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Union alumna survives typhoon, student plans to serve victims

JACKSON, Tenn.Nov. 22, 2013 – The five days following Super Typhoon Haiyan were some of the most agonizing times in Ian Bicol’s life.

Bicol, a Union University Doctor of Nursing Practice student, was born and raised in Tacloban, the Philippine city where the Nov. 8 typhoon hit the hardest. He moved to the U.S. seven years ago to pursue his nursing career, but his parents stayed behind.

With the typhoon having destroyed most communication outlets in Tacloban, Bicol was left wondering for nearly a week if his parents had survived what he considers to be the strongest typhoon in recorded history.

“I was just so depressed,” Bicol recalled as he waited to hear from his family. “My classmates were so supportive and prayed for me.”

News finally came that his parents were alive, as Bicol learned through a relative on Facebook that his mother and father were planning to take refuge in a neighboring city.

“From the news I have, my parents’ house was destroyed, but I don’t know badly it was destroyed,” said Bicol, noting that the storm was more powerful than Hurricane Katrina. “I won’t have a clear idea of what happened to my family or to our house until I get to talk to them personally, which I hope will be really soon.”

Good news also came for the family of Mary Olson, a 2010 Union alumna, when they learned through an email that Mary had safely endured the typhoon.

With a degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, Mary was in the middle of her fourth year working at Bethel International School near Tacloban when the typhoon hit. She had called her family Nov. 6, however, to warn them about the typhoon, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, said Betsy Olson, Mary’s sister and a senior physics major at Union.

Betsy said their mother remembered a similar conversation with Mary in 2008, when Mary called to report “a little tornado” at Union – referring to the EF-4 tornado that ripped through campus five years ago, destroying several student housing facilities and damaging several academic buildings.

“They have a lot of storms in the Philippines, and Mary doesn’t tell us about each one,” Betsy said. “When she was telling us about this one, and I started to look it up, I realized this was going to be a big deal. It wasn’t just another storm.”

Bethel staff members and their families all survived the typhoon, but many of their homes and belongings were destroyed during what Philippine missionary and Bethel founder Paul Varberg called “the storm of their lives.”

“I have lived in the Philippines for many years, and I have experienced four super typhoons and dozens of typical typhoons in the past that have caused great destruction,” Varberg said. “But those storms were nothing like Typhoon Yolanda.”

Varberg said that hundreds of electrical posts are down, resulting in a loss of power that could last more than a month. Cell towers also are damaged, and the only internet connection available is through an overcrowded government relief service.

The school sustained massive damages as well, Varberg noted. Windows typically leak water during a super typhoon, but this storm shattered the school’s windows and lifted the roofs off the buildings. As a result, numerous textbooks and pieces of classroom equipment were ruined.

“The biggest problem here is that everyone is affected,” Varberg said. “All the policemen in town lost their homes, most of the carpenters lost their homes and most of the hardware stores lost their roofs. This will make repairs even more difficult because so much of our city is destroyed.”

Betsy said food, clean water and housing remain scarce in Tacloban, leading Bethel officials to send Mary and three other international teachers to a neighboring city for refuge. But as Mary leaves the disaster scene, Bicol plans to place himself in the middle of it.

Bicol’s brother, a traveling occupational therapist living in Texas, has already returned to the Philippines to help his family recover from the typhoon. Bicol will leave the U.S. Dec. 13 to join his family, he said, once he completes his classes for the semester.

After tending to his family, Bicol said he and his brother will then serve with the Philippine Red Cross, as the brothers volunteered with the organization in years’ past.

In addition, Bicol is raising funds to buy not only medical supplies for the Red Cross but also items such as blankets, food and clothing that he and his brother will personally distribute to typhoon victims in Tacloban and surrounding cities.

“Ninety percent of the residents are homeless, and there’s nowhere to go – especially for the poor people, because they can’t afford to fly out of the city,” Bicol said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

As relief agencies pour into the Philippines, Betsy encouraged people to continue praying for the typhoon survivors as well as the agency workers serving such great needs.

“It’s a bit of an uncertain time, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Betsy said. “Keep the Philippines and the people there in your prayers.”

To support Bicol’s relief efforts, visit www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/0mg3/help-for-tacloban. Bicol will be accepting donations until Dec. 8. To arrange a contribution, email Bicol at unionian@aol.com.

Betsy also said that donations to a general Philippine relief fund can be made at http://www.convergeworldwide.org/give/4002-020401-510217.

By Beth Knoll

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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