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Typhoon Haiyan: A Young Woman Forges Through Chaos and Debris

by Victor Limjoco /  / Updated 

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ESTANCIA, Philippines -- A heavy rain falls on this devastated fishing town early on a Sunday morning, and 20-year-old Queennie Lucio hasn't really slept. She looks upwards, gripping her young brother tightly, as water streams into the living room through a car-sized hole in the roof.

“We’re trying to be strong,” she says. But recovering from Typhoon Haiyan -- which made its fifth landfall here as it tore westward through the Philippine Islands almost two weeks ago -- has been grueling. Ninety percent of the houses here were damaged or destroyed, according to the mayor. About 100 local people died, mostly fisherman desperately trying to save their fishing boats, their livelihoods.

The rain here touches everything -- capsized boats near the port, abandoned storefronts in a once-thriving market, and small houses reduced to unrecognizable piles of wood and sheet metal. Downed power lines crisscross the streets, as people pick through the enormous piles of trash scavenging for scrap iron, building materials, or sometimes treasured memories of their lives before the storm.

Queennie frequently flashes back to the harrowing moments when her family escaped; flood waters up to their waists, they waded to higher ground carrying her invalid grandfather. Surveying her rain-drenched belongings, she almost cries. “It’s not normal,” she says. “I hate what happened.”

Memories of before

Through a haze of flies brought on by the proliferation of post-typhoon refuse, Queennie leans down near a pile of debris in front of her house and picks up her old school drawings.

“I am smart,” she says self-assuredly. Queennie won a provincial academic scholarship to Northern Iloilo Polytechnic State College where she studies civil engineering. The precise lines and patterns of her studies stand in stark contrast to the splinters of her own family’s house.

“Living here in our house is very hard,” she says. Besides the busted roof, holes in the wall leave the family vulnerable to the 90-degree Estancia heat. The storm destroyed almost all of her possessions: laptop, clothes, textbooks.

“We have no things,” she says. “Everything was taken away from us.”

Queennie lives with her parents and three siblings. But since the storm, the house has become a refuge for eight more family members – relatives displaced from other towns across the island. They sleep four to a bed.

“I cannot sleep well,” she says, with all the tossing and turning.

The Lucio household glows below a starry sky in the devastated town of Estancia on Nov. 16. A week after Typhoon Haiyan hit, the family still has no electricity. The washing machine, computer, and radio are all silenced. The Lucios depend on fire for cooking and light.Jim Seida / NBC News

The struggle for food and drinkable water is constant. Food arrives regularly from relief charities and the Filipino government, but it never seems to be enough. She’ll squeeze a meal for about a dozen family members from six packages of ramen, a few cups of rice, and some small sardines.

Clutching her neck, Queennie says that she can feel herself getting thinner.

The storm

Recalling the Typhoon’s arrival, Queennie describes “the flood, the water, the wind.” There were calls for the residents of the area to evacuate, but her 76-year-old grandfather refused to leave. He only has one leg -- the other was amputated after a complication with his diabetes – and a quick getaway was not an option. Another factor: Queennie’s family had heard earlier predictions of the storm moving northward, away from Estancia. The situation didn't seem dire.

In fact, Queennie was checking Facebook that Friday morning, still in her pajamas and listening to radio newscasts with her sister, Mariecarl, plotting the path of the storm.

“Suddenly the wind was very strong, and the water rise up immediately,” she said. “I think it was a storm surge.” Within minutes, they were fleeing, as flood waters seeped into their home. A shipping container burst at a nearby port, filling their living room with fish and shrimp.

Queennie and her family went from house to house, retreating to higher land. “Trees are falling down,” she recalls. “Electric wires are on the streets.”

Family members carried her grandfather through the typhoon. Her mother, Maria Jenetis, told her to stay strong. “I cried,” Queennie says. “I’m looking at my mother. I’m staring at my mother. She told me not to cry, because we’re going to go outside.”

Miles away, her fisherman father, Wennie, was fighting for his own survival after he was forced to abandon ship off the coast of nearby Batad. Wennie owns two fishing boats, and he and his crew frantically tried to protect them from 20-foot waves. After swimming to shore, he walked more than two miles back home during the storm, Queennie says, searching for his family.

Later that night, he found them at an evacuation center. Their family had survived. “When he arrived, I kissed him,” she says.

The Lucio family stands in front of their storm-ravaged home in the town of Estancia, Philippines, on Nov. 18. From left, Maria Jenetis, Emmanuel, Wennie Lyn, Queennie, Mariecarl, and Wennie struggled to survive during Typhoon Haiyan. Two older sisters, Mary Gwen and Mary Glen, live in the capital city of Iloilo. 20-year-old Queennie Lucio says she is "so blessed that no one died" in her family.Jim Seida / NBC News
Slow recovery

Signs of life are coming back in the weeks after the storm -- the constant rhythm of hammering, cell phones are buzzing again with service, and the bustling E. Reyes Avenue in downtown Estancia is choked with revving motorbikes. Smoke fills the air from hundreds of small fires – residents are burning their debris.

Estancia Pentecostal Church is having the first Sunday service since the storm, and Queennie’s family is going to sing. “It’s important to go back here,” she says. “To thank God that we’re still alive after the typhoon.”

On Monday, Queennie’s father comes home with good news: the boats are floating again. More repairs are needed, but earnings from a day of fishing will help the family enormously, up to 5000 pesos (more than $100) if they bring in a good haul. Using a friend’s boat, he caught tonight’s dinner and plops a glistening milkfish on the kitchen table. It’s the first fresh fish the family has seen since the storm.

But the recovery is hard-fought and tenuous day-to-day. Queennie barely gets any sleep at night, especially with a new problem that’s developed over the past two days. “I’m waking every now and then because there are so many mosquitoes because of the stagnant water in front of our house,” she says. The creek nearby is littered with mounds of typhoon debris.

Queennie is volunteering with local officials to help distribute aid; stories like hers are repeated in communities across the Philippines. Queennie is passionate for the world to know about the scale of the devastation, that it's spread throughout the central Philippines.

“It was not only Tacloban, because there are so many places that [were] hit by the typhoon. And Estancia was one of them,” she says. “I love this place.”

Queennie looks forward to returning to school. A sign on the front gate says it’ll be up and running possibly in early January. Before the typhoon, she used to dream about buying a small oven for the family kitchen since she loves to cook; now she’s focused on much simpler things.

“I dream about someday we'll be fine,” she says. “Everything will be back to normal again.”

Editor's note: This story originally published Nov. 21, 2013.

To assist people like Queennie and the people of Estancia, you can donate to: Philippine Red Cross, Iloilo Chapter, c/o Estancia Relief, Bonifacio Drive, Iloilo City, Philippines.

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