I knew I needed to hug the sisters. I knew I couldn’t do much else, but I knew I needed to come to Tacloban and hug the people that I could. —Sister Linda K. Burton, Relief Society general president

TACLOBAN, Philippines— One hundred days after Typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban, Sister Linda K. Burton, Relief Society general president, and Sister Carol F. McConkie, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, traveled to the disaster zone to offer support and comfort.

“I knew I needed to come [to Tacloban],” Sister Burton said in an interview with the Church News while in the Philippines. “I knew I needed to hug the sisters. I knew I couldn’t do much else, but I knew I needed to come to Tacloban and hug the people that I could.”

Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines on Nov. 8, destroying more than 1.1 million homes. The deadliest typhoon on record in the country, the storm left more than 6,100 people dead, injured 28,000 and displaced 4.1 million. Some 1,785 people remain missing.

After the disaster, in which 42 Latter-day Saints died, the church sent relief supplies and partnered with local and international relief organizations to assist with food, shelter, water purification, debris removal and livelihood restoration projects.

But Sister Burton, who was not scheduled to visit the Philippines, wanted to do more. The church’s Philippines Area presidency adjusted their schedule, which allowed her to join Sister McConkie, who was already assigned to visit the Philippines.

In addition to visiting Tacloban, Sister Burton and Sister McConkie met with Relief Society sisters and conducted auxiliary training from Feb. 12 through 24 in other cities throughout the Philippines.

As they entered Tacloban on Feb. 16, the women noted the efforts of those in the city to clean up and rebuild. They also saw remnants of the storm, which remained three months after Typhoon Haiyan struck the area. There is still no electricity in Tacloban.

They wondered, “How can people live in these oppressive circumstances with so much destruction around them day after day?”

Then they got their answer. They visited a family and saw the home they were rebuilding — one of the first completed as part of a church construction program in Tacloban. The home was neat and clean. There were a few books on a shelf and toys.

They realized that amid the destruction, Latter-day Saints were finding peace in their homes.

Sister Burton also met a Latter-day Saint man who is helping coordinate the construction of the new homes. “I said, ‘Where is your home?’ He was living in a tent. … I said, ‘When will you get your home?’ He said, ‘When everyone else has their homes.’ ”

She took the man’s picture so she could remember his example of leadership.

Sister Burton and Sister McConkie gathered with hundreds of Latter-day Saints in the Tacloban Philippines Stake Center. At the church building, they said they could see the “heaviness” of members of the stake.

But they saw hope in the children.

“I have heard many congregations sing up to that point, but never have they sung as they sang in that congregation,” Sister Burton said.

The words to Hymn 19, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” penetrated her heart:

“When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us

And threaten our peace to destroy,

There is hope smiling brightly before us,

And we know that deliv’rance is nigh.”

Sister Burton realized that, for these faithful Latter-day Saints “nothing else mattered but family, testimonies and gratitude for the priesthood.”

Sister McConkie met with the youth during Sunday School and Young Women. “I was astounded by their optimism and by their hope and by their faith,” she said. “They spoke with depth of understanding about the gospel. It was a sweet experience for me.”

Members in the area had been blessed by inspiration of church leaders, Sister Burton said.

Before the storm, Stake President Richard A. Abon of the Philippines Tacloban Stake asked Latter-day Saints to take refuge in local meetinghouses; everyone who followed his direction survived the disaster.

Bishop Constancio Lim of the Tacloban 1st Ward led 361 people up a ladder and into the ceiling of the Tacloban stake center during the disaster. For the next 11 hours they huddled safely together.

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And in many wards, Relief Society leaders had members make 72-hour kits weeks before the typhoon struck the area, she said.

After the meeting, the women, young women and Primary-aged girls lined up and Sister Burton and Sister McConkie greeted them, hugging each individually.

“That is why we came,” Sister Burton said.

sarah@desnews.com