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West Michigan Natives Become Victims to Typhoon

23-year-old Carter Brown and 24-year-old Elsa Thomasma went missing from Tacloban City, Philippines, one of the areas hit the hardest by Typhoon Haiyan.  Both are graduates of Sturgis High School in 2008 then Grand Valley State University.

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STURGIS, Mich.- It’s been more than a month since the strongest storm in recorded history slammed the Philippines, killing thousands and destroying almost everything in its path.

In November, FOX 17 brought you the story of two Sturgis natives volunteering in the Philippines who were missing when Typhoon Haiyan hit.

Both volunteers survived and Elsa Thomasma, 24, stayed after the typhoon to help in the recovery.

During her visit home to Sturgis for the holidays, Elsa said it’s a stark contrast between her life in the Philippines.

She has raised thousands of dollars and dedicated years of her life to helping those in need.  Those efforts are now being credited with saving hundreds of lives in the Philippines.

“The wind was just blowing outside like there was a giant vacuum just sucking everything.” Elsa said about the typhoon.

Haiyan flattened entire villages and killed thousands.  Elsa said she just needed to be with the people and help them through the tragedy.

During the storm she and fellow Grand Valley State University graduate Carter Brown took dozens of families into their dilapidated apartment.

Elsa said they were just in survival mode, “just grabbing any piece of dry blanket or clothing or blanket or towel we can find and putting it on the children.”

Once the storm calmed and Elsa and Carter did everything they could for the people they gave refuge from the storm, they stepped outside and saw the shredded world around them.

Thomasma says every single power line was down and there were trees everywhere. She says the water was a murky black color and you couldn’t tell what was underneath it.

“The victims from the storms just laid out on the concrete with just nothing, no one to help them,” Elsa says of the bodies lining the streets.

That’s when she had to make a choice that could cost her her own life.  She could take one of the only three spots on a military plane back home where she could see her family, have guaranteed meals and shelter and get away from the horror the Philippines now faced.

But, Elsa says there was no choice.

“Some of them have become like children to me, even if they`re not adopted by me it`s like the whole entire community has become part of me, they`re my mother and my brother and my sisters and my children,” she said.

Elsa is the Communications Coordinator for Volunteer for the Visayans.  Donations to continue their projects and relief efforts can be made here:

Elsa continues to update her blog on the relief efforts and her work in Cangumbang, it can be viewed here:

PHILIPPINES –It’s been more than two weeks since Mother Nature wreaked havoc in the Philippines, and the clean up after Typhoon Haiyan is far from over. In one of the hardest hit areas, Tacloban City, recovery teams are still finding bodies buried in the rubble.

Twenty-four-year-old Elsa Thomasma, a Sturgis native, lived through the storm and is still there working to rebuild.

She moved to the Philippines in February, working for the ‘GoAbroad Foundation.’ She and Carter Brown, another Sturgis native, survived after helping people to safety when the Typhoon struck.

Now Elsa says she’s focused the relief effort, won’t be moving back to West Michigan anytime soon.

In the days following the storm the reality of just how extensive the devastation was started to sink in and Thomasma said she knew she couldn’t leave.

“When we finally learned there was a military plane to come pick some of us up I just decided I couldn’t,” she said.  “My heart could not leave.”

FOX spoke with Thomasma on Skype while she was in Manila for a few days coordinating with staff through the GoAbroad Foundation and the non-profit ‘Volunteer for the Visayans.’

The latter is a group dedicated to bettering the lives of the locals in and around Tacloban, now focused on rebuilding an entire community.

“Now I have multiple community centers that need repair and multiple evacuation centers that need to be built and thousands of homes that need to be restored. It’s defiantly changed my perspective on everything but I think this is where I’m supposed to be right now,” Thomasma said.

She is focused on fundraising efforts and bringing volunteers to the area, she says the people of Tacloban have shown great resilience and optimism and because of that she just can’t walk away.

“When I first moved here I was saying,  I’ll be here for a year or two but then after realizing it’s been almost a year and especially after the storm, two years would be an absolute minimum. I can’t imagine leaving here. I just have no reason to leave yet; 5 years, 10 years who knows,” she said.

If you would like to help with Typhoon Haiyan relief, visit Volunteer for the Visayans’ webpage.

CANGUMBANG, Philippines- Twenty-three-year-old Carter Brown of Sturgis was in the Philippines volunteering and interning when Typhoon Haiyan hit.

He was inspired to help in the Philippines after seeing fellow Sturgis native and Grand Valley State University Graduate Elsa Thomasma volunteer over the year.

She built an evacuation center for a small rural village outside Tacloban City after seeing the devastation flooding caused them in the past.

Carter tells us she raised the money herself, fought the local government for a building permit then hired local workers to build the center.

Carter says they brought water and food to the village the day before the storm.

“Last November she was determined to build and raise money for an evacuation center which was just finished since I’ve been over there, I believe it was in August when it opened officially,” Carter said.

He says he’s read the evacuation center is still standing and only lost its roof.

“All of those homes of those families are completely gone but the evacuation center last I knew,” Carter said.

Carter returned back home to Sturgis Tuesday.  Elsa stayed back in the Philippines to go check on the village and the evacuation center and to help with the relief efforts there.

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Mich. -  A Sturgis man is back in West Michigan after surviving the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storm systems ever, which left thousands of people dead in the Philippines.

Now he is telling his story for the first time since his return to the United States.

“I don’t think it really hit us what was happening and even sitting here now I can’t believe that I’m here and I was there.”

After the long journey home to West Michigan, 23-year-old Carter Brown told FOX 17 he is happy to be back with family and friends.

Brown said after the Typhoon struck, a woman could be seen screaming in the streets while holding her baby.  The child was blue.  Brown said he brought them into his apartment, clothed the baby to warm the child.  The infant began to cry a short time later.

Brown also said he was using shirts inside his apartment to make tourniquets for the injured.

Part 2 of FOX 17′s Interview:

Brown and 24-year-old Elsa Thomasma were in Tacloban, Philippines, one of the hardest hit cities.  They were working for the GoAbroad Program when the typhoon hit.  Both survived the power of Haiyan with its winds in excess of 200 miles per hour.  Meteorologists are calling it one of the strongest typhoons in recorded history.

“We each just took a cushion and started covering our heads because at that point the wind had become strong enough that our window shutters had started breaking and glass was breaking.”

Both Brown and Thomasma are Sturgis High School graduates and Grand Valley State University Alumni.

After Typhoon Haiyan hit, neither Brown nor Thomasma were heard from until late Sunday evening.

Family tells us they had been checking with the Red Cross, the embassy in the Philippines, and looking for Carter and Elsa’s faces in video clips others have posted from Tacloban.

Brown was rescued by a military transport plane and brought to Manila.  Thomasma would not leave, she wanted to go check on the people of Cangumbang.  She’s still in the Philippines.

This comes as we learn more of the devastation of Haiyan.  Relief organizations say they’re only able to deliver limited aid to victims.

The storm has destroyed at least 80,000 homes, according to the Philippine Government, but they suspect the true number is 582,000.

CNN reports the official death toll Wednesday morning stood at 2,275 which is significantly higher than the 10,000 casualty estimation initially feared.

To donate to GoAbroad’s relief fund, click here.

laflamme typhoon

FOX 17′s Ann Marie LaFlamme sits down with typhoon survivor Carter Brown.

Carter Brown and Elsa ThomasmaTACLOBAN, Philippines — Carter Brown and Elsa Thomasma have been found safe.  Family tells Fox 17 Brown called around 10:30 Sunday night.

They say a military transport plane rescued both Brown and Thomasma, and they are both alive and safe.

Family says that Brown, 23, and Thomasma, 24, are working on booking flights home within the next 24 to 48 hours, but Thomasma’s mother tells FOX 17 that she does not want to leave, because she wants to check on the people of Cangumbang.

The news comes as new images from the region show the destruction the typhoon left behind.

TACLOBAN, Philippines — It’s now feared more than 10,000 people are dead in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan – and two West Michigan natives are among the missing.

Family tells us 23-year-old Carter Brown and 24-year-old Elsa Thomasma are missing from Tacloban City, one of the hardest hit by the typhoon.

Both are graduates of Sturgis High School in 2008 then Grand Valley State University.

Brown’s brother, Austin, says his brother and Elsa have been friends since middle school.

They’re both over in the Philippines with the GoAbroad Foundation.

Thomasma’s Facebook page had updates tracking the storm, until those updates abruptly stopped last Thursday.

Austin says he FaceTimed with his brother Wednesday night as they were preparing for the storm.  He says Carter told him they had stored food and water in their office on the second floor and were going to ride out the storm.

As the days pass and the two remain missing, the families are left praying and eagerly awaiting word on their loved ones.

Austin says they’re checking with the Red Cross, the embassy in the Philippines, and looking for Carter and Elsa’s faces in video clips others have posted from Tacloban.

Hope is still high. Austin says Carter worked in the ER as a nurse’s aide at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids before leaving for Tacloban.

Carter is very smart and very skilled in chaotic situations having worked in the ER department, his brother says, and Austin has no doubt he is using those skills now.