The family of eight scrambles to gather a lifetime of possessions and memories, unsure if they’ll ever return, knowing they can only pack what they can carry.
Ruby is amazed at how little material things matter to her now. Hours later, she and her family begin the long walk to the pier. It’s been eight days since the storm, and dead bodies still lie in the street. The smell is so bad, Ruby vomits several times on the walk. Her husband and father cover their noses, and try to look away.
The navy ship is a blessing, a deliverance from a nightmare, but it’s also another trial. They sit on the ship deck with no covering from the rain or sun for the 24 hours it takes to get to Cebu, alternately drenched with rain, and then soaked with sweat.
In the days after their departure from Tacloban, the U.S. military arrives, and thousands of Filipino police from around the country set up checkpoints throughout the city and impose an 8 p.m. curfew. The looting stops. Each day, more debris is cleared from the roads.
As the city stabilizes, the bodies are cleared from the streets, and international aid groups from around the world set up a tent city near the airport. Aid workers fan out through Tacloban, giving shots and handing out water and food. U.S. military helicopters lift off from the airport all day long, delivering pallets of food to remote communities.
A little over two weeks after the storm, the city’s biggest hardware store reopens, and a long line forms. People buy nails and corrugated tin roofing. Near the airport, a group of off duty policemen play pick up basketball on a dirt court outfitted with a wooden backboard.
Not far away, a man bathes by dumping a bucket over his head. A piece of plywood is all the shelter he has left. His wife is one of the 1,611 still listed as missing. The death toll, as of Nov. 22, is over 5,200 and expected to keep rising.
Perez keeps a list of his own, the names of the members of his church still unaccounted for.
A new home
It’s morning in the Philippines, the ground wet with rain. In the foothills above the city of Cebu, near a field where a cow eats under a mango tree, Ruby’s father sits on a bench made of bamboo strips.
Inside the house behind him, his grandson is playing video games on a smartphone. His son-in-law is doing laundry. Ruby comes outside and sits beside her father in the shade, gently pats his bony hand.
For now, this is their home, on a quiet street, with a yard fenced by a cement wall. Shortly after they arrived in Cebu, a man named Joseph Gimena called them. He had been asked by Perez to serve as a “transient bishop,” watching over the evacuees who showed up at the temple looking for a place to live. He helps them with jobs, medicine, whatever else they need. He watches over 79 people who came but who aren't members of the church.
Nearly every night, more refugee families arrive in Cebu, and Gimena becomes their bishop too, relaying their needs to Perez. Ruby’s family is just one he watches over.
Ruby’s house back in Tacloban suffered little damage, and they plan to go home soon. There are rumors that the power grid will be up by December.
The things that mattered to her before the storm still matter — she still wants her son to go to private school and she still plans to get her doctorate — but they pale in comparison to family. Her father is alive, her son suffered no injuries, and her husband still sleeps by her side.
To Ruby, these are the greatest blessings.
“Material things don’t matter,” she says, sitting beside her father. “Family is what matters.”
She prefers to remember Tacloban as her father, the artist, once painted it — the rice paddies stretching to the horizon, the fishing boats on the sea. Maybe one day, it will look like that again, and she will go back.
But for now, this house is enough. Her family is with her. This place feels like home.
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