Robert Aguilos, a nursing home manager from Cerritos, flew back to the Philippines to surprise his father on his 85th birthday. He ended up arriving a day after one of history's deadliest storms made landfall.
Desperate to find his parents, he and a brother hitched a ride on a military plane from Manila to his hometown of Tacloban. They walked for hours, and saw children playing in debris. People huddled over fires. Corpses, scattered afield. Finally, he spotted his parents' house — its roof ripped off – but there was a light.
"A candelight," Aguilos said, his voice wavering. "The brightest candle I ever saw. One candle illumined the place. And I saw the silhouette of my dad."
His family, his roots — they’re in the Philippines. So while the memory of the typhoon has ebbed from the world's consciousness a year later, Aguilos and other members of Southern California's Filipino-American community — the country's largest — have kept up relief efforts.
The president of the Taclobanan Association of Southern California, Aguilos said the group has raised about $50,000 to send back to central Philippines. It's also bought everything from equipment for hospitals and schools to typewriters for city administrators so they can complete death certificates.
Individuals have also increased their giving. It’s common practice for overseas Filipinos to send money back. The Philippines, in fact, is the world’s third largest recipient of remittances, according to the World Bank.
"The mentality of Filipinos (is that) the United States is the land of opportunity," said Edwin Tiu, a respiratory therapist from Lakewood. "As long as you’re a Filipino, it’s always in your heart to help your family members."
Tiu, 62, upped his financial contributions to his family reeling from the death of his older brother. George Tiu was among the 6,000-plus people who perished in the storm, his body recovered along with a dozen other neighbors in their seaside housing project.
"They brought all the dead bodies to the church," Tiu said. "I couldn’t believe he would end up that way."
In the days after Haiyan, Tiu and others prayed for the deceased at St. Philomena in Carson. Churches have offered solace to the Filipino-American community, which is two-thirds Catholic, as well as serving as a source of fundraising.
Filipino-American entertainers in southern California have also led the way organizing benefits. Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas held the "Rebuild Philippines" concert at the Greek Theater in June that featured appearances by his bandmates.
There’s concern, though that one year later, relief efforts haven’t been enough. Tens of thousands of people are still living in temporary housing, some in tent cities, others in thatch huts.
"With this kind of calamity, it doesn’t take a few months to recover," said Theresa Canete, a West Covina accountant. "It takes years."
Canete said she is trying to do her part. She returned to her hometown of Tacloban in March to bring dozens of boxes of clothing and canned food.
She also organized a medical mission that saw 15 doctors serve 600 people in a day. She’s been particularly worried about survivors’ mental health. Corpses were still surfacing months after the storm.
"I saw skeletons lined up on the curb," Canete said. "The Department of Health would come with a black box and put them inside."
Canete plans to return to Tacloban in the spring for another medical mission. Robert Aguilos hasn’t been back since last year. He was traumatized by the whole experience.
"It’s easier to help when you’re not there," Aguilos said. "You’re able to think correctly when you are away from the suffering."
Aside from raising funds through the association, Aguilos regularly ships clothing and food to friends and family. His back patio is strewn with boxes filled with items he's collected and must sort.
They're called ‘Balikbayan’ boxes.
"Balik is to go back," he said. "Bayan is country. So it describes going back home."
He doesn’t know when exactly — but soon, he says, he’ll go back home too.