BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – When Simon Kurzban graduated from Boulder High School he decided to take a gap year instead of heading straight to college.
That time included signing up for “Volunteer for the Visayans,” a non-profit organization that works in the Philippines. That decision put him squarely in the path of Typhoon Haiyan when it hit in November 2013.
“Nobody really thought it was going to be that big of a deal,” Kurzban said. In fact, he was preparing to go home after having finished his volunteer work at the Regional Rehabilitation Center for Youth near Tacloban City.
“Some of them were in there for stealing bread for their starving baby sister and now have three years,” he said. “I was working teaching English, grammar and technical skills like welding.”
His host family had thrown him a goodbye feast a few days before Haiyan hit. When forecasters called for a typhoon, his host family and Filipino friends reassured him, saying they had several hit every year without much damage.
All that changed when Haiyan aimed directly at Tacloban City, smashing onto shore in the early morning hours of Nov. 8 as Kurzban slept in second floor bedroom.
“I thought I was still dreaming,” Kurzban said. “I woke up soaking wet. The noise was a howling like a billion wolves. It was the loudest noise but it was just the wind. That’s when I realized the roof was gone.
“I wrestled with the door, trying to get it open for about five minutes. I finally had to kick it. I could get out but I had to climb over all these walls, wood, corrugated tin.”
When Kurzban got out of his room, he headed downstairs to find the rest of the family and the extended family in the kitchen, all of the relatives gathered in the one home that had not been decimated by Haiyan.
That’s when the water started to rise.
“People were standing on the table, holding kids above our heads,” he said. “We decided to leave or we would drown.”
From there, Kurzban described a nightmare journey in the hunt for safety.
“The house is just waving back and forth because of the water running through the house from the front door to the back.
“It seemed like six feet of water going at a million miles an hour. My shoes got sucked off and we almost fell over a dozen times. We would have died if that had happened and we had the babies on our backs so that was even scarier because I like … can’t even think about what that would have been like.”
But Kurzban and the family managed to find a ladder and climb to the relative safety of the roof of the home.
There they waited anxiously for the typhoon to pass, a nerve wracking six or seven hours.
“It was just insane,” Kurzban recalled. “Like being inside a giant snowglobe being shaken by some crazy person. It felt like God was using one of those high pressure water guns and laying ruin to everything.
“I looked over at one point and saw this gigantic concrete wall started to quiver like reeds in the wind then, whoosh, just fly away.”
When the storm passed, Kurzban headed out into his neighborhood to assess the damage and check on friends.
Like the rest of the world, Kurzban almost could not comprehend the enormity of the devastation.
“I imagine something like that of soldiers coming out of a brutal battle,” he wrote in the days following Haiyan’s landfall, “but it was different because everyone fought, from the three year olds to the 90 year olds.
“Everyone has the same things on their minds: Where is the next meal coming from? Are my loved ones alive? How will this horror ever be fixed?”
Haiyan affected 16 million just in the Philippines with a death toll of more than 6,200. The typhoon destroyed or damaged more than a million homes.
As Kurzban tried to find his friends and help them in the following days, American reporters made their way to Tacloban City and spotted the tall American teenager.
They wanted to talk to him about his experience, but he wanted to keep the focus on his Filipino friends and family.
“It just kind of struck me,” Kurzban said, “I was just like some white kid. All these reporters were flocking on me, I’m not dead, none of my relatives are dead but all these people, their kids are gone, their houses are gone …. I wish it was less focused on me.
“But I thought maybe if I sent the message, it might bring it closer to home for a lot of Americans. I thought they might want to do more about it because an American kid was there when it happened, that it would make it more relatable.
“If people heard that, they might be more inclined to help.”
Kurzban saw neighbor helping neighbor, digging through rubble, working together.
“It’s an inspiration to see how everyone can come together to help in such a horrible catastrophe like that.”
Kurzban called the experience life changing. He said it was inspiring to look at how to help those in need.
He remains committed to helping his friends in the Philippines, raising awareness and money.
“It’s a bit hard for me to talk about the typhoon … but it might be good for me to always talk about it so people don’t forget.”
Kurzban is working with that non-profit “Volunteer for the Visayans” to help rebuild the neighborhood he saw almost virtually swept away.
The group has shifted parts of its ongoing home building project into one focused on rebuilding the homes lost in the typhoon.
Kurzban has a simple message: “Just keep helping the Philippines. It’s just so important people not forget the Philippines and what’s happening there. Just continue to send money, relief and love.”
You can donate in Simon Kurzban’s name through Volunteer for the Visayans: visayans.org/donate. Note that the donation is at his request and you would like the funds to go toward building materials for homes in the Bliss neighborhood.