Sometimes the only thing a person can do is pray — at least according to super typhoon survivor Savannah Henshaw.
Caught in the brunt of the super typhoon, Henshaw and nine other sister missionaries serving in the Philippines huddled together and watched as the elements destroyed the area she had come to love. Gale-force winds, downed power lines, flooding streets and a maelstrom of debris devastated the city of Tacloban. Henshaw could only watch from the sidelines.
“I remember thinking, ‘We will die,'” she said. “We kneeled and said a prayer.”
Two years later, Henshaw hardly looks like the survivor of one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. The 21-year-old junior from Salt Lake City calmly continues with purpose today.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” Savannah said. “I know that it was the gospel that helped me to make it through.”
Henshaw’s life has never been an easy path.
“Savannah was born 12 weeks premature and only weighed two-and-a-half pounds. She spent the first 28 days in the newborn intensive care unit at LDS hospital,” said Ross Henshaw, Savannah’s father. “From the moment she was born, she really had to fight to survive.”
Savannah’s parents divorced when she was three, and she has had little interaction with her mother since early childhood.
Vanessa Manwill, a sophomore at BYU and a childhood friend of Savannah’s, has seen her overcome this hardship with her typical bright outlook.
“Her mom’s not really a part of her life, but we’ve always joked she has more moms than any of us,” Manwill said. “My mom, (other) moms, anyone she meets she’s adopted by.”
These moms and other role models proved to be essential for Savannah as she grew up.
Her father, Ross, is not an active member of the LDS church, so Savannah’s experiences with faith were largely self-generated.
“I remember when a home teacher came to the house to reactivate my father,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to learn about the church, I want to learn about Jesus!'”
After meeting with missionaries, she decided to be baptized.
“I decided I would serve a mission because of those sister missionaries when I was 10 years old,” she said.
The gospel quickly became a foundation in Savannah’s life, giving her a sense of direction and purpose. During high school, it became a source of strength for herself and her friends when her friend Vanessa’s father died from cancer. The day her friend’s father died, Savannah led her friends in prayer.
“I would walk into her room and see these (high school) sophomore girls kneeling down, praying for this family,” said Lori Hilton, mother to another of Savannah’s close friends. “I think that shows immense spiritual maturity. You could see what it meant for her.”
Serving an 18-month mission for the LDS church was an expression of that faith.
With the 2012 age-change for missionary service, she prepared to leave on a mission at age 19, following her freshman year at BYU. Opening her call to serve in the Tacloban Philippines mission was a sacred moment for her.
“I went to the Salt Lake Temple and sat on the ground on a cold, windy day,” Henshaw said. “When I opened up that call, the Spirit told me of course that’s where I was meant to go.”
For her father, watching his only daughter decide to serve was a heart-wrenching experience.
“I told her she could only go if she was serving within a day’s drive of Salt Lake City,” Henshaw said, semi-seriously.
Knowing that she would be on the other side of the world made him apprehensive.
“I told Savannah that if she were to go and something bad was to happen, then I could never get to her,” he said. “She said it was okay; she would be in the Lord’s hands.”
Five months out, the worst occurred.
Joyfully serving in Tacloban — the capital of Leyte province in the Philippines — Typhoon Haiyan struck the place and people she had grown so fond of on Nov. 8, 2013.
The country had known that a typhoon was coming, but everybody was unprepared for the ferocity of the storm. In preparation for the weather, her mission president had moved eight other sister missionaries from neighboring areas to spend the night in her small apartment, and the sisters spent the evening of Nov. 7 doing their best to secure the shutters and prepare for the storm.
“We could hear houses being destroyed and debris just flying around,” Savannah said. “This was one of the hardest parts of the entire experience for me — just thinking about what this meant for the people outside. They’ve already suffered so much, and they had so little. My heart just broke.”
As the storm worsened, the missionaries bundled in blankets and sang hymns. Then one sister went to check on the storm through the window. The storm surge had flooded into the city and the water level was already climbing to the level of their second story window. They looked down the stairs only to see water rapidly rising up the stairs.
“All of our windows had bars on them, and there was no way out on the top floor. There was only one way out of our apartment and that was the front door.” Realizing the imminent danger, the sisters swam to the door, but with water on both sides the door wouldn’t budge.
“At that point, panic set in,” Savannah recalled.
Remembering a broken partition in their laundry room, Savannah and the other sisters frantically made their way to that area of the house. Acting quickly, Sister Hannah Schaap punched a hole through the weakened wood, allowing the sisters to hoist themselves up and out from the flooding building. They now found themselves on the roof in the middle of Typhoon Haiyan.
It was a scene out of a nightmare. A muddy deluge of wreckage and debris filled the streets, rain pounded down out of the sky and the water was still rising. Winds of 195 miles per hour sent tin roofs all around them careening through the sky. Even now, describing the scene of horror, Henshaw’s solemnity is prominent.
“We were 10 sister missionaries,” Savannah said. “We didn’t feel angels, but we knew that they were there. There’s no way we could have survived if it wasn’t for God.”
After hours of prayer and being huddled together to prevent hypothermia, there came a turning point. The winds slackened slightly and the water level began to lower.
A group of Filipino men helped them from their battered roof and to the comparative shelter of a nearby school, where other survivors crouched, clumped together to avoid the broken glass and sharing what meager food they had. Later that day, Savannah’s mission president Jose Andaya arrived, escorting the sisters back to the weather-beaten mission home. Ninety percent of Tacloban had been destroyed; more than 6,000 people had lost their lives in the storm. But their nightmare was finally over.
Recovery — for the Philippines and for the missionaries — was slow and difficult. Her mission was temporarily evacuated, and because of the trauma she had gone through, Savannah was recommended to return home. She had developed a cold and the PTSD made her own mind feel “like a war zone.” She prepared to return to the United States.
However, as she visited the Manila temple she was overwhelmed with a feeling of comfort and direction. She decided to finish her missionary service and threw herself back into missionary work.
“It was studying the Atonement and serving others that helped me get through that period,” Savannah said. “Turning out healed me.”
Coming home is difficult for any missionary, but Savannah has found ways to move forward gracefully. She works as a teacher at the MTC and plans to major in business management and organizational behavior with a minor in international development, something she sees stemming from her trials in the Philippines. She realizes that even though sharing her story is difficult, there are important lessons to learn from her experiences.
“It’s taken time for me to open up about it,” Savannah said. “I think that I learned that no matter what, God is there. Even if he gives us trials, He still strengthens us and gives us joy and happiness to make it through them.”
For others, Savannah continues to be an example of faithfulness and charity.
“Anyone who talks to her would say she’s an inspiration,” said Vanessa. “Her testimony is the thing that has kept her going through this life.”