TANAUAN, Philippines — The Saavedras waited for death as Typhoon Haiyan tore at their roof, knocked down walls and unleashed torrents of seawater below them. All they could do was pray, say “I love you” one last time and take a picture.
David Saavedra raised his cellphone in the chaos to snap a group selfie to record their final moments. He took it for his eldest sister in Manila, hoping to show that at the end, her family was together – even serene.
That explains his smile, incongruous against the wind-ripped scene and the terror-stricken faces of his younger sister, Veronica, and their mother.
The picture was intended to go on top of David’s coffin, but instead it is a reminder of the family’s immense luck, and of the obligation they feel to help neighbors who weren’t nearly as fortunate when the massive typhoon hit Nov. 8, 2013.
More than 7,300 people died or went missing when Haiyan slammed the central Philippines, including the Saavedras’ laidback farming town of Tanauan, as one of the most ferocious typhoons ever to hit land. The monster storm displaced about 4 million people and turned a large swath of densely populated regions into a wasteland.
“I said `I love you’ to my parents because I felt at that time that it was our last day alive,” Veronica Saavedra said in an interview in the family’s old house, now partially cleaned up and repaired. “I was so afraid I was trembling and I said, `Lord, if this is my last day, forgive me for everything.'”
The 21-year-old college student said even while praying, she was terrified by the loud hissing of the wind, and memories of the rising water hounded her sleep for months.
The Saavedras – David, Veronica, their brother JR, their mother and their father – all survived. Three other siblings were in Manila, and one was in Kuwait.
Many other families had much different fates. In a nearby village, all but two members of a 45-member clan are buried in a mass grave.
When the rain and wind finally subsided hours after the storm hit, David, a 26-year-old accountant, left the cramped hallway on the second floor of the wood-and-concrete home where he and his family were huddled while hell broke loose. He saw bodies floating on the street outside. The next-door neighbors were drenched and shuddering on the second floor of their house, its walls gone. One paraplegic neighbor was clinging to a post near the roof of his house. Others were crying, many in shock.
“In just one click, everything can be snatched from you,” David said, tears welling in his eyes. “But the feeling that you are still alive after that is really overwhelming.”
For four days the family lived on 2 kilograms (4 pounds) of fish and pork that they found inside their refrigerator that floated in the flood; its door luckily remained shut. A stack of soda in their mother’s small store quenched their thirst.
At the same time, David and Veronica’s sister Sarah Songalia was in anguish in Manila, where she owns an accounting firm. There was no news from her hometown for three days, with telephone and power lines down and roads blocked by debris.
“I said, `Lord, just keep them all alive. I will do everything so our town can rise again,'” said Songalia, the eldest of the family’s seven children.
With no news coming their way, Songalia and her officemates put up a Facebook community page in hopes that people from her hometown could send updates. They and other volunteers gathered relief supplies, turning Songalia’s office in the heart of the Makati financial district into a relief operations center.
Her family was able to board a bus and reach Manila five days after the typhoon. They have since relocated closer to Songalia, and have helped her with the relief effort. Only Veronica is still living in their home province of Leyte – she’s staying with relatives in Tacloban, the provincial capital – but their parents plan to move back when the father retires in two years.
The nonprofit group Songalia founded, Burublig Para Ha Tanauan, has started projects to help villagers recover, powered by volunteers.
The projects include distributing boats to fishermen who lost their vessels and training women to sew hospital scrubs and school uniforms. Drivers who lost vehicles known as tricycles – actually bicycles with canopied sidecars – have been given replacements.
Residents are organized into cooperatives. They get the equipment they need on an operate-to-own basis, paying back the cost in installments.
One of the new boat owners is Gerardo Barcilla, who now can earn 400 pesos to 1,000 pesos ($9-$22) a day from his catch of fish and crabs. The 47-year-old fisherman lost his home, his boat and his 19-year-old son, one of five children, to Haiyan.
He and his son had taken shelter in a school, but the storm surge swamped the building. The pair clung to a beam. Barcilla held on as another wave pounded over him, but when he surfaced, his son was gone. He remains missing, and his father still holds out hope that he might be alive.
Barcilla said the boat has given him hope: “I was able to start again through this.”
“I think I will pull through, but I will never forget the past,” he said, wiping away tears from his sunburnt face.