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Agony flows from unwatched threat: a wall of water

Thursday - 11/14/2013, 5:32am  ET

Typhoon survivors camp out at Tacloban city airport hoping to be able to board U.S. and Philippine military transport planes Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, in Tacloban city, Leyte province in central Philippines. Five days after one of the strongest tropical storms on record leveled tens of thousands of houses in the central Philippines, relief operations were only starting to pick up pace, with two more airports in the region reopening, allowing for more aid flights. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

TODD PITMAN
Associated Press

TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) -- Two days before the typhoon hit, officials rolled through this city with bullhorns, urging residents to get to higher ground or take refuge in evacuation centers. Warnings were broadcast on state television and radio.

Some left. Some didn't.

Residents steeled themselves for the high winds, floods and mudslides that routinely come with the typhoons that afflict this tropical nation. But virtually no one was prepared for Typhoon Haiyan's storm surge, a 6-meter-high (20-foot-high) wall of water headed straight for them.

"It was supposed to be safe," said Linda Maie, who stayed in her one-room house more than half a kilometer (mile) inland. She had heard the warnings but said her Tacloban (tuk-LOH-ban) neighborhood "has never even flooded in my 61 years."

Her family stocked up on canned food, water and candles and covered their TV, laptops and appliances in plastic bags. But when her 16-year-old daughter, Alexa Wung, awoke at 5 a.m. Friday to howling winds and heavy rain, it was clear that Haiyan was not a typical storm.

The house was shaking. Its wooden door frame and window hinges were banging. Peeking through the windows, Alexa saw doors and screens flying and crashing.

Their neighborhood was coming apart.

Water began seeping in through the doorway as Alexa huddled in the tiny house with her mother and brother. Then it burst through like an explosion, ripping half the door off and quickly flooding the room with knee-high water. Within minutes, it was chest-high.

By now, the family was on the dining table, watching in horror. Alexa's brother, Victor Vincent, glanced at the ceiling as the precious pocket of air grew smaller. They thought of escaping, but Linda couldn't swim.

Alexa checked her cell phone. It was 8:30 a.m. The icon for her mobile service provider was replaced with a circle with a slash through it.

"I knew then that even if we could scream for help, nobody in the world could hear us," Alexa said. "We were cut off from everything."

And the water was still rising.

___

It would be more than a day before the outside world knew what had happened.

Haiyan was among the most powerful typhoons on record when it struck, with wind estimates at landfall as high as 315 kph (195 mph). But the first news reports hours later suggested that it had moved across the islands so fast that the country might have escaped a major catastrophe. The reality was that Tacloban and other hard-hit communities had been cut off, with electricity and cell phone towers knocked out.

The worries, in Talcoban and around the world, had been on the wind much more than the water. That's why many of the 800,000 people who were evacuated found themselves in seemingly sturdy concrete buildings that could not protect them when the storm surge -- sea water pushed by the typhoon -- rushed in.

"Everybody knew a big storm was coming," said Mark Burke, an American native of Washington state who lives in Tacloban with his three small children and worked as a civilian pilot on contracts supporting U.S. naval forces in the region. "But I had no idea it was going to be this hell. ... Nobody imagined what was about to happen."

The water rose so high that some residents punched holes in their roofs with their bare hands to escape.

Burke and his kids hid in a bedroom until a wall of mud came through the doors. The master bed was floating.

"Then we all got on the piano, and it started floating through the hallway," he said. "The water kept rising, and we eventually climbed up into the attic and stayed there for a day and a half."

___

In another part of Tacloban, Eflide Bacsal was standing in the kitchen of her family's home when the wall of water hit with a furious roar.

"It was like a bomb -- BOOM!" said her 23-year-old sister, Gennette Bacsal. "It felt like an earthquake."

The wave smashed through the windows and swept Eflide off her feet, sucking the 26-year-old under the swirling water. She frantically waved her arms, trying to find something to grasp. Her fingers closed around the power cord to the refrigerator. She held on as tight as she could and tried to pull herself to the surface, but the water only pushed her deeper.

She couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. Couldn't see. In her panic, she began swallowing water. Everything went black. She felt herself dying. She surrendered.

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