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Under MacArthur's gaze, a Filipino nun sees hope in Tacloban's ruins

A Filipino nun tries to rebuild her stricken collective amid the ruins of Typhoon Haiyan, where the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur is one of the few structures still standing.

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Mud-drenched statues of US General Douglas MacArthur and his men still stand in Tacloban, central Philippines, Nov. 12. The sculpture, reeanacting Gen. MacArthur's historic landing, survived the typhoon mostly unscathed, though one statue was toppled by strong winds.

Aaron Favila/AP

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When she was a young girl in 1960, Esperanza Orejola draped a garland of flowers around the neck of Douglas MacArthur and danced a ballet to the tune of the Blue Danube to welcome him to her hometown, a World War II battlefield. 

“He was sentimental,” she recalls of the ex-general's return. “He cried.”

Now a mother superior, she hums the tune of that lilting waltz as she hops along in a beat-up bicycle taxi, her brown habit hiked up to reveal purple-flowered Bermuda shorts as she prepares to survey the damage wreaked by Typhoon Yolanda, as it’s known here.

She is a 4-foot-11 political force. When she was 18, she decided to sell off her share of her family's land and use the money to set up a cooperative that teaches livelihoods and lends to small businesses. Her siblings were supportive, urging her to sell off the best plots of property to finance her dream. 

It was a success, growing from modest beginnings to hundreds of members. After that, her father encouraged her to run for local office. When Ms. Orejola was in her early 20s, he arranged a marriage to an eligible local bachelor. In response, she ran away from home and joined a Roman Catholic convent.

“He wanted me to know only one man,” she says. “I wanted to know many people.” Her father didn’t speak to her for eight years.

Outgoing and cheerful, Orejola often invokes a prayer – her favorite – to Jesus’s grandmother, subsequently sainted by the Catholic church. “I say, ‘Saint Anna, please bless me with pleasant surprises.' ”

Typhoon Yolanda was not one of them. Orejola cut short a trip to Rome to check on the members of her cooperative here, mostly the children and grandchildren of original members, and to pay calls to her extended family. 

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The Lord taketh away

She arrives at the evacuation center where many of the cooperative families have taken shelter in what was the old parish hall. The adjacent church lies in ruins, its roof blown away and its wooden pews scattered and splintered.

The parish members have dragged some of the battered pews to what remains of a concrete car port. They have salvaged, too, a mud-splattered lectern. A weather-beaten statue of Mary sits on an old footstool atop a makeshift altar hastily constructed of packing crates.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” the priest intones, as parishioners turn to greet Orejola. Children take her hand and gently bow as they raise it to their foreheads in a sign of devotion. It is a sparse gathering for a morning mass, the empty pews underscoring the community's vast loss. 

As mass ends, the congregants, many of them members of the collective, crowd around Orejola, who carries a large Winnie the Pooh suitcase filled with matches, medicine, candles, canned goods, bandages, and water.

Aileen Fabi and her family rode out the storm here. As the winds whipped up and the waters rose, her son Martin, 15, found some old foam and gently wrapped a 2-month-old baby in a loose cocoon to protect him from the high-velocity glass and splintered wood.

A child is born

Meanwhile, in the now-decimated church, his mother was delivering a baby. Ms. Fabi is a midwife, trained courtesy of funds raised by the collective, of which she is a member, along with her husband, Aldwin. The collective is where he was when the storm hit.

He was washed from there, more than a kilometer away, all the way back to the evacuation center next to the church. “When Dad got here, he was naked,” notes Martin, his clothes washed away in the storm. “Our returning hero,” says Aileen, surveying her husband fondly. 

Martin leans to pet a dog, limping and battered by the storm, who has joined the community of evacuees here. “He found us, because he knows we would love him,” he says. “He’s a survivor, too.”

Since the storm, Martin has spent hours looking up at the stars and developed a credo. “It’s not how long we live,” he explains. “It’s how short a time we regret.”

He also thinks he has settled on a future profession: architect. “I think it will be very in demand,” he jokes, looking around at the rubble that stretches for miles all around him.

MacArthur stands tall

When Orejola was a child, the city park was her second home. Its centerpiece was a statue of General MacArthur that her father and brother had helped to build. “They built it strong,” she says. His statue was once flanked by those of Filipino officials. Now their statues lie face down in an ankle-deep pool of water. 

Today, the US general's statue is the only recognizable landmark that remains. Orejola's family home is no more, washed away into the ocean like so much of the town.  She points to a mountain range that used to be blocked by groves of palm trees of all varieties, now bare and splintered like toothpicks.

“I just can’t believe it,” she says, covering her mouth.

She searches for MacArthur’s cement footprints, another park attraction – casting them had been her father's idea – and finds them after several minutes, buried under several inches of water.

It is small comfort. She has learned in speaking with members of the collective that 170 or more of their 800 members have died in the storm.

When she was a young girl, Orejola’s father, a town official, would send children out with pots and spoons to make a racket and warn people of incoming storms. “It’s a big, big wave! It will drown you! Go, go, go!” she intones, thumping her hand on her thigh.

Storm surge

It is a point of deep dismay here that the warnings about the storm were all broadcast on the radio in English, rather than the Filipino language, and that they referred to a “storm surge” rather than, say, a tidal wave.

Even “tidal wave” is a bit technical for locals, Orejola says. “That’s why we said, ‘Big, big wave.’ ” “Who has ever heard of a ‘storm surge’?” Orejola adds, throwing her arms in the air. “What does that even mean?”

She shakes off the thought, exasperation turning to energetic intensity. She is focused on the future, including Christmas, when she fears that “it will be like a ghost town here.”

She has no more family land to sell, but plans to begin rebuilding the collective. She wants to raise funds for its 45th anniversary later this year. She will lobby for donations of cash and equipment, to replace the dozens of sewing machines that were destroyed, among other things.

Beyond that, Orejola has a new project in mind, a home for orphans and, beside it, another home for adults who lost their families in the wake of the storm.

“The babies need help, but we are all babies after something like this,” she says. Each could help the other rebuild their lives, side by side.

“This,” she adds, surveying the destruction around her, “is where it all begins again.”


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