Wherever there’s devastation and relief work to be done, that’s where Dave and Lora York want to be.
Last week, that was the Philippines.
The Puyallup couple returned Wednesday from a 10-day deployment to some of the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan.
The Yorks, both emergency room nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital, met in 2004 while doing similar work in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of a tsunami there.
A year later, they were married.
They continue to do relief work through the nonprofit EMPACT Northwest.
The Yorks returned to Puyallup with stories of the tragedy they saw and that faces the EMPACT team that relieved them.
They also brought back stories of human spirit that inspire them to do the difficult aid work.
Question: What did you see when you hit the ground?
Answer: Dave York: It was definitely pretty horrific, the massiveness of the destruction. The Tacloban area, especially the airport, was hit pretty hard. People trying to get out on military transport while we were trying to get in. That’s always an interesting dynamic. The Filipino people pressing on the gate, just trying to leave.
Q: What were your accommodations?
A: Dave: We were embedded with the Philippine National Police. We basically stayed on the rooftop (of a hotel) with them. The soldiers were cleaning the mud and muck out of the ground floor. The storm surge flooded the second story of this hotel. We brought our own food. We filtered our own water. We were in tents.
Q: What did you bring?
A: Lora York: Medical supplies to take care of each other. We all had our own antibiotics. We were taking anti-malarial medication, just in case. We would come across people with very bad wounds, and I would have basic supplies and antibiotics I would give them.
Dave: We did bring cameras to look into rubble. Ropes, pulleys, helmets, gloves. You bring what you can carry.
Q: Where did you go?
A: Dave: We were in Tacloban proper. Basically between the airport and Leyte. We did an excursion toward the south. Tanauan.
Q: Did you see a difference in the destruction in those different areas?
A: Dave: The storm played no favorites. The modern construction did withstand fairly well. As far as some of the lower socioeconomic areas, just complete devastation. That’s where a lot of bodies were still entrapped. The wood was pretty much laid down, all the timbers laying in one direction from the wind. Like the trees on Mount St. Helens from the volcano blast.
Lora: The people were so overwhelmed, and you could see the sadness. The Filipino people are resilient people. They were happy to be alive, but grieved that they had lost everything and their loved ones. There were kids playing in the street, trying to get back to their normal lives.
Q: What were some of your biggest challenges?
A: Dave: They were concerned about our safety, probably more than they needed to be. In Tacloban, we ran across a Filipino gentleman named Felix. He found out what our team was doing there, and he said: “Oh, you’re a search and rescue team. I have a truck. Take my truck.” He gave us keys to his vehicle and said: “Go.”
We’re about empathy at EMPACT – helping people and moving forward through adverse circumstances. They just inspire us even more as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. You remember people like Felix, and it’s humbling.
Q: What other stories can you share from your mission?
A: Dave: The day we borrowed the vehicle from Felix, we contacted the local authorities and told them what we were doing. They directed us to a neighborhood that had not been searched. Access was limited, but being a small team, it was easy to get into for us. As we walked down the street, the locals started to tell their stories of the waves coming in, and where some of the bodies were, and that there were no survivors in that area.
This would be day eight or nine after the typhoon. They were trying to rebuild and set back up. They were very appreciative: “Thank you for coming, thank you for talking to us, thank you for recovering bodies. And Merry Christmas.” And that whole Merry Christmas part, it just really broke our hearts.
It’s going to shed a different light on what we’re thankful for, and what Christmas is all about.
Q: It sounds like a lot of the work you were doing was recovery, as opposed to rescue.
A: Dave: We got into Manila, and the window for rescue was still there. Trying to get out of Manila took a few days. In these types of situations, aid and relief supplies have to go first. You have to get the water, the food, the tarps, the medication. When we did get into town, the primary focus of the police was to secure the area, bring peace and order. We heard reports that Tacloban was like the Wild West, that there was looting of aid trucks.
Every day that goes by, the potential for rescue goes down, and body recovery starts becoming more and more.
That was frustrating on our part.
Q: How did that compare to other missions you’ve been on?
A: Dave: We’re not a recovery team. We’re truly a search and rescue. At the same time, we couldn’t leave an area where there was a body that had been in the sun for 11 days, and people are trying to rebuild around that. Families were trying to figure out who was lost, who was possibly still alive.
Lora: We wanted to give the time to these families to be heard. To grieve, and to move on. Sometimes that only allowed us to mark an area, say: “Aid will be coming,” and leave a body bag. It was very hard. It was not an easy mission at all.
Q: Emotionally, how do you cope with that sort of work?
A: Dave: Being medical, we deal with this on a much smaller scale every day. The process of debriefing with each other is really instrumental. We do talk about it. We all deal with it in our own personal ways. Each night, we have to look at the health of the team. Not just the physical health, but also the mental health: “How are you doing today? How is your energy level? Are there any concerns for yourself, for the group?”
Q: What other relief work have you done, besides Sri Lanka and the Philippines?
A: Dave: This has been kind of our story. This is how we met, and, it’s a really odd thing to say, it’s what we enjoy doing. It’s really a compulsion to help. We have a hard time sitting on our hands when a disaster happens. We know we can make a difference. It really does focus us as to what is important in life.
We’ve done Haiti after the earthquake there. We’ve also been to the Dominican Republic. We worked at orphanages there, doing immunizations, and also similar type work in Jamaica.
Q: What is the team on the ground there doing? How long will they be there? And will there be other teams that deploy?
A: Dave: It’s very possibly there will be teams after that. We met them in the Philippines and gave them the intel. They are figuring out the medical situation. Water-born illness happens about two weeks after a disaster. Cholera and dysentery, that’s bound to happen any day now.
They’re going for seven days. All the teams have paid their own way.
We have people standing by right now who are anxious to get over there and help.
We’re taking donations and supplies we’ll be sending.
Q: What should people know about the Philippines right now, or EMPACT’s mission?
A: Lora: The biggest thing is not to forget the Filipino people. One of the saddest things is we come home, and there’s all the news and hype, and we’ll have moved onto the next story. This is something it’s going to take years to recover from. These people have lost everything.
I remember coming across a lady. All she had were the clothes on her back. She lost her husband and her two kids. She’s by herself now. But she still wished us a Merry Christmas, and she said: “Thank you for being here to help us.”
The big thing is to not forget about these people.
Dave: So many people, when they see disaster, they run in the opposite direction. Our team, we run into the disaster. And that’s what we feel our calling is.
Alexis Krell: 253-57-8268