MANILA, Philippines — Photos of the death and devastation wrought by the super typhoon that struck the central portion of the Philippines Nov. 8 spoke volumes, but it represented only part of the tale.
The resilient spirit of the people, with their faith in God and strong family ties, is telling the rest of the story in this majority Catholic country.
Photos and video images taken in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which registered 190-mile-an-hour winds and 12-foot Pacific surges, showed homes reduced to splintered masses and concrete foundations uprooted and crushed. In an especially iconic photo illustrating the immense power of the storm that experts are calling one of the strongest ever recorded, a large cargo ship rests atop crushed homes with the shoreline far in the distance.
Historic churches, some dating back to the Spanish colonial era, also fell to the storm, with roofs sheared off by wind and stone-and-mortar walls collapsing. The 16th-century cathedral of the Archdiocese of Palo, which includes the hard-hit area of Tacloban, was pummeled by an ocean surge that collapsed the roof, leaving only the arched frame and four walls standing. It became a center for the living and the dead, as residents gathered for spiritual support and bodies were sorted for burial.
In all, the storm leveled dozens of cities and towns, left millions homeless and thousands dead. Yet the strength and dignity of the Filipino people was able to shine through the destruction.
‘The Filipino Soul Is Stronger Than Yolanda’
While offering prayers for the deceased and solace to the survivors, Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, president of the Philippine bishops’ conference, expressed the spirit of his people, using the local name, Yolanda, for the storm.
“The typhoon was the strongest in the world, according to the reckoning of scientists, but our faith in the Lord is even stronger,” the archbishop said in a statement. ”No typhoon or flood can diminish the strength of the Filipino soul. No calamity or natural devastation can quench the fire of our hope. The Filipino soul is stronger than Yolanda.”
That spirit was seen in the story of the mother who hired a three-man fishing boat to sail three days to her hometown to be united with her school-age son. Or the priest in Eastern Samar who rode his scooter out of the rubble to a distant parish staging area to gather emergency goods for his parishioners.
Young people with cellphones walked miles from the major impact center in Tacloban City to find a standing celltower to call relatives waiting desperately for news. Carrying a list of names and phone numbers, they contacted various families to leave a simple message that mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were still alive.
In the days when the official death toll was rising above 4,000, but the projected toll was placed closer to 10,000, such a message was enough to keep hope alive.
Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, communications director for the Philippine bishops’ conference in Manila, received a text message from one of his nephews four days after the storm that his mother and father in Eastern Samar were alive, along with other family members in his hometown. It was ironic that the priest in charge of the bishops’ communications about the storm had not heard from his own family.
“I was worried, of course, and praying, praying for many days, and then the text came,” he recalled. “It was like a message from heaven, just to hear one small word. It said that they are low on food and clean water, but they are alive.”
U.S. Military Relief
The Philippine national government came under criticism for its apparently slow response to the disaster, leaving people without basic supplies for days. Eventually, the United States was asked for help and sent the aircraft carrier George Washington with tons of relief materials and a number of helicopters to deliver them to areas cut off by impassable roads or bridges.
The military used some of the same bases that it built during World War II, leaving some Philippine media to headline the “Return of MacArthur,” referring to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s triumphant landing on the island of Leyte in October 1944.
The bishops’ conference declared a day of prayer and fasting a few days after the storm, and Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle of Manila held a prayer service on Nov. 15 in the capital city, located some 350 miles northwest of the storm site. Cardinal Tagle also spoke about the storm on his weekly Sunday morning TV show Nov. 17, when he tied the Mass readings about the signs of the end times to the questions people are asking about the country’s weather calamities.
A month prior to the typhoon, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the same region of the Philippines, killing more than 100 people and causing extensive damage in Bohol and Cebu. The destruction included the collapse of the historic bell tower of the Basilica of Santo Nino, which houses a statue of the Christ Child that was brought by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 on his voyage around the earth.
“Is this a sign of the end times? Are we coming to the time of judgment? We do not know,” Cardinal Tagle said in his broadcast. He said that the recent storms should, rather, be seen as a call for people to love their neighbors and care more deeply for their material and spiritual needs in a renewed sense of solidarity.
Cardinal McCarrick’s Mass
In a deeply symbolic and spiritual gesture, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, who traveled to the Philippines for Catholic Relief Services, celebrated Sunday Mass Nov. 17 amid the rubble in the roofless Palo Cathedral. Joined by Archbishop Palma and Palo Archbishop John Du, he urged the Church throughout the world to stand with the Filipino people, whose great faith and strength would help them rise from the ashes.
Catholic Relief Services has pledged $20 million for relief efforts, and the U.S. bishops are asking parishes to conduct special collections for that purpose before the end of the year.
One of the first local relief efforts was conducted by Knights of Columbus in Iloilo, where the storm ripped through the northern section of the province. Gathering donated goods from councils outside the stricken area, Knights traveled about 50 miles to deliver 788 sacks filled with rice, canned goods, noodles and bottled water. There are more than 300,000 Knights throughout the Philippines, and the Supreme Council in New Haven, Conn., has pledged $250,000 for relief efforts.
“This will be a long-term relief operation, and the Knights will continue to be there,” said Rodrigo Sorongon, the Knights’ deputy for the central Philippines.
Although the images the world has been seeing of the areas of Tacloban, Leyte and Samar have been mostly of death and destruction, Msgr. Quitorio said that it is important to understand that before the storm these were thriving fishing villages and cities. Filipinos went there for vacation, and tourists would stop to enjoy the breathtaking tropical beauty of the lush palm and coconut trees and the endless expanse of the clear, blue Pacific.
He said, “It will take time, but that is the place I hope again to see.”
Register correspondent Maria Caulfield was born in Manila
and now writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
Online donations to assist victims of Typhoon Haiyan can be made here through Catholic Relief Services.
Information on how to make donations through Caritas Filipinas Foundation is found here.