A Sitka family is rebuilding in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in early November, killing over 5,000 people and displacing more than 4 million.
Felix and Myrna Cirera were safe in Alaska when the storm tore through Felix’s hometown of Tacloban . Their house — miraculously — survived, as did the family members who took shelter there.
Last week, Myrna Cirera dropped off her husband, Felix, at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez airport, for a trip to the Philippines. A long trip. Sitka to Seattle, then Seattle to Manila, Manila to the Philippinecity Cebu, a five-hour ferry crossing to the city of Maasin, and finally, a four-hour drive across the island of Leyte to Tacloban — to find out what remained of his home in the devastation left by Typhoon Haiyan.
“It’s a disaster beyond imagination,” Cirera said.
Myrna’s a distribution clerk at the Sitka Post Office; Felix a mailman. They planned to retire in two years, and move full-time to the vacation home they built on the beach in Tacloban, Felix’s hometown.
On November 12, American Brigadier General Paul Kennedy described to NPR how Tacloban looked from the air:
“It looks like a bomb went off,” he said “It looks like a 50-mile-wide tornado hit landfall and just tore everything apart.”
Listening to reports like this at home in Sitka, the Cireras feared the worst. Felix had a sister and a brother in Tacloban. And a niece. And an aunt.
After the storm, Felix got a text from a sister in Sweden, who had gotten a text from his sister in Maasin, who had heard rumors from people leaving Tacloban that their family had made it through the storm alive.
“But we didn’t believe!” Myrna said. “So we told [Felix's nephew] Alex, can you go there and check really, if they’re really alive, because this is what we are hearing, but we’re not sure, because it’s only a text.”
The Cireras sent money for gas so that Felix’s nephew, Alex, could make the four-hour trek to Tacloban by motorbike – the roads were so choked with debris that it was impossible for cars to get through. They waited, and they waited. Finally, they got a call from Felix’s sister in Sweden. She had received a text from Alex in Maasin. And through this global game of telephone, this story began to take shape:
As the storm had approached, Felix’s sister, his aunt, and his niece, along with two housekeepers, had taken shelter at the Cireras’ house. The house is a single-story concrete structure, sturdier than most of the buildings around it. But when the storm hit, water came through the door and window. It rose so fast that the five women climbed on top of a bar.
“Our house was only one story,” Cirera said. “So their heads were sticking up, but even though their heads were sticking up the water was up to the ceiling. And then, they couldn’t breathe.”
When the water finally receded, everything had changed.
MC: When Felix’s aunt went out – our house was surrounded with lots of houses, you know. [But] when she went out, it was so clear…
RW: Everything else had been wiped away?
MC: Yeah, yeah. She just couldn’t believe her eyes, it was just amazing, she said.
They had stockpiled food and water, but the flood had destroyed it or washed it away. Miraculously, a small store in the neighborhood was still standing.
“But they ran out of water, they ran out of Pepsi,” Myrna said.
The one thing they hadn’t run out of? Beer.
“So they were drinking beers!” Myrna said. “Without water, they’ve been drinking beers.That’s how they survived.”
And that was how Alex found them, when he arrived on his motorbike a few days after the storm.
Other members of the Cirera family were not as lucky. Felix’s brother, Romie, lived in another neighborhood of Tacloban. Romie was diabetic, and on dialysis. He and his family survived the storm, but without food, or water, or medical care, he couldn’t make it through the days that followed.
“They couldn’t bury him right away,” Myrna said. “What they did, the family, is they just wrapped him in a sheet, and put him on top of my father-in-law’s grave.”
“That’s the other thing that Felix has to deal with,” Myrna said. “Is to get it right. To give him at least a coffin and to give him prayers.”
When Felix finally arrived in Tacloban, he found two feet of mud inside their house, and so much debris outside that he told Myrna it can’t be moved without a bulldozer. But Myrna says that’s not what matters.
“Life is too short,” Myrna said. “We don’t really care about the house. But the people, that we really cared, that survived, that was the most important.”
Myrna Cirera is collecting supplies for disaster relief in Tacloban. You can drop off basic first-aid supplies, toiletries or donations at the AC Lakeside Grocery Store in Sitka. She will also be collecting supplies at her table at the Christmas Bazaar at Harrigan Centennial Hall, this Saturday, November 30.