It’s been a little over a month since Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck the Philippines with devastating results, and there is still much to be done to assist the country on the road to recovery. GoAbroad Founder, Troy Peden, his wife Mylene, and four of his children were all in Tacloban City at the time of Super Typhoon Haiyan. After the devastation, the question was never how could they get out, but how they could stay and help. His interview provides insight into why the storm caused the devastation it did, how the people prepared, and witnessing their resilient response.
Watch the storm unravel through his firsthand account that tells about the search for family and friends to turning the GoAbroad office into a relief center and media outlet.
1. What did you think when you first heard about the storm? Did you take it seriously? Did you believe the reports about how strong it was supposed to be?
I heard about the storm on Monday, a few days before it hit. I overheard a colleague speaking to a U.K. partner telling them they may have to reschedule their Friday meeting because we were expecting a super typhoon. The storm was expected on Thursday and many of our staff came to the office to wait it out. Thursday turned out to be a nice day and we all let our guard down. The last we heard on the news Thursday night was that the storm would arrive by 1 p.m. on Friday. At 4 a.m. on Friday, we lost all connection with the rest of the world as the storm hit and we began scrambling. The lack of solid information and the false alarms I believe were devastating for some families who left and returned home, or decided not to leave at all.
2. When was the moment you realized it really was going to be as bad as the predictions?
The winds produced surreal scenes from the movie Twister, and we knew during the storm that there was going to be a large loss of life. It wasn’t until after the storm that we understood how bad the ocean surge was.
The combination of the nearly 190 mph wind tearing off roofs with the 25 foot water surges meant that neither downstairs nor upstairs were safe in most buildings.
3. How did you prepare?
We ordered double our weekly water supply and had it delivered on Thursday. In hindsight, I would have ordered ten times as much as the need for water was dire in the week after the storm. We had stacked sandbags and added plywood to the doors all of which were no match for the winds.
4. Was there a strategy put in place for after the storm hit? Did you have any idea the office would become a refugee center?
The night of the storm we had perhaps 80 people, including many families and children, in the office. We were imagining the possibility of 30 days or more feeding 80 plus people. We also knew many of our homeless staff would be arriving by foot and we began to switch to survival mode.
5. Many people’s first reaction was how to get out after the storm. What made you decide to stay?
This city that was previously unknown to the world has been our home for 20 years and we have a connection to it, our staff are part of our family, and they are connected to it.
Most of the people that could leave after the storm did so, and we knew we had to stay and take care of our family. Many of us also have backgrounds in volunteering in communities with great need, and we may never see another community with more need than this. I don’t think there was any question whether we were staying.
6. How active were you in helping NBC provide coverage?
We had a commodity almost no one had; including the news crews, we had a vehicle and fuel. NBC, ITN, several newspapers, and other media outlets stayed at our office campus and we took care of them. Four days after the storm I took a large group of international volunteers to the airport for a military airlift.
The last thing I told them was to go home and call their local media and tell them what they had seen.
Early on, we did not know if this would be a big international story or a page nine paragraph. Assisting the media helped get the message out. For me personally, I was able to witness great moments of heroism and incredible instances of human suffering by accompanying the media and sharing in their stories.
7. How did local Filipinos prepare? Did they heed the warnings or did they think it would be more like the two dozen other storms that hit the country every year?
Many Filipinos don’t have the resources to flee or evacuate, others do not want to leave the few personal belongings they have. I don’t think anyone could comprehend the magnitude of the storm; whether this had been Miami or Tacloban, I don’t believe anyone could have been completely prepared.
8. Describe when the storm hit. Where were you? Who were you with? How did you protect yourself and your family?
We brought all of the people in the office complex to our Mess Hall (lunch room). I constructed a small fortress of tables with mattresses underneath and set tables on their sides around it and placed all the children in there to protect them from flying debris. We scrambled to move computers and equipment as sections of the roof gave in to the water. We slowly moved our sandbag dams back each time they gave in, creating a smaller and smaller dry space. Once the major wind had subsided we moved the people upstairs as the ground floor was flooded.
9. How have the Filipinos responded? They seem like they have already pulled together and started to rebuild their homes. Have many evacuated Tacloban? Do you think they will return?
In the calm that followed the storm, the earth was still and I stood on the upstairs deck of our building and heard a woman scream in the distance, then another, and another all around us. Within hours the people were rebuilding, some were taking their dead relatives or neighbors to a church, or the road, or the mortuaries. Many people just began walking away. There was a long parade of people single file in a zombie-like state carrying their odd items they had salvaged from the storm.
I remember seeing one woman tattered and in shock carrying a Barbie doll and two kettle lids. Many of the travelers would stop someone coming in the other direction and ask if they knew so and so or how high the water got in such and such neighborhood. Filipinos responded with resilience and for the most part a smile, but were no less devastated and in shock.
10. What did you do immediately afterwards? Where did you go?
We began preparing the campus as a refugee center. A couple of us began walking to check on employees. The only way to get anywhere was by walking, as all the roads were littered with electric poles overturned trucks and debris. It was in that walk and the subsequent walks those first days that I began to understand how devastating the storm was.
11. What is one moment from this experience that will stay with you forever?
There are many moments, both good and bad, that will stay with me forever. In these situations, you see the best of humanity and the other side as well. One story that made me emotional for the first time after the storm was the story of one employee. We spent two weeks trying to locate every one of our 80 plus employees. We still had six employees unaccounted for until the very end and they were from one town called Tanauan, which had been hit hard. I had been told that everyone that lived on the plaza in Tanauan was dead. I didn’t tell anyone this news because thus far we had only had good news.
Several attempts to reach this town were unsuccessful. Finally, we did reach them and met the staff and I learned that while we were relatively comfortable in comparison, these employees were living through hell with 150 bodies surrounding their homes and no relief supplies.
One employee was writing letters to individuals around the world requesting they contact the U.S. Embassy to check on me and my children. She would hand these letters off to refugees in hopes they would give them to a foreigner along the way. Her focus during this incredible suffering was my children. It was completely selfless and touching.
12. What is the best way for people to help right now?
Donate at www.visayans.org/donate or volunteer in Tacloban. If you volunteer, come to help with an open mind and readiness to do whatever is needed; there is no room for hand holding here yet.
13. Do you think Tacloban City will recover?
Yes, there is no question that Tacloban will rise up. Filipinos are fiercely loyal to their family, ethnic group, and heritage. They will return and honor all the suffering by making Tacloban a home again.