On the ground in the Philippines
4 Feb 2014 | Blog | Philippines | Emergency Relief
Caritas Australia's CEO, Paul O’Callaghan, writes from the Philippines, where he is visitng communitties devastated by super typhoon Haiyan.
Greetings from the Philippines, where our Caritas Australia delegation has been truly humbled by the immense faith, resilience and positivity of the fishing communities we have visited. I wanted to share with you some brief impressions of this visit.
Day 1: Resilience
Caritas Australia supported Caritas Philippines to provide emergency relief material like shelter kits, food packets, blankets, mosquito nets and cooking utensils for 55,000 families across nine dioceses. We are also helping with boat building and garden projects to improve food supply and restore livelihoods.
We travelled for half a day to reach communities at the most northerly tip of Cebu and received a warm greeting from those who had been most impacted by the Typhoon. They were thrilled that Archbishop Philip Wilson blessed the new fishing boats to replace those which had been destroyed.
Their faith was also reflected in the attendance of well over 1,000 villagers at a mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilson in a church that withstood the power of the Typhoon despite being over 100 years old. The church, St Rose of Lima, was built in 1886 and was the only building left fully intact in the area.
Sister Mapeth, emergency project manager for Cebu archdiocese, announced to the congregation of more than 1,000 villagers yesterday that the relationship with Caritas Australia "was greatly valued by every single parishioner because of the tangible help provided. She said that the communities had been praying for our teams at work in the Philippines."
We were overwhelmed by the generosity and the leadership of a group of sisters from the Daughters of Charity Order. We were also surprised at just how well known and appreciated the work of Caritas Australia is in this area.
Day 2: Recalling the terror of the typhoon
After arriving at ground zero for the super Typhoon Haiyan this morning, we met with a number of survivors.
Hearing first hand accounts of the terror of this typhoon left me somewhat shaken. As the typhoon intensified, people told me the most frightening stories. Buildings collapsed. The noise of wind and rain was deafening. It was impossible to see more than 4 to 5 metres in front of you. Sheet metal and other debris was flying about everywhere.
Yet the faith, hope and resilience of the people we met was again overwhelming. They went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of!
Your type of partnership, rather than treating us as mere victims, tells us that God's grace is truly at work."Fr Valsquez
A wonderful teacher at the Tacloban seminary, Fr Valsquez, told me that the typhoon intensified so rapidly that he was caught alone in a large, concrete seminary building that was visibly shaking. He was convinced that his mother and siblings must have been killed and that he had no chance of coming out alive. He described the moment of their subsequent reunion as one of sheer ecstasy. A large number of his friends and neighbours had died.
Fr Velasquez also hosted a memorable dinner for us and others in the Caritas delegation. After our moving experience yesterday in The Cebu fishing community, I was deeply touched by his words of praise and gratitude for our support:
"You have been so consoling and gracious with your help. Your type of partnership, rather than treating us as mere victims, tells us that God's grace is truly at work. Thank you so much for being such a true partner."
Day 3: Building for the future
Yesterday we arrived at the area where the typhoon unleashed its greatest destructive force. It’s hard to take in the sheer scale of damage caused by a four metre storm surge that reached kilometres inland.
I have seen so much that has moved me, but three impressions in particular have stood out to me this place of so much loss.
A number of times, I have passed a home where a very poor man in his late 50s and his four year old grandson are steadily scooping out the mud deposited by the storm surge. The small boy is so quiet and diligent, working away with a large spade. Several times, his face has beamed with a smile and he has called out "hello" to me.
The absence of any other family members with them, especially his mother, father or siblings, suddenly hit me. The grief here is so palpable, yet the hope and resilience are striking.
In another village that was submerged by the storm, and where Caritas is supporting the recovery, a shy mother of four told me of her terror as she and her husband had tried to stop their children from being swept away by the typhoon. She was so relieved that they all survived. However, as tenant farmers, they now fear that the plantation owner will sell up all the land, which would mean they would lose their home and livelihood.
The third impression I have taken away from yesterday and today came from talking to a small group of young aid workers, including our own Madeline Baker. As these inspirational young people told our delegation about the "hands on" work they were doing in the communities, I felt thrilled to think that we have such wonderful, dedicated and talented folks with us at Caritas Australia. It was evident from all they said that their collaborative work with our Caritas colleagues from the US, Ireland and the UK has been extremely effective in helping the communities so devastated by typhoon Haiyan.
I am sure that all our supporters would have felt as proud as I did to witness their faithful commitment to those who have suffered so much.
A Caritas Australia delegation is currently on the ground in the Philippines reviewing Typhoon Haiyan recovery efforts. The delegation comprises our chairman, Archbishop Philip Wilson, our CEO, Paul O'Callaghan and our Head of Humanitarian Emergencies Group, Melville Fernandez.
Caritas Australia's Typhoon Haiyan Aid Response
Blog: We Grow Stronger - Three months on from Typhoon Haiyan (7 Feb 2014)
Blog: Working alongside communities in the Philippines (12 Feb 2014)
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