TACLOBAN, Philippines — In the days after a horrific storm hit Tacloban, Philippines, Gemmer Esperas walked along an altered landscape — where houses had been ripped from their foundations and a thick coat of black mud covered the community — and looked for the body of his only child.
Annammer Esperas, 6, was home with her mother, Analyn Esperas, when Typhoon Haiyan struck her city on Nov. 8, 2013.
As the water came, the mother and daughter were carried into a rice field. Analyn tried in vain to hold the little girl as the waves and the wind beat the earth. Hours later, she would lie on the top of a tin roof knowing her only child had been carried away by the storm surge.
Gemmer returned from work as a security guard to discover what Haiyan had claimed — his daughter, his home, his job.
First he found and buried his daughter, then he gathered abandoned sheets of corrugated metal and built a new home. But the gaps in the metal did not protect his wife from the wind or the rain. The couple could not sleep.
Everything changed when a counselor in the bishopric of their ward, Joy Operio, found the Esperases. “Go to the church for shelter,” he told them. That night in the LDS meetinghouse they slept for the first time since their daughter’s death. On that night, recovery for the Esperases began.
Looking at Tacloban today, it would be hard for visitors to imagine how Typhoon Haiyan devastated the city just more than four years ago.
Vendors walk the street selling their wares. New homes and commercial development dot the landscape. And the mountain, stripped of vegetation during the storm, is filled with lush, green growth.
The deadliest typhoon on record in the country, Typhoon Haiyan left more than 6,100 people dead, injured 28,000 and displaced 4.1 million. Some 1,785 people remain missing, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in the Philippines.
The storm also destroyed more than 1.1 million homes in the central Philippines.
Yet in the country where disasters strike often, recovery was anticipated.
“The Philippines is a land of beautiful, God-loving people,” said Elder Shayne M. Bowen, General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Philippines Area. “It is also a land of typhoons, earthquakes, floods and landslides. These natural disasters are a fact of life in the Philippines. It is amazing to see the resilience of the people in the face of these challenges, which never end. When most people would give up, the Filipinos are always ready to rebuild without complaint.”
After Typhoon Haiyan, the Church immediately set programs in place to provide relief and help members rebuild, restore and retool, said Tony San Gabriel, Philippines self-reliance manager.
A Church building program, started after the storm, continues to bless the lives of members today, said Ronald Aban, self-reliance manager for the Philippines Tacloban Mission.
As part of the building program, participants obtained basic skills as a carpenter, received tools and earned a certificate. A trainee built his or her own house — about 12-feet by 12-feet in dimension — and nine more homes.
“Tacloban Saints still struggle after four years from the strongest typhoon,” said Aban, noting that many are living in the same house that they built with the Church’s humanitarian help. “However, the carpenters that took part in the training and rebuilding four years ago are better today because of the enhanced skills they’ve gained, plus the tool kits that they are still able to use and the certificates they got from the training.”
Four years after the storm, Gemmer and Analyn Esperas sit in the home constructed by Gemmer through the Church’s construction program and reflect on the miracles in their lives.
Analyn holds a small infant — baby Gemmer, born nine years after his sister.
In addition to enrolling in the construction program in the months after the storm, Gemmer also accepted a calling as Young Men president in the ward.
When the youth traveled to the Cebu Philippines Temple for baptisms, he and Analyn made the trip too; they entered the temple for the first time, made covenants and had their daughter sealed to them.
“I was crying so much,” said Gemmer. “I was able to know that we will be together with Annammer someday.”
For some time, Analyn had been bothered by the question of a well-intentioned neighbor who lost six children in the storm. What is worse, the neighbor had asked, to lose an only child or to lose many children? The question consumed Analyn with grief.
But in the temple the question no longer mattered. She was filled with light. The pain associated with Typhoon Haiyan was gone.
As she and Gemmer had their daughter sealed to them, she felt Annammer with them. “I cannot explain the happiness,” she said. The temple, she said, “washed away the nightmares of my life.”
Gemmer and Analyn Esperas also found the strength to ask the Lord for one more thing. The couple prayed in the temple that they would be parents again.
Bishop Frederick Cabe of the Palo Ward, Tacloban Philippines Stake, said the storm “won’t be forgotten” in Tacloban. “Every year there is a memorial to commemorate it. They put out candles … to remind people we had this.”
But besides memorials — the most prominent are at the site of a mass grave or the convention center where thousands fled and then died — few signatures of the storm remain. Tacloban is thriving.
It is also hard now for Gemmer to connect to the grief and pain that consumed him as he wandered after the storm. Yet, he said, he won’t forget it either.
Visiting Tacloban recently, Elder Ulisses Soares of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke of Typhoon Haiyan. “This trial and many others are part of this mortal experience,” he said. “We need to have faith to stand up after the trial and trust in the Lord.”
The Esperases said that is exactly what they are trying to do.
Because of his certificate earned through the Church construction project, Gemmer is able to support his family. He is working on a water truck as part of a government project.
When Analyn returned from the temple in Cebu, others notice she was different. She smiled more. Friends, struck by the peace she had found, investigated and joined the Church.
While holding baby Gemmer, Analyn recently spoke of his sister. She recalled baby Gemmer’s delivery — which was supposed to be by caesarean section because the baby was breach; but came faster than expected — and counted her blessings.
“As members of the Church we should be happy,” she said, “because we know the gospel, because families can be together forever.”