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Coming Home From Typhoon Haiyan

Typhoon Haiyan reportedly killed more than 4,000 people and affected millions more when it struck the Philippines nearly two weeks ago. Among those touched by the storm were Jack and Fe Shanahan, a Connecticut couple with a home in one of the heavily affected towns.

This was their Florida. Jack and Fe Shanahan built their house and garden on two and a half acres in a town called Tolosa, where they would spend six months of every year when winter came. It was their retirement agreement.

“The gardens,” said Fe. She had a collection of 22 palm trees there.

“Oh, it was a lovely spot,” said Jack. “That's why I liked it. Bit by bit, we built this place. Every year, we'd add something to it, or reinforce something. Mother Nature decided she was going to redesign the whole place. Bang.”

The Shanahans got to their beachside escape two weeks before Typhoon Haiyan hit. Their daughter, Marie Shanahan, kept track of her parents from her home in Connecticut. “My brother Kevin, who lives outside Boston, was watching the weather maps,” Marie said. He warned that the eye of the storm was going to hit them at a Category 5, with a storm surge of 23 feet.

“I called my parents,” Marie said, “and they had just finished having their morning coffee. They said the power had just gone out, and that they were hunkering down in the back of the house.” Marie told them to evacuate. “Basically I was yelling at them,” she said. “My dad was like, ‘Marie, there’s nothing I can do.” He held up the phone to the wind.

“The first half the typhoon wasn't bad,” Jack said. “It was a lot of wind, about 100 miles an hour; there really wasn't that much damage. All of the sudden -- how come I'm in water up to my ankles here? What's going on? And that's when my wife says, ‘Look at the back door.’”

Water was pushing in. Jack tried to close the door. “Well, Mother Nature decided she was coming in,” he said. “The next thing I know, I went flying, because the door just burst open, and water came in, and that's when we said, time to head for the upper decks."

“We were really in the middle; we were in the ocean, kind of,” Fe said.

“The second half of the storm came through,” Jack said, “and that was the frightening part, because the wind was twice as strong as the first part. The house is shaking, and it just kept roaring. The noise of the wind -- I've never heard a noise like that in my life. Everybody said it's a freight train. No. It's even worse than that. It's a howling. It's just constant; there was no pulse to it. It roared, and it just kept up, and even I hollered, finally. ‘Enough of this foolishness. Stop.’ After about an hour, it did stop. We slowly watched the water recede...I had a pair of shorts, and a t-shirt, and some flip flops, and I think that angered me the most. Here I am, almost 70 years old, worked all my life, I haven't even got a damn pair of shoes. For some reason, that bothered me. I don't have any shoes. I don't have anything. But we had enough foresight to bring the passports and any money we had with us upstairs, in case we had to get out. As fortune would show us, we did have to get out.”

Friends from the American Legion came by and offered a car ride to the other side of the island, in search of rations. The Shanahans thought they would take a ferry to Cebu, another main island in the central Philippines, with electricity and an international airport.

“But on the way to Ormoc,” Jack said, “a strange event happened. All of the sudden, there was a cell phone signal, and it was the first time since Friday -- and this was Monday -- that my wife texts Marie and says, 'We're alive.'”

Marie said, “By that point, we had seen horrible images out of Tacloban. By Sunday, I had already sort of resigned to myself -- like, how could they survive? They're probably dead...We were just waiting to hear -- is today the day that I'm going to hear that my parents are dead? You know? And then, what am I going to do? What if I can't find them? It was like a miracle.”

Jack Shanahan is from Vermont. Fe Shanahan is a native of a town just 30 minutes away from what was their house in Tolosa. She's also a woman driven by her faith in Catholicism. Her garden on the island was a tribute to that faith. Now, their house is still standing. The gardens are destroyed.

“I can fix it again,” Fe said. 

“She's ready to go back already,” Marie said. “He's not.”

Fe said, “I'm not worried.”

“I don't think I'm ready for them to go back yet,” Marie said.

“I'm of a different opinion,” Jack said.

“He's losing hope,” said Fe. “I don't. I'm not.”

“Well,” Jack said, “she's not going back until there's power and security on the island. But...how are they going to rebuild? I mean, some people can. But 90 percent of the people will never be able to rebuild their houses there.”

“To me,” said Fe, “when the power is back, I'd like to go back. And I'll start planting, like I did the first time...and that's how it grew. And now there's shade, and now it's back again to that start.”

“Back to square one,” said Jack.

“To square one,” Fe said. “And that's okay.”

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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