Columbia native volunteering in Philippines reconnects with family after Typhoon Haiyan

Thursday, November 14, 2013 | 1:09 p.m. CST; updated 2:12 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 14, 2013

COLUMBIA — Friends' homes, the local supermarket and neighborhood restaurants now fill the streets of Tacloban in the form of cracked glass, cement and rubble.

The remnants of a city that Pamela Weisman called home for the past five months lay beneath her feet, unrecognizable by even those who know it best.

Pamela Weisman, 23, of Columbia had been volunteering in the Philippines since June for Volunteers for the Visayans with nine other people from around the world. She was part of a six month program teaching deaf children and helping run an orphanage. She had two weeks left in her program when Typhoon Haiyan struck.

"Nine out of ten houses were completely destroyed or majorly damaged. There were palm trees everywhere, along with electrical wires. There was lots of trash, glass, nails, wood, clothing and shoes just scattered everywhere," Weisman said. "Everything was completely covered in mud. On top of that you'd see a jeep overturned or a pedicab up on top of something."

Wednesday, two days before the storm struck, signaled danger for the city. The city slowly began to take precautions for the impending storm, but no one knew how severe it would be. It was early Friday morning when the typhoon struck.

Weisman and her homestay family woke up early Friday morning and huddled in a room, trying to keep away from windows. But once the first floor began to flood, they had to move to the hallway on the second floor. Later that afternoon, Weisman decided to find fellow volunteers living near her to make sure they were safe.

"We trekked through the deep water, over roofs, underneath wires, across trees trying to look for them because their house had been completely flooded and they had to swim for their lives," Weisman said. "After calling their names, we found them and brought them home with us."

Weisman and her friends went back to her house and huddled in the hallway with 25 others. They were also rescuing random citizens floating by, doing anything they could for those that were injured or lost.

"We have these second lives. We have homes back at home where all of our clothes are still there, our families are still there," she said. "Even though we lost everything we had with us, we didn't lose everything we had. It seemed very important to us that we had to support our Filipino friends and family. Most of those people can't run away, they have to rebuild it. It felt selfish to us to run away from that. This is our home too and we want to help them rebuild. We weren't afraid by the storm."

Weisman said many people lost everything — their family members, their homes, their clothes and every belonging. There were clothes in the streets, and people running naked. Everyone was trying to grab anything they could salvage to bring back to their home, she said.

Weisman and her friend stayed in Tacloban on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night until they and other volunteers were able to evacuate, despite wanting to stay and help with relief efforts.

"We were going to help them pick up the pieces. Then our drinking water started running out and there was no food," she said. "Crime was increasing. Rebels were going around shooting people in the streets. We knew we were in a lot of trouble and had to get out."

Weisman and ten others fled to the airport to try and catch a flight out of Tacloban. She heard the Filipino police were trying to airlift citizens out of Tacloban to safer parts of the country. She said they ended up spending the night sleeping on the floor of the airport. It wasn't until Monday that U.S. military forces arrived and airlifted her and other citizens out.

"They weren't letting non-U.S. citizens on the planes, so I had to pretend to be married to one of my friends," she said. "If I wasn't a U.S. citizen, none of us would have been let on the plane."

The group was airlifted to safety in Manila, where Weisman was staying at a hotel as of Thursday. Her parents, Gary and Sandra Weisman, didn't know how she was until 96 hours after the storm hit. Her parents found out she was safe via the Facebook page for her volunteer group. They finally got a chance to speak to their daughter Monday night when she arrived in Manila.

While Weisman was experiencing the storm from the Philippines, her parents were watching the coverage in agony.

"It was agonizing. Every news report that we'd find, we'd watch it. And you weren't watching for the news, you were watching for the people in the news," Sandra Weisman said. "Seeing if it was your daughter by chance."

"It changed me," Gary Weisman said.

Before the typhoon hit, the Weismans had planned to travel to Tacloban city to pick their daughter up, but now have to alter their trip.

"We're going to pick her up in Manila and travel around to other places in the Philippines that weren't hit as hard," Sandra Weisman said.

Gary and Sandra Weisman encourage fund raising efforts through the Volunteers for the Visayans site, who assure that money will go directly to the people of Tacloban city.

Weisman said in a video posted by the Daily Motion that there was "no communication at all" in Tacloban.

Weisman said that during the experience staying optimistic was tough. She said that "when you're put in a situation like that and you see so much destruction, it's hard to keep a happy face on to show others that everything will be OK."

"I have friends that lost everything, and they were laughing and joking as if nothing happened. People were still walking and smiling, playing with each other's children," she said. "They're so happy and their spirits are so high, even though they have absolutely nothing."

She said although her first volunteering trip may have took a turn for the worst, she plans to return to the Philippines at least once a year "for the rest of my life." She wants to be a part of the rebuilding effort.

Weisman was born and raised in Columbia and graduated from MU in December 2011. Her father is an MU professor. After her graduation, she took sign language classes, sparking her interest in working with the deaf. She began working at the University Club to help save up for her volunteer trip to the Philippines.

She said she "wanted to do volunteer work since I was 13 or 14 because I began to realize what a nice life I lived. I was born into a wealthy family and it made me want to give back to those that had less than me."

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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