As Perez and his two companions drive through the night, they stop at each chapel along the highway, writing down the names of the missing, asking what the people in each town need. Perez is the disaster relief coordinator for the LDS Church in the Philippines, a country that has more than its fair share of storms and earthquakes.
Perez himself has been through more typhoons than he can count, but this one, he can already tell, is the worst.
At each place he stops, he hears incredible stories of survival, even miracles. More than 400 people took shelter in one chapel, at least 100 of them not members of the church. All survived.
In Palo, a small fishing village with houses of concrete, but others of only plywood and tin roofs, a father of nine sent eight of his children to the chapel, where they huddled together in a bathroom as the 200-mile-per-hour winds ripped the roof off the joists and sent it flying in chunks into the blackened sky.
The father stayed home, like other men in his village, holding his 10-month-old baby under his T-shirt to keep her warm. When the storm surge engulfed his house, he climbed to the roof, and soon enough the water was up to his neck. He held his baby girl above the water for three hours, until it subsided and he could rush to the chapel, where he wept in relief when he found his other eight children were all safe.
Their 72 hour kits washed away, they lived off coconut water and bananas for three days, until aid arrived.
At another chapel not far from here, a wall collapsed, revealing a water pump no one knew was there. Had the wall not collapsed, the members tell him, they wouldn’t have had a place to find fresh water.
In town after town, Perez hears similar stories. Before the storm, a bishop in a town called Ormoc drove by motorcycle into the mountains and down by the rivers to plead with his members to take refuge in the chapel. All of those who listened survived.
But he also hears and sees things he’d just as soon forget.
In Tacloban, carcasses of pigs and dogs and humans lay along the riverbank, decaying in the sun. He can’t believe how many bodies he sees in the streets, even three days after the typhoon. The road is so crowded with debris — twisted sheets of corrugated steel, splintered palm trees chopped off at the knees — that the highway is barely passable, and it takes hours to go a few kilometers.
As Perez inches through the city, trying to make his way to the LDS mission home, a sort of frenzied madness sets upon the people. He watches from his car as mobs loot a meat-processing warehouse. Others climb through the wreckage, over street signs and the rubble of fallen cinderblock, carrying flatscreen televisions and expensive video cameras.
The looters are in such a hurry they step on the bodies rotting in the streets, and move on without reaction. The Philippine soldiers there to establish order shoot into the crowd, and then up in the air as a warning.
Perez knows it is wrong, but in these moments he can’t help but feel a deep anger toward the looters. He briefly thinks: If it were up to me, this city would receive help last.
But then he remembers the friends he has in Tacloban, the many who live here now without a home. At one chapel he stopped at, asking what the members need, a woman pushed a package of crackers into his hand, insisting he take them for he and his two traveling companions, even though he lives in a city unaffected by the storm.
Her generosity nearly brings him to tears.
When the storm comes, Ruby is already up, fixing breakfast. Her father has been through many typhoons, but they can all tell that this one is different. As it rages, for hours, they can hear metal twist and the thundering sound of falling trees crushing buildings. Her 9-year-old son, Elijah, can’t stop crying. She tries to hush him with Primary songs, but nothing works. All eight of them kneel down and pray.
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