TOCLOBAN, Philippines — On the day Typhoon Haiyan caused the water to rise in Tocloban, Analyn Esperas held her only child close.
Annammer, 6, was scared; she wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and held tight.
The pair stayed inside until the wind took their roof. Then the water came.
“We didn’t expect that the water would get so high,” recalled Esperas. “We didn’t have a chance to get to a higher place.”
As they tried to escape, the wind and water carried them into a rice field. Esperas clung to a piece of Styrofoam; Annammer clung to her. “It was terrible,” said the mother.
When a huge wave hit the pair, the Styrofoam that held them afloat broke in half; Esperas lost both pieces.
As they began to swim, a second wave pushed the mother and daughter underwater.
They came up for air as a third wave — the biggest wave — struck. A large piece of wood carried by the current dug into Esperas’ chest.
Recovering from the force of the impact, Esperas spoke to her daughter. She wondered out loud if they could survive the storm. She was still talking when she realized Annammer was gone — carried away by the third wave.
It has been more than three months since Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on Nov. 8, yet the storm’s signature remains.
Trees and power lines lay broken and mangled. Rubble is piled along the streets. And foundations or empty shells of homes stand as a reminder of the storm’s strength.
Locals — wanting visitors to understand what they went through — continually point to the places they laid their dead.
It could be weeks, or months, before electricity returns to Tacloban. The cost of fruits and vegetables, sent here from Manila, is high. And gasoline, which is now needed to power generators as well as automobiles, is still an expensive necessity.
But recovery is underway.
Roads are clear. Vendors walk the street selling their wares. New homes dot the landscape. And the mountain, brown only weeks ago, is filled with lush, green growth.
Analyn Esperas and her husband, Gemmer Esperas, are also recovering.
Sitting on the floor of a new, sturdy home — built by Gemmer through a housing construction program provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — they talk of Annammer, Typhoon Haiyan and of moving forward.
Analyn Esperas said the moments after losing her daughter were like a horrible dream. She had expected high winds and rain. What she didn’t expect — or understand — was a storm surge.
Three times she dove under the black water. “I didn’t find her.”
Another survivor spoke to the mother. “Don’t look for her anymore,” the woman said.
Out of strength and freezing, Esperas could not move. But when a large snake slithered along her back, she found herself climbing onto a roof. “I moved because of the snake. That is why I survived.”
Once on the roof, Esperas began to vomit black water. The water also poured from the mother’s nose and ears.
She waited on the roof for the wind to stop. Then she resumed her search for Annammer.
Typhoon Haiyan destroyed more than 1.1 million homes in the central Philippines.
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, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in the Philippines.
After the disaster, the LDS 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.
More than 100 days later, the church is still there and the organization’s recovery efforts continue.
Typhoon victims “feel like the church is paying attention to them,” said Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Seventy and president of the church’s Philippines Area. “They know we are all in this together and we are not going to leave them alone.”
Everything was different
Gemmer Esperas was working as a security guard on the day Haiyan stole his daughter. Because there was no sea surge where he was working, he didn’t know the water level was rising at his home.
When he returned after work, everything in his community was different. Houses had been ripped from their foundations. Black mud and water consumed the landscape.
Twenty-three people died in the house next to his; in total, 74 of his neighbors died.
When Gemmer located his wife, there was a nail in her foot, bruises on her body and a large cut on her leg. A Mormon doctor from Manila gave Analyn Esperas a tetanus shot and treated her wounds.
For three days the couple searched for their daughter.
When they found Annammer’s body, Gemmer held his daughter and looked for her wounds, trying desperately to understand her final moments. But there wasn’t a scratch on the little girl.
Annammer’s mother protected her from everything but the sea, he said.
'One nail at a time'
When Elder Ian S. Ardern of the Seventy and a member of the Philippines Area Presidency first visited Tacloban after Haiyan, he could not find words to describe what he saw — and he was grateful for that.
Those sights “will linger in my mind much longer than I want them too,” he said.
He wondered how people could rebuild after such a catastrophe.
Then he saw a local man with a discarded piece of wood and a hammer. He was pulling an old nail out of the wood. ”I thought, that is where you begin. That is where these Filipinos will begin. They will begin one nail at a time.”
Tony San Gabriel, manager for self-reliance in the Philippines, said the LDS Church plans to help with reconstruction.
After Typhoon Haiyan, the church immediately set programs in place to provide relief and help members rebuild, restore and retool, he said.
“We thought, ‘How do you teach self-reliance to a people who were ravaged by a perfect storm?’ ”
They began by helping the some 3,000 members who lost homes in the disaster rebuild.
Working with the local Self Reliance Center and with the Perpetual Education Fund, local members are now entering a church-sponsored vocational program.
The church is also helping them obtain basic tools and learn skills as carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Each trainee builds his or her own house — about 12 feet by 12 feet in dimension — and nine more homes. Then they receive a trade certificate.
“We married the opportunity for livelihood and the need for shelter,” said San Gabriel. “It was a magic formula."
To date, the church has constructed 921 homes through the project. But the organization is building more than homes, said Elder Ardern. “In the face of disaster, we are building people.”
Strength to continue
In the days after losing his daughter, Gemmer Esperas gathered abandoned sheets of corrugated metal and built a new home.
But the gaps in the metal did not protect the couple from the wind or the rain. Most of the time they were forced to stand. They could not sleep.
Then a counselor in the bishopric of their LDS ward, Joy Operio, found them. “Go to the church for shelter,” he told them.
That night in the LDS meetinghouse they slept for the first time since Annammer's death.
Before the storm, church leaders had been working with the couple — both Latter-day Saints — to attend the LDS temple. They were saving money to travel to Cebu.
“We pray to ask Heavenly Father to have strength to continue,” said Gemmer Esperas. “Because of the gospel I learn at church, I have the courage that someday my daughter and my wife and I will be together. That is the reason we continue.”
The LDS Church’s home construction program is not only taking place in Tacloban, but in areas across the disaster zone, said Jairus Perez, a project manager for LDS Humanitarian Services.
“This is just a temporary shelter,” he said. “But for most members this is already a permanent home.”
He said the church will finish building all the homes by May 15.
It wants to build the homes quickly and help the program participants qualify for some of the 250,000 construction jobs available in the area.
“We are doing our best to provide for them and minimize their suffering,” Perez said.
He is also distributing flashlights and lanterns. “Most place are still in darkness — no electricity,” he said.
“We are directly helping people,” he said, “giving them the light that they need and the hope.”
Gemmer Esperas is working as part of a five-man construction team, sponsored by the LDS Church.
Using tools provided by the church, the team built the Esperases' house and has constructed six additional homes. When the team has completed 10 homes, members will receive construction certificates. Then they will be paid by the church to build additional homes and help train others.
Gemmer Esperas said it felt good to build his house, which is 12 feet by 14 feet.
His wife feels safe in the home. “I am very comfortable here,” she said.
Now they just need to select a color of paint, provided by the church, and complete the project. There are many bright colors available.
Church leaders hope the colors will literally brighten Tacloban.
The Esperases don’t have to think about the color they will choose.
Gemmer speaks without hesitation; he will paint their home pink.
It was Annammer’s favorite color.