ELIZABETHTOWN — When Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, the Baptist Global Response — a Southern Baptist disaster relief unit — sent out a call for help and N.C. Baptist On A Mission Outreach of Raleigh, many churches and trained disaster response staff answered the call.
One of those offering to assist was Dr. Ronald Cottle, who has offices in Elizabethtown and Whiteville.
“I was on Team 2 and we left on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 5:30 a.m. There were nine on the team — two were water purificators, one was logistics guy, the team leaders was a fire chief from Raleigh, medical personnel, two physicians — myself and one doctor from Charlotte — and two nurses,” said Cottle.
“I took two bags — one surgical and one with medications. Bruce Cannon made a donation and we spent all of it on medicines. Tar Heel Hospital Supply in Wilmington also donated.”
The team arrived in the city of Tacloban on Tuesday about noon and were met at the remains of the local airport. The city was heavily damaged in the typhoon, according to Cottle.
He said the city is located on a bay and faces towards the ocean with large canals, and the storm took direct aim at the bay.
“The city government was well prepared for wind and flooding, but they weren’t prepared for the tidal surge of about 15 feet,” said Cottle. “The city is surrounded by mountains. The water entered the bay and bottlenecked in the city.”
He estimated that about half of the buildings in the town were wooden structures and others were brick or a combination of wood and brick. Some were as much as three or four stories in height and the flood waters washed out the first and second floors of these buildings, said Cottle.
“Everything was washed away by the flood waters up to the second floor,” said Cottle. “The first two floors of the airport were gutted out, the roof top was damaged.”
He added they were met at the airport by some physicians from a nearby medical school, a school that was completely destroyed by the storm. Cottle said the team traveled to Bethany Hospital and it was completely gutted by the storm.
Cottle said they observed teams from the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.
He added that his team was joined by Rescue 24, a British disaster response unit.
Cottle said the team noticed that, as they passed piles of debris, there were red flags indicating there were bodies present that would be removed later. He added that cleanup was under way while they were there.
Team 2 met with Team 1 at a local church where they had procured housing.
“Team 1 had found housing in the United Church of Christ,” said Cottle.
He described the church as about 100 years old and built up off the ground with stone and granite floors. He said half the roof that covered the sanctuary was gone and the water had been high and windows were blown out. There was electricity in that particular area from 6 p.m. until about midnight, but the team had no fans and no ice, said Cottle.
Cottle said his team was briefed by Team 1 and the next morning Team 2 went out into the town and surrounding area.
He estimated there were about 65 schools. The buildings are erected in a sort of circular pattern with a gymnasium area. Team 2 set up their clinics in the gymnasium areas, said Cottle.
He said that there were some acute injuries they saw but mainly treated infections from injuries and they saw a lot of emotional distress and performed a lot of counseling.
“We would pray with them, listen to them, follow up with them, offer some advice,” said Cottle.
Cottle said there were also four missionaries in Tacloban area and they had used tarps to temporarily cover their churches and the team would also set up there and treat between 200 to 500 people at each location. He said they saw such injuries as broken bones, abscesses, children with pneumonia, blunt traumas, foreign objects in the eye, and puncture injuries.
“In some cases the people couldn’t come and we went out to the homes and treated them,” said Cottle.
Cottle recalled one episode fondly.
“There was a mayor from an island that was about the size of Elizabethtown. The only way to get to it was by small boat,” said Cottle.
When the boat arrived, there were no lifejackets on board and the team couldn’t travel in the boat until they found lifejackets. The boat returned to the island and acquired lifejackets, then returned to pick up the team.
“It was probably over a 3-mile ride (by boat to the island),” said Cottle.
He added that, when the boat approached the island, they were greeted by children. He said the team had to get out of the boat in the water and wade to shore. When they arrived at a gymnasium where they were going to set up, the wind had blown all of the metal off of the framework of the gym.
Cottle said that the team remained in Tacloban for about two weeks and set up in churches in the rural countryside to triage and treat the injured and the sick.
He said the interpreters were mainly students. One interpreter, named John, was 19 and a college freshman. The college was closed in Tacloban so John had returned home.
“He was teary-eyed the whole time. I talked with him and learned he wasn’t on the island (when the storm struck) and he had lost his grandmother,” said Cottle.
He added that in addition to setting up in churches, missionaries also opened up their spaces to assist. Cottle said one missionary shared her harrowing story of survival with him.
“She sat down and shared how water came in her home and they had moved and had to go to the roof. The roof began to move and they had to get off of the roof and hang onto trees. They began to pray … and then a door floated by and they got on the door,” said Cottle.
He also recounted how Tacloban had a facility between the airport and the town where they primarily played basketball. It was similar to the Astrodome and it turned into a refugee camp. Cottle said the team went there and treated folks as well.
“By the second week, the grocery store near us got electricity back and had ice and Coca-Colas,” said Cottle.
He said the church where the team was housed during its stay had a hand-pump well where the team did laundry and bathed. Cottle said the team consumed meals similar to MREs used by the military and they set up there water purifiers at the hospital.
“The best we can do for them is sit and listen to them,” said Cottle of the experience. “We prayed with them. If they had questions about their beliefs we would answer them. We had some salvations. Some that came to know Christ. Probably the most rewarding thing was to offer comfort to them by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with them.”
“Probably secondary, I went to get away from Obamacare. It is so easy to diagnose out there. You have to learn to listen to God … God was also asking me to go and it was a matter of listening.”