Joverime Regis put her three young sons to bed on November 7, 2013, knowing that sometime early the next morning, a typhoon would hit the city the where she lived, Tacloban. For the last several days, meteorologists on the news had been warning that Typhoon Haiyan might be the biggest storm to ever strike the Philippines. However, like her neighbors around Tacloban, and Filipinos in other parts of the country, she was used to typhoons and knew that the high winds would bring some destruction.
Powerful winds pummeled Tacloban throughout night and only grew stronger as day broke. By then, seawater began to fill the home where Joverime lived with her sons and parents—a quarter mile inland. With each passing minute, the water rose higher and higher and then, suddenly, a wall of water came—the “storm surge.” Joverime and her neighbors had heard the people on the news saying those words but they did not know what the words meant.
“Storm surge,” an abnormal rise of sea level caused by high winds and exacerbated by geographical factors, was not a common occurrence in the Philippines. This day, however, a 20-foot ocean surge, pushed by winds gusting up to 235 mph and amplified by Tacloban’s gently sloping coast, traveled more than a mile inland, tearing houses from their foundations and dragging massive cargo ships ashore.
As the water rushed in, a family member kicked over the refrigerator in the kitchen and tore off the door. Joverime threw her three sons into the refrigerator including five-year-old Jansen, who was born with cerebral palsy. As the refrigerator began to float away, Joverime grabbed one side with her right arm and held on to the cement wall of an outhouse with the other. When the water subsided an hour later, all of Joverime’s family had survived. Jansen, however, who could not comprehend what had happened, was left deeply traumatized.
Shortly after the typhoon, Handicap International mobile teams were on the ground in Tacloban, searching for the most vulnerable survivors, especially people with disabilities and disabling injuries. The teams traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood, asking local leaders for the names of people with disabilities, and then going door-to-door or tent-to-tent to find and assess them.
In early December, a team found Joverime and Jansen. They saw that Jansen, who had never received treatment for his cerebral palsy, spent most of his days laying in bed and rarely went outside. Joverime had to carry him everywhere, and had a hard time doing even basic housework because of the amount of care and supervision Jansen required. Life was tough for the whole family, even before the typhoon wrecked their home.
Two weeks later, a Handicap International team returned to the family with a wheelchair and arm and leg braces for Jansen. The wheelchair was made specifically for small children with cerebral palsy and was designed with a rugged frame and wheels to navigate rough terrain. With the chair and braces, Jansen was able to sit upright with his arms and legs fully extended for the first time in his life. A Handicap International occupational therapist also taught the family how to do exercises with Jansen to help relax his tight muscles.
In late February, Handicap International Physical Therapist Iris Fortuna and Project Officer Anna Celeste Alaon visited the family to see how Jansen and Joverime were adapting.
“Jansen’s personality changed with the wheelchair because now he can sit outside in the sun and be around other children—he’s so jolly,” Joverime told Iris and Anna. “He shouts and smiles when the other children play around him. It’s easier for me now because I can do work around the house knowing he’s secure in his chair. I can also take him to the hospital and other places more easily now that I don’t have to carry him.”
Outside, Jansen sits in his chair surrounded by children from the neighborhood. There’s still a lot of storm debris laying around, but the streets have been cleared and people have made creative use of some of the objects. There’s a festive holiday tree made of multi-colored bottles, and soda cans serve as nursery pots for sprouting vegetables. A cacophony of hammers rings through the air as men build frames for new houses and nail down sheet metal to new roofs. The children, meanwhile, focus on who can fly their handmade kites the highest. Jansen looks upward and yells with delight as the kites dance in the sky above.