed the news to my unbelieving family who thought that no one could survive the destruction in Tacloban City as shown on the television and news.
Monday, November 11. In my desire to go to the office, I walked for three hours. While walking, I tried to ask the motorbikes for a hitch but not a single one gave me a lift. During disasters values of men are put to test. It was indeed a scary situation. Arriving late afternoon in the office, I was able to call my husband who did not answer when I said hello. I think he cried first with joy after hearing my familiar voice. He then asked me how I survived and I joked back: “Why, didn’t you know that I am an expert swimmer? I backstroked,” while sobbing on the mobile phone. Then my colleagues and I walked to the city government office to start working.
Through it all, my family, colleagues, even officemates told me to resign and just go home. My eldest daughter, a nurse in the US, even asked our Finance Manager to make me resign and go home. Admittedly, I did entertain that idea.
I decided to commit to what Plan International stands for. In disasters, Plan is always there. Plan responds.
But what surpassed that is the realization that, in sufferings and disasters, where lives, properties and livelihood are all lost, survivors like me lived to somehow bring consolation and help to people suffering from the disaster. I decided to commit to what Plan International stands for. In disasters, Plan is always there. Plan responds.
Hence, I still continue to untiringly work for the optimum health and development of children in disaster affected areas. I contribute time and effort to create an enabling environment where vulnerable children can have access to quality health care services and bringing smiles and feelings of hope on the faces of children, their families and communities. My development work in Plan International is the measure of my gratitude to God for saving me during the disaster. Working for children gives meaning to my life that I almost lost during the storm surge of Typhoon Haiyan.
Dr. Esther D. Miranda is Plan International’s National Programme Manager for Health and Nutrition. She currently lives in Tacloban City, where Plan International has an Emergency Response Programme.
Plan International has been at the forefront of the emergency response to Typhoon Haiyan, helping over 1.5 million people in affected areas. Initial emergency response activities focused on emergency shelter, food, water and sanitation, and child protection. Plan International is now in the recovery and rehabilitation phase, with programmes focusing on education, livelihoods, child-centered disaster risk reduction, gender and protection, health and nutrition, and water and sanition. We are working in three of the most affected provinces in Eastern Visayas, covering approximately 90,000 communities and 350,000 indiviudals.