That time when I met the mayor

Tacloban, Philippines (image from CNN)

Tacloban, Philippines (image from CNN)

If I further delay writing this piece I’m afraid I’ll forget a little more each day about the importance of learning from another person’s experiences, especially the person I’m about to describe.

About two weeks ago, our institute on campus was contacted to see if any of our faculty or staff would be interested in meeting a Filipino mayor, Alfred Romualdez. My initial reaction was, of course! He is my people, why wouldn’t I? The Filipino mayor was coming to Duke to talk about his experiences as the mayor of Tacloban, the provincial capital city that was gravely hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

If I back up to November 2013, it was shortly after Lucas was born that I first heard about Typhoon Haiyan. In fact, I was in my hospital bed when I learned about the typhoon and I was immediately concerned for the safety of family members in the Philippines. When my father arrived to help with our son a week after he was born, we learned that our family members were all ‘ok’ so I stopped thinking about the typhoon.

When the mayor started telling us some of the tragedies that occurred during the typhoon, I felt the back of my throat close and my eyes fill up.

One family was in a water tower—a husband, wife and their four children. When the water rushed in, the father was somehow able to climb upward to the top (I’m missing some details here…I think he was instructed to go up earlier), but the mother and their children were left at the bottom. The water surged in and the mother could only hold onto and save one child.

The mayor’s own daughter was blown across town and held onto a post for two hours before someone rescued her.

In another story, a family with several children sought refuge in a hotel room. As they fled the hotel room thinking that it would be safer elsewhere, their 6-year-old child was left behind. In the end, the only one who survived was the 6-year-old who had stayed in the hotel.

Thousands of lives were lost and the city was blown apart by wind and water. Mayor Romualdez was courageous and pragmatic, focusing on getting communication up and the main roads cleared in order to implement rescue and relief efforts. After the typhoon hit, somehow a rumor spread that he had died. After reuniting with his family, he walked through the streets showing himself to his people to prove that he was still alive. Mayor Romualdez said that if he did not do this, his people would have lost hope. I could go on about how the mayor rebuilt his city, its economy, his people’s spirits…. No doubt, he was and is a true leader.

I don’t know when I’ll visit the Philippines next, but perhaps in the future, I will try to visit Tacloban, and maybe see the mayor again. In the meantime, I’ll research international NGO’s that are still working in Tacloban and see if I can do something to contribute to their efforts.

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