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Woman with local ties survives typhoon

By Sherri Ellington After days of worry, Pam Henry of Barnesville knows her granddaughter Mary Olson, caught in Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines, is safe. Olson, 25, got out of the destroyed city of Tacloban and is on the neighboring island of Cebu. ’Mary’s life was spared,’ said Henry. Mary plans to fly to Georgia to feast with her extended family at Henry’s Thanksgiving table in Barnesville, then ride back with her parents’ to their home in South Dakota. When Yolanda hit, Mary grabbed her saxophone and computer and took them to an area of the house that seemed the most protected. They were saved. Other personal items were lost as the roof peeled away and furniture in the house was ripped apart. The daughter of Rev. Dana and Christa Olson of Sioux Falls, S.D., Mary volunteered to teach at Bethel International School in Tacloban City, Leyte Province, Philippines four years ago. ’They drove from Tacloban across the length of the island to Ormoc City, hoping to catch a boat or ferry to Cebu. There were many people waiting,’ said Christa. ‘We were glad she could go somewhere where there’s food and water.’ While Mary called her parents to tell them Yolanda was headed straight for her, she said she felt good about the mission house in which she stayed. The Olsons felt an emotional roller coaster. They knew nothing; they worried. They got an email saying she was safe, they waited; when she called, they cried. When they heard she had made her way to Cebu City they were relieved. ’They spent one night in Ormoc sleeping on the floor then they got out on a boat,’ said Dana, senior pastor of Faith Baptist Fellowship in Sioux Falls. ‘They’re in Cebu City and we’re pleased and thrilled.’ When Mary reached Cebu, friends there took her out for Mexican food. ’She was thrilled to have running water again and a real shower,’ said Christa. However, ‘I left without saying goodbye,’ Mary told her parents. Bethel School, which suffered severe damage but no loss of life, is part of Converge Philippines, an affiliate of the Converge Worldwide movement. Converge created a Tacloban/ Philippines Typhoon Fund. ’Wherever Mary goes for the present, her heart will still be in Tacloban,’ said Christa. ‘She’ll hear about how her students and church friends fared in the storm and some of that news could be sobering. She has many Filipino friends.’ The family’s first indication Mary survived came Sunday in an email from school founder Paul Varberg sent via a government relief service. Four days after her pre-storm call, Olson found a signal and used the last of her cell phone power. ’I love you,’ she said before the spotty call dropped. Then she texted, ‘well provided for.’ ’That statement meant the world to me,’ said Christa. ‘It meant a tremendous amount just to hear her voice.’ Varberg was at the school with Mary, another American volunteer teacher and two Chinese teachers. ’I’ve lived in the Philippines many years. I’ve experience four super typhoons and dozens of typical typhoons that caused great destruction,’ said Varberg. ‘Those storms were nothing like Typhoon Yolanda.’ Olson and other staff members experienced the storm of their lives. When Yolanda started the group got in front of a big window in the attic and in their bedrooms. ’Super typhoons winds can blow water around the edges of the glass,’ said Varberg. ‘After about 30 minutes of mopping up water the storm ramped up to the next level. The windows of the second floor were blown in. Glass missiles were blasted across the room. The girls came screaming down from the attic saying the roof was lifting. It was blown off piece by piece until very little remained.’ The group took refuge in the first floor bathrooms as the storm took apart the furniture. ’Even though Yolanda arrived at low tide, the storm surge in downtown Tacloban raised the sea level above the roof of MacDonald’s,’ Varberg wrote. ‘Many died and food and other goods on the first floor of downtown stores were flooded.’ After the storm, all the roofs were gone along with part of the third floor of the house. Mary cleaned out the refrigerator, inventoried the food, decided what had to be eaten right away and what could wait, then divided it up to ration it so it would last as long as possible. The toilets worked but there was no running water. They carried buckets of water from the pond in front of the school to flush the toilet. They stood in the rain to shower. ’We prayed and waited as the typhoon approached, hit and swept its way through the city and across the island,’ said Mary’s aunt Noel Piper. ‘Then we prayed and waited for word from or about Mary and her colleagues. News reports, pictures and pleas from survivors give a small idea of how bleak the devastation is. That’s Mary’s neighborhood, her city, her friends, her school children. I’m imagining Mary doing everything she can to help.’

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