TACLOBAN, Philippines — More than four months after Typhoon Haiyan swept across central Philippines Nov. 8, all but two dozen missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — evacuated after the storm — have returned.
A group of 20 missionaries transferred back to the Philippines Tacloban Mission this week, joining 117 who have been returning since the beginning of February, said Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Seventy and president of the LDS Church’s Philippines Area.
The final 25 elders and sisters, who have not completed their missions during the last four months, will be returning between now and April 1, said Elder Nielson. Some of those missionaries will be serving in Tacloban — where church leaders have found four apartments with electricity and water in an area that remains largely without power.
Elder Kyle Marlin of Star, Idaho, was among those who returned to the mission this week.
He’s one of the missionaries that Latter-day Saints across the globe prayed for after the storm, one of the missionaries leaders worried about. He’s the missionary Elder Nielson hugged extra tight when the final group of evacuated missionaries reached Manila. “This hug is from your mother,” Elder Nielson said during the embrace.
That’s because Elder Marlin and his companion, Elder Norman Disbarro, a Filipino, were the last missionaries found safe after surviving the deadliest storm on record in the Philippines.
In the days after the storm, “we were able to find all of our missionaries but these two,” said Elder Nielson.
Void of telephone, cellular or Internet service and with roads and bridges damaged or destroyed, it took church leaders three days to reach the last of the 204 missionaries serving in the Philippines Tacloban Mission.
Marlin and Disbarro had weathered the typhoon in their apartment in Guiuan — a city on the far southeastern tip of Samar Island where Typhoon Haiyan made landfall.
“The wind was so loud,” Marlin recalled. “It was like a big, angry beast. We heard windows breaking again and again and again. The glass was flying everywhere.”
When the storm took their door and the wind came roaring into the apartment, they did what came natural — prayed.
“After that we got a really good feeling,” Marlin said.
The house was destroyed as the elders took refuge inside it, shielding themselves from the wind and glass with a mattress. Water rose in the building “but didn’t get too high.”
Some 300 miles away in Manila, Elder Nielson looked carefully at a map. He realized that the eye of the storm had moved directly over the Guiuan peninsula. Studying the map over and over again, he secretly wondered if there would be survivors in the city.
In the days after Typhoon Haiyan devastated Guiuan, the missionaries visited local members, trying to help anyone they could.
Marlin didn’t know anyone was worried about him, that thousands of church members and leaders were focusing their prayers on him and his companion.
“I spent most of the time trying to figure out what I could do for the members,” he said. “I tried not to think about anything else.”
Elder Nielson said he promised the missionaries' families that the church “would go get them. But we were worried,” he said.
After three days, a church employee — who had traveled nine hours one way — located the missionaries. He took pictures and assured them things were OK.
“Once we knew the elders in Guiuan had been found, it was a wonderful feeling of gratitude to know that all 204 missionaries had made it safely through the storm,” said Elder Nielson.
The following day, Marlin and Disbarro joined 13 other missionaries in their zone and began a rough journey by truck along damaged roads. The group would also travel by boat before flying from Legaspi to Manila.
After Typhoon Haiyan, all the Tacloban missionaries were evacuated to Manila so church leaders could concentrate on the needs of local members and because they didn’t want the missionaries to be a draw on severely limited local resources.
Marlin understood that he needed to leave the disaster zone.
By the time help arrived, he and his companion were almost out of food. A day earlier they had eaten with members and agonized over ingesting extremely limited food supplies.
Yet leaving was not easy.
“Before I left the branch mission leader told me, ‘Don’t forget about us Elder Marlin. We need you here.’ ”
Now Marlin hopes he will get the chance to visit Guiuan again.
That may not be a possibility — even though he has returned to the Tacloban mission. Missionaries are not yet serving in all the areas severely damaged by the disaster, said Elder Nielson.
“They are on the island of Samar and in Southern Leyte,” he said, noting the area presidency wants to ensure there is electric power and water available before missionaries return to an area.
Church leaders — including Elder Ben B. Banks, an emeritus general authority who served in the Philippines — are currently traveling through the mission, identifying places the missionaries can safely live and teach.
No one could be more happy about the missionaries returning than Philippines Tacloban Mission President Jose V. Andaya.
“We will build the Tacloban mission again,” he said.
When the last of his missionaries return, he said, there will be much work to do. Many in the area are now looking to the LDS Church. “They feel they want to be taught because of how the members are being taken care of.”
President Andaya said sacrament meeting attendance is increasing across the disaster zone. “It is a good thing — there are plenty of investigators.”
This is the “turning point” in the lives of many, said Yolanda Andaya, President Andaya’s wife.
“We try to look on the positive side,” she said. “Many miracles happened.”
The results of Typhoon Haiyan will linger in Tacloban for a long time, she said. Many will now “open the door to these missionaries,” added President Andaya.
Marlin, now serving in Southern Leyte, said going back to the mission was "the best feeling."
The "mission is going to come back to life, it is going to rise up,” he said. “It is going to be back to what it used to be. It is a great place.”
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