National Catholic Register


Miracle in Manila

A Family’s Story of Prayer and Survival During Typhoon Ketsana

BY Maria Caulfield

Register Correspondent

October 11-17, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/2/09 at 2:03 PM


WALLINGFORD, Conn. — As the Philippines struggled to recover from one of the worst typhoons in recent memory, two more storms brewed in the Pacific, threatening relief efforts.

My family was spared the worst of the first storm, Ketsana, and my husband, Brian, and I feel that our fervent prayers were answered.

The death toll from the Sept. 26 flooding was approaching 300 just three days later, when two other storms loomed off the coast.

I came so close to losing all my family members in the Philippines, where I grew up.

My mother and father and several siblings live in a subdivision in Marikina, a city just east of Manila. I grew up in a house that was newly constructed when I was 4 years old. The subdivision of well-built houses sits on a piece of land partly bordered on three sides by a dike that protects the residents from the local river.

Growing up with my parents and seven siblings, I had been through three floods in that home, all of which rose well below the second floor of the house. The river would swell with heavy rains and overflow the dike. Those occasions gave us a sense of preparedness, a feeling of being battle-tested, even in a country that is known to lie in the “typhoon belt.” On those occasions, prayers and resilience got us through.

This time, our family and faith were tested in a way we did not expect when Typhoon Ketsana made landfall.

Within a span of 12 hours on Sept. 26, rains came hard, reaching a total of 16 inches, more than the amount that typically falls in an entire month. The river burst from its banks and overwhelmed the dike. A section of the dike situated right behind our house gave way, and the waters rose at a fast clip to about 20 feet inside.

When it became clear to my family that the second floor was not high enough to protect them, they made the decision to break a window and bend the protective bars that protected us from accidental falls and intruders. My family’s intention was to get across the water to a neighboring house, which was on slightly higher ground.

My family needed to think of a way to bring across my father, Stan, who suffers from a degenerative spinal condition.

All this time, my youngest sister, Pauline, was talking by cell phone to my older brother Mike, who lives in Manila’s business district, which was unaffected. Mike, in turn, called my husband and me periodically in Connecticut to keep us updated.

Brian and I prayed the Rosary repeatedly with the specific intention that God provide my family with a boat or some other means of safe transport. It was then that one of many miracles happened.

As Pauline would later relate, out of nowhere, a long rope floated by close enough for them to grab. It was followed by some 30 bamboo slats, which they quickly took as well. With the rope and a few belts from the closets, they hastily built a makeshift raft that held up despite repeated trips to bring everyone across to the neighbor’s house. My youngest brother, George, his wife, Len, and their 17-year-old son ferried the raft across.

The owners of the neighboring house, also relatives, climbed up with my family to a two-tiered roof. My father, whose condition prevented him from climbing, was forced to stay on the lower tier with my mother, Mila, with other adults helping and supporting him. The waters rose to waist level on the lower roof. My nieces and nephews were told to stay on the higher level.

At one point, my father felt weak and exhausted from the ordeal and asked for a chair to sit on. Miraculously, his prayer was answered: A rattan chair floated by. Someone took it for him to sit on. Sitting down, he was submerged up to his chest. They all stayed there from 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., when the water receded enough for them to climb back inside the house.

Month of the Rosary

Meanwhile, my younger sister Veronica was forced to stay in her house less than a quarter of a mile away, alone in the attic. Her husband had left to drive their cars to higher ground, but could not return on foot when the flood water quickly rose. Veronica initially resisted climbing to the attic for fear of being trapped there.

When my two oldest brothers lost communication with her, we all thought that the worst had happened to her. It was a painful wait for us. When my brothers did finally make it to her home and found her alive, we were overwhelmed with relief.

My oldest brother, Estanislao, made his way to the family home on a military rescue truck when the waters receded. On the way, the truck passed houses, rescuing the elderly and children first. At one house, he was handed an unclothed 8-month-old baby. The baby had spent the entire night on the roof. My brother reached into his backpack, took out a dry T-shirt and wrapped the baby in it.

In the aftermath, we received news that at least 94 people died in our subdivision alone. Entire families were found embracing each other in death. One friend died of electrocution.

My family lost everything except their lives and the soaked clothes on their backs. But we are all thankful to God; he spared all of them — even the two dogs. They have taken refuge in Estanislao’s house. Friends and relatives immediately came with food, clothes and other supplies. Less than 48 hours after the ordeal, my family began the long process of recovery and restoration.

My family can rebuild and restore their possessions; we have each other to help do that. 

And, as the Month of the Rosary began, we had another reason to thank Our Lady: for her constant prayers and protection of her children.

Maria Caulfield writes from

Wallingford, Connecticut.