Yolanda survivor: With strong faith in God, I clung to a weak papaya trunk amid the tsunami-like storm surge.

TACLOBAN CITY – Strong winds screamed sharply and rapidly blew. Rainstorm slapped faces from left to right, right to left. Wrinkled roofs and rushing rubble raced along with running waves. The blinding blasts of battering storm blurred visions of eyes, timbered electrical posts, uprooted bulky trees.

Amidst all these troubles, like many victims, was Arlene Verona of Tacloban City, 34, who struggled for an hour on the rushing flood while spotting for something to cling to, or else, will find herself being sandwiched by monstrous debris, or cut by flying roofs, or drowned by hurling water during the height of super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). She found two options – a lime tree (calamansi), and an old papaya trunk – both were swayed by rushing waves. She chose the latter for the former was full of thorny branches.

“Naisip ko rin na baka mamatay ako pero nilalakasan ko ang loob ko. Basta di ako kinakabahan,” fresh in her memories Arlene recalled. (I thought that I was going to die but I’d tried to stay strong. I didn’t feel nervous.)

Cling onto life: Digital Art by Jeffrey Eugenio

CLING ONTO LIFE. Arlene holds tightly to a weak papaya trunk while uttering her fervent prayer to overcome the violent battering of super typhoon Yolanda. (Digital art by Jeffrey Eugenio)

Arlene survived the record-breaking super typhoon which claimed 6,057 lives as of this writing and 1,779 still missing when it fell on land on November 8, 2013 in the eastern Visayas, Philippines.

Nananalangin na lang ako sa Dios na sana tulungan Niya ako na maligtas, na hindi ako masugatan. Ayun, salamat po sa Dios at okay naman po,” Arlene added. (I had prayed to God asking Him to help me survive and avoid being wounded. Thanks be to God and I am alright.)

During the super typhoon, Arlene was separated from her family of six: Arturo, her father, 69; Christian, eldest brother, 39; Ibe, sister, 31; Arturo Jr., youngest sibling, 27; Ma. Theresa Gabrera, a friend but treated as a family member, 28; and Ma. Theresa’s baby Shang-Shang, 1 year and five months. Only Christian was absent in their home during the typhoon for he was in Sogod, Southern Leyte.

Arlene shared in details her experience how she survived the tragedy and how her faith helped her a lot.

Storm surge shock

Living in the most storm-exposed country where storms hit at an average of 19 per year, many Tacloban residents thought that the incoming storm was negligible – that it was just another heavy rainfall and strong winds they were so used to. Arlene, with her family, shared the same start before the typhoon hit Tacloban.

“Dito kasi, maagang ina-announced din ang bagyo. Sabi sa balita Huwebes tatama na ang bagyo pero gabi na wala pang ulan,” Arlene said. (Storm was announced earlier here than expected. News said that it will hit on Thursday but evening came and there was no rain yet.)

Through her dad’s decision, Verona family chose to stay home and disregarded warnings to evacuate. But not Arlene. She heard for the first time on news the term ‘storm surge’ and trusted her gut that the approaching deluge was different from usual. The problem was she failed to convince her dad.

Then came Friday, November 8, 3:00 a.m. Raindrops started to fall. Wind signaled an incoming danger. However, Arlene’s dad was not yet satisfied that the storm was different from the norm. Besides, they lived in a two-story concrete house at Brgy. 54-A, Dadison St. of Tacloban City and may seek refuge at the second floor should the flood invaded the ground level. They also knew where the flood may start. Their house was built on a slope with their gate on higher ground facing the street. Behind their house was a rapid river connected to the sea just a little far. Thus, floods were not expected to knock on their gate.

Surprise started at 5:00 a.m. While monitoring for news, Arlene looked outside their house and saw a coconut tree halfway uprooted. Surrounding wooden houses fell one by one like domino.  The storm started to display her brutal might.

The family abandoned their plan to stay on the second floor for the strong winds ripped off their attic roof for the first time. They, instead, hid under their kitchen lavatory on the first floor due to the fear of getting hit by flying debris. As expected, the flood started to invade from the back of their house when the river exploded. The family felt the knee-deep flood rose quickly and Arturo finally decided to let his family go. Arturo reached the front door after instructing his family to pick their own empty water jug to serve as lifebuoy. When Arturo opened the door, heavy water flowed into their house with excitement and abruptly reached his chest level. He tried to stop the force by closing the door but helplessly released it. The family went against the flashing water and ran towards the street except for Arturo who was left behind.

Arlene then yelled to her dad, “Umalis ka na! Halika na! Iwan mo na yang mga gamit! Mga gamit lang yan!” (Get out! Come on! Leave those things behind! Those are only things!)

Arlene’s brother, Arturo Jr., returned to their dad who was trying to close the windows and doors. He dragged his dad to the street until his dad’s foot received a deep cut. Both then joined the escape. When Arlene looked back to their house after going up on the street, she saw the rising flood already reached half-way of their house’ second floor window, at about 14 and a half feet. Around it were houses and houses successfully lashed by the surge. Villagers ran towards the street but the flood also filled it up with water.

Tsunami-like tragedy

Around 7:00 a.m., the family, like the others, sought for stronger shelter. They found a still standing apartelle nearby but getting there was hard. The tsunami-like flood carried hundreds of debris, large and small, that a wrong step would mean life and death. Below them passed hazardous ruins while above them was blinding wet. While scuffing with her tip-toe and embracing her make-shift lifebuoy, Arlene temporarily lost vision when her eyes caught a rainstorm blizzard. The busy flood separated her from her family away and away. Her last sight was her family knocking at the nearby apartelle.

Added to her semi-stunned state was the blaring scream of the angry wind, “Whoooooosssshhh! Whoooooosssshhh,” mixed with random shouts from everywhere, “Help! Help!”

“Buti na lang bago bumagyo, nakasuot ako ng sweater na may hood. Naipantakip ko pa sa tenga ko sa nakakabinging ingay ng bagyo,” she realized. (Good thing that before the typhoon, I wore a sweater with hood. It helped me protect my ears against the deafening noise of the typhoon.)

While slowly gaining her sight, she saw the bursting flood swallowed many lives.

Upon noticing a silhouette of an abandoned mini truck, Arlene whisked towards the trunk of it. Trembling in cold, she sat on it while water encircled around her at chest level. She only kept on hugging the empty water jug. Little she realized, the truck floated and toppled over prompting her to jump out. Her toe can no longer touch the bottom floor. She was then carried by the rolling waves while witnessing Leyeco posts (or Leyte Electric Cooperative) tumbling down, trees stampeding, and rubble drifted by the chaotic surge. For about an hour, she allowed herself be meandered by the tireless gushing of a river-like flood. She looked above only seeing the dark morning sky down-pouring the harsh and side-way splash of the rainstorm.

“Yung direksyon ng hampas ng ulan kung saan-saan nanggagaling. Kaliwa’t kanan. Paikut-ikot.” (The rain hit from different directions. Left and right. Around and around.)

The invisible hand

Arlene spotted a vacant lot surrounded by walls. It has an open gate and ground with lower level. Hoping to be pushed inside the walled vacant lot to end the circuitous journey, she mumbled a silent prayer amid the deafening storm.

“Panginoon, sana mapadpad ako sa bakanteng lote.” (Lord, I hope that I would be drifted inside the vacant lot.)

Momentarily, a stronger current pushed her into the lot.

But the ordeal didn’t end there. She needed to anchor herself to avoid being smashed against the wall by the stalking debris of glasses, tins, woods, metals, garbage and many shards. Not too far, she saw a calamansi tree but she refused to grab its thorny branches. Next to it was a bald papaya but reaching it would need a divine push. She again mumbled a silent prayer.

“Panginoon, sana maabot ko yung papaya para wag akong bumangga sa pader.” (Lord, I hope I can reach the papaya trunk to avoid slamming against the wall.)

Like a déjà vu, a stronger current drove her in circle and fetched her near the papaya. Her left hand reached and gripped the trunk. On the other hand, the right, she was holding the water jug and now had used it as a shield against piercing wreckage.

“Mag-isa lang ako sa place na yun. Yung time na yun, yung baha na yun lampas bahay [na] yun. …nalulunod na ang mga tao. Nasa truck pa lang ako nakikita ko na ang mga tao takbuhan na. Nasa mga bahay na liblib sila… Kumbaga yung iba naabutan na ng tubig.” (I was alone at that place. That time, the flood rose above the houses. People then were drowning. Even when I was still on the truck, people were running for their lives from every corner but flood overtook most of them.)

The papaya trunk was put into test. The ravaging waves rose quicker and quicker wobbling the leafless tree. Arlene climbed higher and higher until she reached the thinnest peak of the tree at almost a decimeter below the top. She clung to her life for more than twenty minutes.

“Ulo ko na lang [nakalitaw]. Kapag may mga yerong lumilipad, lumulubog ako sa tubig kasi natatakot din ako na baka matamaan.” (My head was the one left protruding from the water. Every time I saw a roof flying, I ducked down the water in fear of being hit.)

She saw a tall building across the lot with people watching her from the third floor. They were unable to rescue her for they, too, were helpless.

“Nung [nakakapit ako sa papaya], wala akong kasama…Pero sa labas nun [sa kalsada], andun yung mga tao na nadisgrasya.” (When I was clinging to the papaya, I was alone [in the vacant lot]. But outside [on the street] were people drowning.)

Arlene again uttered a prayer, “Panginoon, sana bumaba na po yung tubig.” (Lord, I hope the flood will subside.)

After her fervent prayer, the storm began to calm. The rush started to recede. The flood went down little by little and she climbed down bit by bit. She still clung to the papaya not until she discovered that her feet was one decimeter above the bottom and the flood turned knee-deep. The storm had already passed.

“Pagkatapos ng baha tinawag ko na lang yung mga nakita ko sa isang third floor ng building. Nakita nila ako. Yun pala mga dating barkada ng kuya ko kaya tinulungan nila ako kasi hindi na ako makakilos ng maayos kasi naubos na ang lakas ko.” (When the flood finally ebbed, I called the people I saw from the building’s third floor. They saw me. I discovered that they used to be my elder brother’s friend and, thus, helped me. I cannot move anymore for I was so exhausted.)

When she climbed upstairs with the help of other survivors, Arlene discovered an irony. “Sabi nila, ‘Buti nalampasan mo iyan na hindi nasugatan.’ Samantalang yung mga nakaakyat sa building nakanganga sugat [nila]. Kahit konting gasgas wala ako.” (They said, “Good thing you were not wounded.” Ironically, those who climbed up the building received deep and open wounds while I was caught unscathed.)

Arlene rested for almost two hours then left the building. While walking along the debris-laden street, she witnessed survivors dragging corpses of their loved ones laying scattered on the muddy road. She heard moans from here and there while wandering the ruined and flattened city. After hours of walking, she discovered that her whole family survived in the apartelle. Her family thought she died on the storm surge.

Aftermath

No relief goods arrived immediately. Many survivors suffered from hunger. People started to loot. While the aftermath scattered panicking to the hearts of people of eastern Visayas, Arlene, together with her family and church-mates, were not abandoned by their presiding minister to the Members Church of God International, Eliseo Soriano or Bro. Eli, and his deputy Daniel Razon or Kuya Daniel. MCGI, in partnership with UNTV – Your Public Service Channel, extends the care to non-members by immediately conducting relief giving efforts and feeding program until now. MCGI also actively helps in supplying medicines to the needy. Hospitals and pharmacies, during that time, were unable to operate.

“Habang walang makain ang mga [tao], tayo naman namimigay tayo ng pagkain. Tapos namimigay din tayo ng mga gamot sa mga maysakit. Sumali nga ako sa pamimigay ng pagkain,” Arlene said gleefully. (People had no food to eat, so we’ve been giving food to them. Then, we also supply medicines to the sickly. I even joined the volunteers.)

Thanksgiving – a survivor’s reaction

On December 14, 2013, Saturday, Arlene and his brother, Christian, traveled to their church’ main headquarter in Pampanga, north of Manila, at Ang Dating Daan Convention Center, to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving on behalf of their family. The rest, together with many church-mates and survivors in eastern Visayas,  joined the thanksgiving through satellite facilities at their locale chapters there.

MCGI holds regular thanksgiving every Saturday and a three-day international thanksgiving every quarter of the year in which December 21st to 23rd this year is their next scheduled congregational offering.

Arlene Verona, Yolanda survivor

Arlene said that one of the many reasons to thank God is she survived the violent typhoon with God’s help by clinging to the papaya tree. (Photo by Jeffrey Eugenio)

In Philippine superstition, a papaya is believed to cause bad luck. Its linked to its trunks teary characteristics when pierced by pointed objects. Folk stories said papaya tree should not touch any part of the house especially the roof as it would bring chaos between married couple or a family living there.

But Arlene’s experience proved it wrong. No matter how weak the papaya tree was compared to others, if God wants it to be sturdy, even a strong typhoon cannot break it – so is the spirit of a faithful believer.

About Jeffrey Eugenio

Jeffrey Eugenio is a writer, motion graphic designer, artist, video editor and entrepreneur. He is currently a member of WritersConnect International - Philippine chapter. He loves doing a lot of things especially one that drives his creative passion. He believes that using himself to the greater good of others gives purpose and meaning to his life. As of now, he self-studies film making believing that as time allows, there should always be a room for exploring possibilities of learning more.

Posted on December 17, 2013, in Calamity, Literary, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!

  2. TO GOD BE THE GLORY ^_^

  3. Divina Arguelles

    sana po may tagalog na version🙂

  4. Napaka gandang kwento. Salamat Sa Dios. So uplifting. No words could describe it. Napaka bait Ng Dios.🙂 what can I say. Salamat Sa Kanya, hope that I could survive everyday. Ordeals that I face on.

  5. Salamat sa Dios sa kanyang pagliligtas.

  6. salamat sa Dios

  7. salamat po sa Dios sa kanyang pagliligtas.

  8. ako man masasabi ko na sobrang bait ng Dios! salamat sa Dios sa Kanyang pagliligtas…:)

    • Opo, ang bait po talaga Niya. Inisip ko nga po pinagdaanan ni Sis Arlene kung ako nasa kalagayan niya. Maraming pwedeng mangyari. Pero kailangan talaga ng matinding pagtitiwala at di po Niya tayo pababayaan.

  9. very well narrated…

    i felt like i’m with Ms. Arlene while reading the story.

    Very inspiring =)

  10. BEVERLY A. CUEVA

    salamat sa Dios

  11. Praise the GOD of all kindness and merciness Hail the GOD of Our Lord Jesus Christ

  12. This really inspired me and made me cry. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!

  13. was reading this in the metro and had a hard time holding my tears back… napakabuti Niya! with her experience, sumisigaw ang kalooban ko ng maraming maraming salamat sa Dios sa Kaniyang pagliligtas… iba pag may kinikilalang Dios na buhay!

  14. dooun sa last part ng pagtunghay ko sa story,tumulo ang luha ko,nung nagpasalamat sila sa DIOS. salamat sa Dios sapagkat ang Kanyang Kagandahang Loob ay Magpakaylan man.

  15. antonio martinez

    to GOD be the glory

  16. Ramoncito C. Sebastian

    Salamat po ng marami sa Kanyang pagliligtas, awa at tulong. Sa Dios ang lahat ng Karangalan at Kapurihan..

  1. Pingback: When is Papaya stronger than a Coconut tree? | xellewrites

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