Monday, December 8, 2014

The Advent of the Storm

As you may know, Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby has been growing and weakening, threatening to wreak havoc on my new home in the Philippines. I left my home in Kananga, Leyte, Wednesday, November 26, and traveled to Tacloban, Leyte, where I stayed with my fellow YAV and awesome partner in this journey, Emily. On the morning of Thursday, November 27, we boarded a plane for Manila to celebrate Thanksgiving as a YAV community and to have our first retreat after two months at our site placements. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for half of our group. Typhoon Queenie was coming through, causing choppy seas and heavy rains, which prevented our YAVs, Kendall and Tyler, and site coordinator, Cobbie, in Dumaguete from leaving on Thursday. Friday, November 28, we were all finally reunited for a time of relaxation and reflection.

Emily and I were supposed to fly back to Tacloban Wednesday, December 3. When we got to the airport around noon, our flight had been delayed about half an hour. No big deal. Then we got to the gate. The number of people at our gate was surprisingly high for over an hour before our flight was set to take off. Our departure time came and went. Our waiting game began. We learned that the 10:00 and 1:00 flight never left, and we could not get any information on our 3:00 flight. Emily and I knew that there is a typhoon brewing in the Pacific Ocean. At this point, we were unsure whether the storm would come to the Philippines, particularly the Visayas, where we live and hoped to return to, or if it would head north to Japan. We have seen evidence of the damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda just over a year ago on November 8, 2013. We have heard survivors share their stories of the trauma of living through the strongest storm to make landfall. As I heard a woman say in the airport, "I don't want to be a victim again."

We were scared. We did not know what to do. Why weren't flights leaving for Tacloban? Why wouldn't the airline give us any information? Was it safe to go back to Tacloban now? Would the evacuation centers be safe? What would happen? If we didn't go back now, what would we return to whenever we finally arrived in Leyte? How would this affect our jobs? Would we have to go home to the US? Was this God telling us not to go? We had so many unanswered questions.

By about 5:00, we were told that our flight was cancelled. We could retrieve our checked baggage and meet with a customer service representative to discuss our options. Emily and I agreed that we would reschedule our flight later when we knew more about the storm's trajectory. After walking all over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, we had rebooked our flight for Friday, retrieved our baggage, and received a travel stipend. Our thought process was that we would know more about the storm by Friday and could return to Leyte if it was heading north. If it remained a threat, our flight would be cancelled, and we would rebook again.

It was a difficult decision. Before I came to the Philippines, I had resolved to stay with my community if something like this ever happened. I wanted to stay on the ground and be with my host family. I did not want to use my privilege to be evacuated or somehow remove myself from danger that my family could face. That decision is different when it's a choice not to return somewhere rather than a choice to leave. We were in Manila. We had options of places to stay. We felt more secure in the infrastructure in Manila than we did in Leyte. We would be better used in relief after the storm if we were healthy, rather than risk being injured in the storm. After many conversations with site coordinators and host families, we decided to wait out the storm in Manila.

After 8 hours in the airport, we made our way back to the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) building in Quezon City, a city of Metro Manila, where we had spent our first few nights.

We woke up Thursday to the news that Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby had been upgraded to super typhoon status. We knew that we were not leaving Manila until the storm passed. Our waiting continued. We thought about our surroundings, checked to see if we were in a flood zone (we aren't), bought three days worth of food and water, called family and friends, and prayed. We checked for updates constantly. We talked way too much about potential scenarios and our reactions to those situations.

This was potentially the most terrifying situation of our lives. Realistically, I know we have probably been in more riskier places, but in all of those, we had some sort of control. We have no control over the weather or the buildings where we stay. We cannot just prepare and know it will be enough. Emily and I are both people who like control and need answers in our lives. This is definitely a time when we didn't have many answers or any control.

We watched the storm weaken down to a typhoon, only to strengthen back to a super typhoon right before it approached the East Visayas islands. This storm has moved agonizingly slow across the country. We waited and waited to hear of it making landfall in Samar, the island just north of Leyte. We heard of preventative power outages in Leyte and Samar and rain that lasted over 10 hours in my town of Kananga. Finally Friday night, Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby made landfall in Dolores, Samar, where, reportedly, 21 people have died. Power is still out in much of Leyte and Samar. There have been no reported casualties in Leyte. Some structures, including a room off of Emily's office, where her supervisor lives, are gone. My house and host family is fine. There has been little damage at my school, but nothing that would prevent us from having classes later this week.

We have tried to keep ourselves occupied by going to the malls nearby, which make Macy's in New York look like the Rock Hill Galleria mall. Every time we walk in, I feel completely overwhelmed as I try to process all the sights, sounds, lights, displays, and products, the epitome of materialism and consumerism. It feels like a totally different world compared to my home in Kananga.

Thankfully, Kelsey, our fellow YAV in Manila, lives close so we can share meals together to get out of our room a bit. We are trying not to get cabin fever, but it is difficult. Fortunately, we haven't completely tired of each other's company yet, after almost two full weeks of 24/7 companionship.

The storm is moving literally 10 mph across the Philippines, which also means it is weakening. Hagupit/Ruby is now only a tropical storm. We have been waiting for her to arrive in Manila for days. We thought rain would start Saturday night. We thought rain and wind would start Sunday evening or Monday early morning. Sunday was eerily calm with cooler temperatures and a pleasant breeze. Monday we awoke to no rain or wind still. A little bit of rain and wind has been on and off today, but nothing even remotely close to the flooding or 60 mph wind we've been preparing for and expecting. We are still waiting.

I guess it's rather appropriate that Emily and I would have this experience during the liturgical season of Advent. The literal meaning of the word advent is coming. We are waiting, preparing, expecting the birth of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. In the Philippines, we have been waiting, preparing, and expecting Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby. Jesus doesn't come to this world as a majestic king adorned in all vestments of royalty ready to take his place as ruler of the world. Jesus comes as a son to a carpenter and his wife, born in a lowly trough because there was no room for him in the inn. Jesus, the unexpected Messiah. Jesus, whose Gospel is so different from what it's listeners expect. Jesus, who calls us to do difficult things. Jesus, over whom we have no control. Jesus, whose coming we anxiously await and prepare for every single year.

This whole experience has been God teaching me a lesson on patience, trust, and prayer. My life is dependent upon God and God's Will. The lives of those I love are dependent upon God and God's Will. I am not in control. God is. It's way passed time for me to Let Go and Let God.

We truly appreciate all of the prayers and concern and support we have felt in the past week. In the aftermath of a similar storm, a wise woman once told me, "When you get to where God is all you have, you find that God is all you need."

Emily and I have a flight back to Tacloban on Wednesday afternoon, which we should be able to make with no weather obstacles.

I ask for continued prayers for me, my community, and everyone affected by Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby. Please give us the strength to provide relief, to continue to rebuild from both storms, to heal from trauma. For those whose lives and/or livelihoods are lost, we pray for assistance and guidance. We pray for all those providing relief, whether it comes from the government, non-government organizations, families, friends, entities overseas, churches, or communities. May the Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

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