MANILA — Hundreds of thousands in the Philippines are fighting for survival days after their world came to an abrupt end with Super Typhoon Haiyan’s swathe of death and destruction.
The Catholic Church is stepping into the wasteland to help wage a battle for the island nation now faced with starvation, disease and despair.
Few Americans can picture the total devastation — one’s home broken to pieces, neighborhoods flattened, loved ones and neighbors lying cold and still in the streets. The official death toll exceeded 4,000 at press time.
But the large-scale disaster also is showing the universality of the Church in action.
International Catholic relief organizations, including the U.S. bishops’ own Catholic Relief Services (CRS), are working closely with the local Church to bring relief and the presence of God to those most in need.
"We are going to the areas hardest hit by the typhoon," Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of CBCP Caritas Filipinas Foundation, told the Register just days after the typhoon struck on Nov. 8. "We are first setting up a staging area in a neighboring province, and then we will deliver supplies to our area Church network."
Eoghan Rice, a communications officer with Trócaire (the Irish bishops’ Caritas), was accompanying Father Gariguez to the island of Cebu. Just before boarding his plane, he explained that the Caritas network is "in full operation here," but it is only as communication lines start to be restored that they were "starting to get a full picture of what the situation really is."
"There are areas where 80% of the houses were destroyed," he said.
Super Typhoon Haiyan may go down in the history books as the strongest storm ever recorded. Haiyan sustained winds of 190 miles per hour and whipped up a 20-foot-high storm surge when it made landfall in the central Philippines.
"Caritas organizations are responding through the local organization here and also through agencies such as CRS," Rice said. "It’s through these local structures that we can get aid. The local partners and local knowledge are proving critical to getting aid in quickly."
The challenges faced by Caritas groups, Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic aid organizations are daunting. Haiyan has affected 9 million in the central Philippines, and displaced more than 600,000.
"The scale of this emergency is just massive," Jennifer Hardy, CRS’ regional information officer, told the Register, speaking from Manila. "It is a scale that the Philippines have never seen before. There is just total devastation."
"It looks like a tsunami hit," she said. "Some places have 100% destruction."
CRS is working with the local Church to provide 100,000 families (approximately 500,000 persons) with emergency shelter, clean water and sanitation and other living supplies, such as pots for cooking and sleeping mats to keep people off the wet ground in the areas hardest hit.
Hardy said CRS deployed to hard-hit areas that had no aid presence, south of the island of Leyte’s capital city of Tacloban, in order to avoid a duplication of other agencies’ efforts.
CRS also put into place a cash-for-work program for the survivors, allowing them to have the dignity of work that gives them some income to support their families and also a hand in rebuilding their own communities.
"We’re going to be paying people who were affected by this disaster and lost their homes to work on clearing debris," Hardy said. "It serves a dual purpose of getting cash into the community — into the hands of people who really need it — and also clearing the debris to make room for a safe and structured place for people to live."
Safety and Security
Hardy said CRS is working with the Philippine government to make sure the cleanup proceeds in a safe manner.
Delivering aid to these devastated areas also provides a security challenge, as hunger, thirst and misery drive people to desperate measures. Eight people were reported killed in a mob looting of a food storage center, and there were reports of some rebel groups attacking trucks trying to bring supplies to devastated areas.
"There are severe food shortages," Rice said. "People are becoming increasingly desperate because of that."
Rice said that aid was nevertheless coming through. He said an Irish nun in Cebu is coordinating a project to feed 3,000 people in her locality. And the Caritas Manila office had 250 volunteers working in shifts to put together packages that have enough food "to feed a family of five for three days."
"They hope to send 20,000 parcels over the next few weeks," he said. "So, already, you can see 2,000 parcels feeding 10,000 people over a few days."
He added, "It’s critical we get aid to them as quickly as we can, because the situation is critical, and it is only getting more desperate for them."
Hardy said CRS had put systems in place to ensure the safety of both relief workers and beneficiaries. One hallmark was assuring people in advance, through the local Church network, when and what kind of aid was coming and that CRS and the local Church knew who they were.
CRS pre-committed $20 million to the relief effort. The organization is still providing relief to the nearby Bohol province, which was rocked by a massive earthquake before the typhoon and needs to replenish supplies.
"They’re still suffering as well. So CRS is committed to helping both people who lost their homes in the earthquake and are affected by this disaster," Hardy said.
Hardy said that CRS’ close ties with local Church networks have made it "well positioned to mobilize aid," call up local volunteers and hire parishioners, so they can get aid to those who need it most.
"CRS works with mobilizing resources, getting funding and technical experts on the ground, but it’s the local Church that really makes it happen, as far as making the right connections, identifying beneficiary families, identifying who is the most vulnerable," she said. "That’s all local knowledge, and we couldn’t do this work without it."
Rice agreed, but he also said that Catholics all over the world have a critical role to play.
"The best way that people can help is to support Caritas in their appeal," he said.
The U.S. bishops took up a special collection in dioceses across the U.S. beginning the weekend of Nov. 16-17 to aid in relief efforts.
Amid the ruin, the Church is bringing hope. Father Gariguez shared that many Filipinos have reached out to help devastated areas.
"What is most striking is that people are very generous in helping the affected community," he said. He said the example of the people of Buhol — an area already devastated by a recent 7.2-magnitude earthquake — was particularly striking.
"They were already devastated, but, here, they are responding with charity to the people in need."
But above all, prayers are needed for both the victims and also the Catholics and others helping them.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter Nov. 12 to Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, president of the bishops’ conference in the Philippines, expressing the U.S. bishops’ prayers and solidarity.
"Together with the Catholic faithful throughout this country, we assure you of our prayers for the victims of this disaster and for the survivors as they struggle to rebuild their lives," wrote Cardinal Dolan, as he also promised financial support received through nationwide second collections.
CRS’ Hardy said that the relief work on the ground is exhausting, but it is faith in Christ that is at the heart of what they are doing.
"Maybe for them I can at least be a tiny glimpse of Jesus, as I talk with people and meet with people," said Hardy. "Even if that is all that I accomplish — that is more than enough to keep me going."
Online donations to assist victims of Typhoon Haiyan can be made through Catholic Relief Services at CRS.org. Information on how to make donations through the Caritas Filipinas Foundation can be found at NASSA.org.ph.