Three of us are really blessed

It was a bittersweet homecoming for Miss Alyssa Chee.

The 23-year-old was one of three Singaporean students who were unaccounted for last weekend, when Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on Friday.

But when Miss Chee left Bliss, Tacloban, in the eastern Philippines, on Monday morning, she came home with a heavy heart.

Having been there since Oct 21, she had formed a special bond with the place and its people.

She said: "I'm not sure if they know that another (storm) is coming.

"It was like leaving my family behind."

Miss Chee told reporters at Changi Airport on Tuesday that supplies were taking a long time to get to the affected areas.

She urged Singaporeans to help in the relief effort in "whatever way possible".

Miss Chee, along with Miss Vanessa Chong and Miss Eileen Heng, also 23, are Dietetics and Nutrition students at Adelaide's Flinders University in Australia.

The placement in Tacloban with the non-profit organisation Volunteer for the Vasayans (VSV) was part of their course and they were scheduled to come back to Singapore this weekend.

But they became uncontactable when communication lines were wiped out. The power was cut off by about 4am on Friday.

In The New Paper report on Tuesday, Miss Chee's parents said their last contact with their daughter was early on Friday, when she told them in an SMS that the typhoon was getting stronger and asked her parents to "pray for me".

After that, Miss Chee and Miss Heng sought shelter in the single-storey house of their homestay host in Tacloban City.

Miss Chong was staying with a different family. When the typhoon hit, the house was flooded and its occupants had to seek refuge with their next-door neighbour, who had a double-storey concrete house.

Miss Chee said: "The ceiling was shaking and it was quite scary. The water started coming into the house, so we decided to leave through the back door (to go to the neighbour's house)."

When the storm subsided four hours later, the women went out in search of their friend, Miss Chong, and other volunteers.

"We wrote our names and contact numbers on pieces of paper and gave them out to anyone we could just to get the message out that we were alive," Miss Chee said.

For three days, the women stayed in Tacloban, trying to get the word out that they were safe.

But over the weekend, there were tsunami alerts and people were running for shelter.

"Because of the alarms, people were very scared and panicky. There was looting on Sunday," Miss Chee said.

HELICOPTERS

"They had no choice. No help was coming, there was no word on whether relief was coming, there was nothing.

"There were just helicopters hovering above, but I didn't know what's going to happen. "I think people underestimated the storm so they weren't really prepared.

"The three of us are really blessed to have escaped with a few scratches when many have died.

"People lost their families, they lost everything," said Miss Chee, adding that there is no sanitation or clean water there.

Back home, the trio's relatives and friends were desperate for some news of their loved ones.

At dawn on Monday, the girls found a way out: VSV founder Troy Peden picked them up from their lodgings in Tacloban and took them to the airport, where they waited till almost 5pm before they were flown to Manila in a military plane.

Too tired to continue their journey, the trio spent the night at an airport hotel before coming home on an afternoon flight on Tuesday.

In Singapore, their loved ones were at the airport at least 30 minutes before their flight was due to arrive at 5pm.

Miss Chee's welcome party included her parents, boyfriend, cousins and two nieces.

Kok Mei Xuan, 10, had flowers for her aunt.

"Welcome back to Singapore," she wrote on a piece of paper.

When Miss Chee appeared at the arrival hall, she asked: "Where is my mummy?"

Someone nudged Madam Lisa Ng forward and mother and daughter embraced, crying happy tears. Madam Ng then reached for a thermos flask containing ginseng tea, lovingly made for her only child.

Nearby, her father, Mr Chee Keong Fei, looked on stoically, as fathers do. But as his daughter hugged him, he flashed a broad smile, unable to hide his relief.

The wait was over. His little girl was home.

All they had was hope

The floodwater in the house they were staying at had risen to almost waist-level before they managed to move to the second storey of a neighbour's house for safety.

Said Miss Eileen Heng: "Every day, every minute, every second, you're in danger because you don't know what's going to happen next.

"I had to keep up my optimism and hoped that we would get out of there."

Stranded, Miss Heng and her friends, Miss Alyssa Chee and Miss Vanessa Chong, could only wait for help.

They were constantly worried and had no way to contact their family and friends. Which was why Miss Heng's mother, Madam Tan Siew Lee, 55, burst into tears of relief when she first heard her daughter's voice over the phone on Monday afternoon.

All weekend, Madam Tan had cried out of worry for her daughter and was relieved that the girls were coming home.

The three had left for the Philippines with luggage, but they returned to Singapore with only a small backpack each. All they could save were their essentials such as mobile phones, passports and a few items of clothing.

Said Miss Chong: "The past few days had been really emotional, and we're trying to move on and help the people there." She urges everyone to donate and help in any way possible.

More help on the way

Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) will match donations from employees dollar-for-dollar and top it up to $1 million.

It will be working with World Vision, which has sent out emergency relief teams.

Mr Richard D. Fain, RCL's chairman and CEO, said: "We want to help them heal from this tragedy."

Over 12,800 of the 60,000 crew members aboard the six RCL cruiselines are Filipinos.

Others who are helping include OFW Pinoy Star, a Filipino community magazine in Singapore. To donate items such as canned food, clean clothes and blankets, drop them off at Pinoy Star or Afreight offices in Lucky Plaza, #03-19.

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