W.Va. native aids in Philippines recovery

MANILA -Megan Gyongyosi took a break Friday from assembling food packages for relief supplies to answer her phone. For the last two weeks, she has been living in and dealing with the aftermath of Typhoon Hiayan, one of the largest storms in recorded history. It battered the Philippines, leveling villages and cities with a death toll – as of Friday -of more than 5,000 people.

“It was sort of shocking; I was not prepared for this,” Gyongyosi said.

Gyongyosi (pronounced Yin-Yosi) is a 2008 graduate of Parkersburg High School. She graduated from Davis & Elkins College in 2012 with a degree in environmental science. Before joining the Peace Corps she worked as a ski instructor at Snowshoe Mountain and as a teacher at the Mountain Institute in Circleville.

Gyongyosi joined the Peace Corps this summer and was sent to the Philippines in July.

With the Peace Corps, Gyongyosi works in coastal resource management.

“I work with fisher-folk on food security,” she said.

Illegal fishing in the country is huge problem as many people live catch-to-catch, but the rampant over-fishing is depleting the country’s ocean resources.

“My goal is to create another sustainable livelihood,” she said.

That was before the typhoon hit.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Gyongyosi said.

Gyongyosi said many Filipinos were taking normal precautions for the impending storm, stockpiling food and water and boarding up windows. She was unsure what to expect.

“They gave us a lot of warnings, but I didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I never lived in a tropical climate. I thought it would be like a hurricane. I didn’t take it very seriously.”

Gyongyosi gathered a few supplies – some food and water – and went to a consolidation point with a few others. While the typhoon savaged the islands – with wind gusts recorded at 230 mph -Gyongyosi weathered the storm in Tacloban. Sitting in a dark room listening to wind, hearing glass break, she said some water got into the hotel.

“It was way more intense than I was expecting,” she said. “But, I couldn’t see much of what was going on.”

More than 8,500 miles away in Parkersburg, Gyongyosi’s parents, Tom and Julie, kept track of the storm, concerned about the welfare of their daughter. The couple also has a son, Nick, a senior at George Washington University who is studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Cell towers – the primary source of communication in the Philippines – were knocked out in most of the country. Julie Gyongyosi said it was a couple of days after Hiayan hit before they spoke to their daughter.

“During the long two days of waiting to hear if she was OK, we received prayers and support from the Parkersburg community, especially from Trinity Episcopal Church,” Julie Gyongyosi said. They received a Facebook message from one of Megan Gyongyosi’s former host family members telling them their daughter was safe in a shelter. Megan Gyongyosi said she received a text from her former host mother during the storm checking on her.

“We got to text for about five minutes and I told her where I was,” Megan Gyongyosi said. “She contacted my parents through Facebook.”

Shortly after the storm the Corps pooled personnel to Manila. Gyongyosi and other volunteers spent time trying to contact their host families. Her current host family lives several hours south of the brunt of the typhoon and was doing well.

Gyongyosi has been amazed by the Filipinos’ resiliency and kindness.

“There was a day or two when I wasn’t anymore prepared than anyone else there,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of food or water. They were amazingly friendly, helping me find food and water.

“I am clearly not from the Philippines, but they helped me. I was an outsider, but they made sure we were safe and they were very friendly toward us when we lost everything.”

She said Tacloban citizens went to work clearing roads so relief efforts could begin. After the storm, with much of the area in the ruins, she saw kids playing basketball and using boards from rubble to skimboard across standing water.

“Gyongyosi, along with about 70 other Peace Crops volunteers, have been putting together supplies and assisting with relief efforts. She’s been based at an airport in Manila to provide support to in-coming refugees.

Many of the Peace Corps’ sites were wrecked by the typhoon. As a result, Gyongyosi and others will be sent home for a 45-day furlough. She leaves the country Monday, expecting to the return to Parkersburg Wednesday or Thursday. She will return to the Philippines in January.

“At first I was leery to leave because there is a lot to do here, and I am trying to get in the swing of things now,” she said. “I am excited to come home and spend the holidays with my friends and family.”