By Peter Barlow
Grace Anne stood on a colorful tiled foundation, the only indication that a house once stood where a few broken cinderblocks with jagged rebar were emanating. My memories of standing within these walls, sleeping, eating with this wonderful family, came from a time when they hosted me just a few years ago.
“Ha! We are rico na!” Grace Anne’s mother, Tita Grace, had said to me one day, as she proudly showed me her newly tiled floor, designed off of pictures she had seen in a re-gifted “Good Housekeeping” magazine. She stood with a large smile, pointing at the fragments of tile and drying grout in between. Without funds to buy proper tile, she had found a pallet of broken shards in town, so the floor was a colorful mix of blues, reds, greens, and all mixes in between. In many ways, it looked better than if she had just gotten a standard set of tile, all alike, with similar patterns and shapes.
When we first drove through the little village of Cabuynan, Tanauan, Leyte on Jan. 22, I recognized only the big Copra Mill where sweating bodies had milled coconut oil, all of the huge containers overturned and leaking sludge. Everything else was a burned, spoiled palette of the town and houses that had once been.
We drove by the house the first time, since I was looking for the sturdy little home that I had known. But then we lurched the creaking jeepney to a stop and turned around, slowly creeping along the National Highway. Finally, we saw a bright tiled floor out in the open, and chain-link remnants of the fence that once guarded the hacienda. Roy and I exited the jeep and walked across the road carrying a few new folding chairs and provisional clothes as Grace Anne stood in a light drizzle in front of her makeshift home of donated plywood, paper-thin roofing, and a soiled UNICEF tent.
Her smile was huge, and as she talked, Grace Anne’s pride shone through a strong composure. Only when asked of her experience during Typhoon Haiyan’s fierce winds and surge did the corners of her beautiful big eyes puddle with anguish.
Grace Anne, her cousin Roussini, her mother and father, and her grandmother were all at her house when they began to hear the first rains hit the metal roof of their home during the evening of Nov. 8, 2013. Within an hour, winds were deafening, and their coastal community knew that this storm was unlike the others they had known.
The first salty Pacific wave shattered a thin wall of cinderblocks and mortar, and tore away the thin metal roof. At about five o’clock, Grace Anne held onto Roussini as they were carried on a wave, white and ferocious, some 50 feet high over to the steep mountain that flanks their little town. The other family members were unable to stay with them, and were forced in other directions. Grace Anne pointed to the places where she and Roussini clung for about three hours as wave after wave of storm surge wiped away homes and lives and the futures of so many. A boulder outcrop jutting out from the mountain where they found shelter at last stands as memorial to their horrible experience.
As they told their story, we stood under a tarp in the small cooking area listening intently, incredulously, to their memories of that night. Finally I asked about her mother, the woman I had known as Tita Grace. Before Grace Anne could answer, we heard a motor slow outside, and Terry, Grace Anne’s father came around the corner, much leaner than I remembered, with a large smile on his face, and outstretched arms.
Rain subsided and we walked on the colorful tile floor in the hot Philippine sun as Terry recounted his experience during the storm. Despite some new scars on his upper arms and a tighter gait to protect some broken ribs, he was the same Terry as always. His voice was tired though, and one could only imagine the pain that he had experienced in the couple of months since the storm.
That night, as waves had swept them toward the same steep slope where Grace Anne and Roussini were clinging for their lives, Terry and Grace held onto each other, grasping for tree tops as the torrent tossed them around. Finally, Terry said they lost their grasp on each other and he clung to a tall coconut tree as floating debris battered his arms and back. A giant white swell carried Tita Grace away into the darkness.
The day after the typhoon, light drizzle fell as Grace Anne, Roussini, and Terry were reunited. Their home was gone, and all that remained were some pieces of rubble and bright tile, washed by ferocious winds and rain. They would find Tita Grace’s torn body a half mile away amongst fallen mahogany branches and a bramble of balukawi vines, and eventually discover Tita Grace’s mother, a cousin, Terry’s mother and father, and many friends who had been lost to the typhoon as well.
For one family to feel this kind of pain is devastating, but unfortunately, it is similar to tens of thousands of stories of families in this jovial, welcoming corner of the world.
Grace Anne told me of her struggle to stay afloat, and her reliance on leaves and wood in those three hours. Neither she nor Roussini could swim, adding to their panic. She stretched her arms wide to show me the size of the snakes and lizards that floated in the white froth with her, and, when I asked her how, despite the waters and odds against them, she had managed to remain alive, Roussini and she clutched one another again, as I imagine they had that evening. Grace Anne shook her head, motioning to the sky.
— Peter Barlow is a member of Montezuma Church of the Brethren and a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. He accompanied Brethren Disaster Ministries leader Roy Winter on a trip to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, to help evaluate how best the Church of the Brethren can support the relief and recovery effort.