MANILA, Philippines — In a land that suffers dozens of highly destructive storms each year, most of them hitting during the months of September to December, the typhoon that swept through the southern Philippines early last month was especially deadly and costly.
The 110-mile-per-hour winds of Typhoon Bopha that raged across the South Pacific hit an area of the Asian nation that usually is not lashed by such storms. Thus, the people in the typhoon’s path were less prepared to protect life and property and also less likely to heed coastal-evacuation warnings, facts that contributed to the high death toll of nearly 1,100 and record destruction.
Yet the faith of the people in the predominantly Catholic country has sustained them in this time of extreme grief and hardship, and a number of international and local Catholic agencies have come to their aid.
Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said in a statement that the bishops’ “hearts bleed” for the victims as he encouraged donations to relief agencies, noting, “It’s better to give than to receive.”
In another statement, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila encouraged every parish in his archdiocese to provide assistance.
“Our parishes, with Caritas Manila taking the lead, are already working to assure you that you are not alone in this time of need,” the cardinal said, addressing the victims. “Strengthen yourselves. The Lord and your brothers and sisters in Christ are with you.”
The Knights of Columbus has been providing emergency funds and items as well as hands-on personal assistance through their local councils. The Catholic fraternal organization has more than 285,000 members throughout the Philippines.
“There is much destruction, death and suffering, but the spirit of the people is strong, despite everything,” said Balbino Fauni, who serves as the regional deputy for the Knights of Columbus in the Mindanao area. He visited affected areas with a group of K of C leaders a few days after the storm to bring emergency food supplies and relief funds and to assess the needs of Knights, their families and others struck by the storm.
Also visiting was Guillermo Hernandez, president of KCFAPI, the Knights of Columbus’ insurance company in the Philippines, which donated funds to purchase badly needed items such as bottled water, canned food, blankets and clothes.
While visiting a partially destroyed church, Fauni saw, nearby, a house submerged in mud and a river that was blocked by uprooted trees and fallen rocks. He recalled sadly, “As the wind blew to our direction, we could smell the odor due to unretrieved dead bodies underneath these logs and big stones that came from the mountains.”
Other groups providing assistance are Caritas Philippines, the bishops’ national relief agency, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development of the United Kingdom. The International Red Cross and the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Agency of the Philippines are also active in relief efforts.
Nearly a month after Bopha (called Pablo locally) struck the Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental regions in the center of the southernmost island group of Mindanao on Dec. 3, the death toll had climbed steadily to more than 1,000, with bodies still being found. An estimated 300,000 homes were destroyed, leaving some 1 million adults and children to seek shelter.
The number of missing has been placed above 800, most of them fishermen on the usually friendly waters, who stayed with their boats despite warnings.
After making landfall on the eastern shoreline, the storm swept northwest across a 350-mile stretch of land, lakes and rivers, before moving toward the South China Sea. It devastated three Catholic dioceses, leveled whole towns and villages, caused 10-foot sea surges along the shoreline as well as inland flooding that led to fatal mudslides that trapped many in the mountains.
In mining areas, local news agencies reported, bodies of workers were carried away by the truckload.
The fact that the typhoon was able to maintain its high speed over such a wide swath of land was attributed by the bishops’ conference to the illegal logging and deforestation that is common in rural areas.
Four days after the storm, President Benigno Aquino traveled to some of the hardest-hit areas and declared a national emergency, releasing government funds and assigning relief workers. He said that it will take months to fully assess the damage and begin to return life to normal.
It was the most destructive storm in the Philippines in 2012 and was reported by government sources to be the most costly ever on record in terms of damage. Bopha came about one year after Typhoon Washi struck the northern Mindanao region, which left 1,500 dead.
Yet with Typhoon Bopha hitting a few weeks before Christmas in a land that is known for its lively holiday traditions, there was an outpouring of good will and assistance, from poor neighbor helping more-poor neighbors and Church agency workers walking the muddy roads carrying bags of rice, along with pots and clean water to cook it in, to large international groups pledging ongoing relief funds for food and infrastructure.
One of the more unusual and moving signs of solidarity came from inmates in a high-security prison outside the capital city of Manila, who gave up their daily monetary food allowance for three days before and after Christmas and donated the amount to help the typhoon victims.
Manila auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, head of the archdiocese’s prison ministry, said the inmates acted in the true spirit of Christmas, fasting for those in need, even though they have their own suffering and problems.
Register correspondent Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.