When Lourdes Tiglao departed for the Philippines on Nov. 11, she girded herself for the devastation she would witness in the wake of the typhoon that struck the country days earlier.
The Fairfax County resident and Air Force veteran was part of the disaster relief team sent by Team Rubicon, a nonprofit volunteer organization of former service members that responds to emergencies in the U.S. and abroad. But according to Tiglao, no previous experience in combat or disaster relief prepared her for what she saw upon arrival.
“Even with as many experiences as members of our team have seen, I don’t think anyone was really prepared to see the death and destruction, to see the body bags on the streets,” Tiglao said.
Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines on Nov. 8, and heavy rains caused widespread flooding and landslides.
The death toll has risen above 5,000, according to officials from the Philippine government, and is expected to climb even further. More than 20,000 people are injured and millions have been affected by the storm.
For Tiglao, 38, the disaster hit close to home in a very literal sense. Though she now lives in Falls Church, she was born in the Philippines and lived in the capital city of Manila until age 11. She still has family in Manila, which luckily missed the brunt of the storm.
“Still, the thought that always came to my mind as I worked was that this could easily have been my family,” Tiglao said. “If my life had gone a different way, it could have been me.”
The former Air Force technical sergeant did not hesitate when the call came from Team Rubicon for volunteers.
The organization looked for a specific skillset in putting together its 15-person first response team for the Philippines, and Tiglao, who still speaks her native Tagalog, provided needed linguistic and cultural knowledge.
Tiglao, who has worked with Team Rubicon since 2010, also provides medical expertise. In her 11 years in the Air Force, she worked as the cardiopulmonary specialist on a critical care air transport team, which she described as “basically a flying intensive care unit.” She now works as a respiratory therapist at pulmonary clinic in Arlington.
With its emergency response teams, Team Rubicon aims to address the lag time between when a disaster strikes and when larger nonprofit organizations can get up and running in the affected area.
So “Operation: Seabird” took flight on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, when Tiglao and 14 other volunteers flew to the Philippines.
Upon arrival in Manila, the group was airlifted by Philippine Air Force helicopters to the hardest-hit area around the city of Tacloban. The group set up one base there, and another in the more remote city of Tanauan 30 miles south.
Then, in coordination with U.S. Marine Corps and Philippine Air Force, they went to work, providing medical assistance and performing search and rescue operations in remote areas. However, the team had to operate with few working vehicles, little access to electricity, and only the food and water they had brought with them.
“We couldn’t rely on any food or water from the community because they didn’t have any,” Tiglao said. “Anything we needed — water, food, clothes, equipment — was on our back.”
Tiglao worked mainly at a makeshift hospital in Tanauan, which had been set up by another nonprofit, Mammoth Medical Missions. The hospital operated in what remained of the Tanauan Town Hall, the operating and recovery rooms covered only by a patchwork roof of tarps.
While Tiglao and the the first team returned home Nov. 19, other Team Rubicon volunteers who came later will remain in the Philippines through Thanksgiving. Their job will be smoothing the transition of the initial relief efforts to long-term disaster response groups.
Even back in Virginia, though, Tiglao is still keeping active in the relief efforts from home and coping with what she experienced.
“I’ve only been back in the U.S. for a few days, and I’m still processing everything I saw, how so many people died so quickly,” Tiglao said. “These people, they’re not just people. They’re someone’s family. It’s a sombering experience, and it sticks with you.”