By Matthew Kauffman, Hartford Courant
At first, it was just breezy. Serene almost, with a natural beauty as the palm and coconut trees bowed with the winds.
The trees on Tolosa, a village on Leyte Island in the eastern Philippines, always swayed with the currents blowing in from the ocean. But at dawn a week ago Friday, Fe Shanahan stood at her back door and noticed something peculiar: The trees were bending toward the water.
The shifting winds were an early calling card from Typhoon Haiyan as the massive storm roared west across the Pacific Ocean toward the Philippines, its swirling winds topping 200 mph and pushing a 15-foot wall of water toward the defenseless archipelago.
Within the hour, angry winds were howling across Tolosa as the worst of the storm slammed directly into nearby Samar Island, making landfall with significantly more fury than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The typhoon buzzed across the lush island, stripping forests and leveling entire communities before charging across the Leyte Gulf, where Tolosa — and Fe and Jack Shanahan — lay in its path.
A little after 6 a.m., Jack Shanahan, a retired industrial electrician with Pratt & Whitney, took a call from his frantic daughter 8,500 miles away in Connecticut.
“You’ve got to evacuate,” Marie Shanahan yelled into the phone. “I love you. You have to go!”
The Shanahans have relatives inland. They’d be safe there, Marie insisted.
Jack Shanahan held his phone out toward the storm so his daughter could hear its power.
“Marie, listen,” he told her over the rush of the wind. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re stuck.”
Fe Shanahan was born in the Philippines and dreamed of having a home there. So in the late 1990s, before the developers and the millionaire ex-pats discovered the island and drove up prices, she and her husband bought a house on 21/2 waterfront acres, and began splitting their time between Tolosa and their home in Enfield.
Year by year, they made enhancements. They surrounded the property with a concrete wall and an ornate steel gate. They built a tiered four-story structure their granddaughter aptly calls “The Wedding Cake.” Fe created a spectacular garden featuring orchids and hibiscus and bougainvillea and 22 species of palm trees — royal palm, foxtail palm, MacArthur palm, ponytail palm, triangle palm.
Marie Shanahan doubted any of it could have withstood the storm. She knew cell towers were down, but for days, she called and texted her parents anyway.
She and her brother Kevin scoured the Internet for news of Tolosa, and put Jack’s and Fe’s names into online sites set up for those seeking survivors.
Images of Tacloban, 16 miles north of Tolosa, began trickling in through media reports and Facebook, showing little left beyond rubble and toppled trees and mud-caked roads.
Marie slept with her cellphone and laptop, checking each as soon as she woke on Friday morning, on Saturday morning, on Sunday morning.
As Sunday wore on, and survivors grew sicker and hungrier and international relief workers struggled to provide aid, Marie steeled herself for the inevitable. She replayed haunting thoughts of her mother and father crushed to death under their splintered home, or perhaps washed out to sea by the waves, their bodies never to be recovered.
And then, 77 hours after telling her father she loved him, her phone buzzed.
It was 10:18 p.m. Sunday and it was a text message from “Fe Shanahan.”
A cruel trick maybe, Marie thought. A text from someone who found or stole her dead mother’s phone.
“We are OK. on our way to Ormoc for Cebu for chance passenger,” the text read. “Tell everyone but dont know about Dedoy & Tessie.”
Dedoy and Tessie — nicknames for Marie’s uncle and aunt in the Philippines; nicknames no phone thief would know.
Marie stared at the message. And sobbed.
Three days later, Jack and Fe Shanahan were on a flight to New York City for a tearful reunion with Marie and son Matthew, and then a drive to Connecticut for a chance to tell their children what they went through.
In Tolosa that Friday morning, Jack had hardly the noticed the water creeping up his ankles until Fe pointed toward the back of the house, where water had pushed the back door open and was rushing across the tile floor. Jack tried to shove the door closed, but the powerful water knocked him back.
It hadn’t been raining especially hard and Jack was perplexed by the flooding. And then it hit him. “Whoa, that ain’t rainwater,” he thought. “That’s seawater.”
They climbed to the second floor, huddling in the room farthest from the ocean. The wind was picking up — probably topping 100 mph — and when the roof over their head began to split open, they headed downstairs, and climbed a spiral staircase to an interior room.
At the top, they stared down the staircase at the surreal image of their belongings — books and pillows and clothing — floating from room to room with the crashing storm surge.
In less than an hour, the winds faded and the sun broke through. It was calm, quiet. For 20 minutes, Jack and Fe Shanahan were in the peaceful eye of a killer typhoon the size of New England.
“And then the freight train came in,” Jack said.
The Shanahans were never in fear for their lives as the front half of the storm battered their home. “But that second part scared the hell out of us, I’ll tell you,” Jack said.
As powerful as the winds and the storm surge had been earlier, everything was louder and stronger and scarier on the back end. Looking through jalousie windows toward the ocean, they saw waves atop waves atop waves, each higher than the last.
They watched the water rising up around the tires of their car, and then, the next time they checked, the car was gone.
Waves coursed through their house as the surge shattered windows and blasted holes in the doors.
“We were just watching the water coming in and out, in and out, bringing all this stuff from each of the rooms,” Fe said.
Everything that wasn’t bolted to the walls or the floor streamed out of the house. And then everything that was bolted down streamed out too. Meanwhile, the water crept stair tread by stair tread toward the second floor.
Water slammed repeatedly against the home’s concrete walls. And the noise from the wind was deafening and torturous.
“I have never in my life heard a wind sustained like that, for so long, and make so much noise,” Jack Shanahan said. “It just kept howling and going on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to stop.”
Jack put his hand against the thick walls and could feel the house vibrating, and then shaking. He looked at his wife. “You know, we could die in this thing,” he told her. “If this house doesn’t hold up, we’re going to die.”
Still, they were more methodical than panicked. Fe Shanahan can’t swim and Jack, fearful she could be sucked out if the roof was blown off, began devising a plan to save her. The spiral staircase was bolted to an interior concrete wall and he figured it was their best hope.
“I told her: If this roof comes off, I’m going to tie my belt around you,” he said, “and you’re going to grab the spiral staircase and hold on for dear life.”
But the roof held and the walls held and after an hour, the thunderous howl of the wind was dying down. The Shanahans stared down the staircase as the water receded, step by step, until Fe announced she could make out the tile on the sandy floor.
They made their way downstairs to an unfathomable sight. Their first floor had simply vanished. Their bed — gone. Desk — gone. Refrigerator — gone. The kitchen cabinets had been torn off the wall. A toilet ripped from its bolts. The entire floor had been washed clean away by the ferocious water.
Fe, shocked and adrenaline-fueled, began scouring the grounds for their belongings. Two young workers, who live in an outbuilding on the property, survived the storm and joined in, finding the .38 gun the Shanahans would sleep with for the next couple of nights, along with some of Jack’s clothes.
But not his shoes, and for days he obsessed about being reduced to wearing flip-flops. At nearly 70 years old, he figured he deserved to have shoes on his feet.
The ocean churned brown and Jack thought the once-verdant island looked as if it had been hit by a forest fire, the thick green trees denuded and toppled or snapped in half.
He later began to realize the human toll when a flat-bed truck rumbled by with the arms and legs of corpses sticking out from under a tarp. Death stayed with him the next day as he walked the devastated town to check on friends and neighbors, the 90-degree sun exacerbating the rancid smell of decomposing flesh.
“Once you smell it, you’ll never forget it,” he said. “And you can’t get it out of your nostrils.”
Fe wanted to stay, to salvage what she could and help others. But there was no electricity, no food, no civil order. A friend of the Shanahans, whose Isuzu truck was still running, took her by the arms and said, “You’ve got to get out of here or you’re going to die.”
She relented, and the Shanahans rode six hours in the Isuzu to Ormoc — normally a two-hour trip — passing hard-hit towns on both the east and west sides of the island. A slow ferry ride carried them to Cebu Island, and from there, Marie was able to book them a flight to Hong Kong and on to New York.
As the jet lifted off from Mactan-Cebu Airport, Jack and Fe breathed a sigh of relief.
Now, Fe is eager to go back, but so far is yielding to Jack’s insistence that they stay put until electricity and security are restored.
But they will go back. The storm took out the concrete wall that surrounded their property and Jack’s already talking about a more storm-friendly design. And Fe planted young palm trees once in her garden and figures she can do it again. Back at her dining-room table in Enfield, she thumbs through a photo album of the palm trees and wonders which varieties are easily available.
First, though, both the Shanahans are still grasping exactly what happened. Fe Shanahan keeps returning to the incongruous notion that for a time, her dream home was literally situated in the middle of the ocean.
And Jack is coming to grips with how quickly he lost so much, even as he knows he could have lost so much more.
“In the space of two hours, I went from heaven to hell,” he said. “My tropical island paradise turned into a disaster. An utter, total disaster. Just like that.”