Amid fallen trees and emergency tents, Knights of Columbus distribute relief packages to residents in the town of Hernani, Eastern Samar. (photo by Roy Lagarde
The destructive force of Typhoon Haiyan can be measured in many ways: the 195-mile-per-hour winds and 20-foot ocean surges; the 6,000-plus death toll and seaside villages reduced to splintered piles of wood; or the millions of people displaced as the super typhoon tore a gash across the center of the Philippines, from the Pacific Ocean to the South China Sea, in what experts are calling the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall.
Months after the storm of early November 2013, pain and sorrow still mark the lives of survivors as the work of recovery and rebuilding continues.
Yet there is more to the story than nature’s unbounded fury and the grim toll of death, destruction and grief left in its wake. There is the indomitable spirit of the Filipino people a spirit of courage that impelled those on safe ground to venture into churning tides to save friends, family and even strangers; a spirit of charity that prompted those who were pounded by previous storms to collect relief goods and money for the victims of Haiyan; and a spirit of hope that saw families banding together under makeshift tarpaulin shelters, with neighbors consoling neighbors who lost loved ones and sharing what little food and water they had left.
All of these actions were bound together by a spirit of faith in this predominantly Catholic country, a faith that led Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, whose northern regions were battered by the storm, to declare: “No typhoon or flood can diminish the strength of the Filipino soul. No calamity or natural disaster can quench the fire of our soul.” Using the local name for the typhoon, he added, “The Filipino soul is stronger than Yolanda.”
KNIGHTS THERE TO HELP
Both during and after the storm, Knights of Columbus were there sometimes as victims, but also as rescuers and relief agents with a commitment to provide long-term assistance.
“As we work to assist those who have suffered so much in the Philippines, they will also remain in our prayers,” said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “The Knights of Columbus has a long tradition of charitable service in the Philippines, and our efforts there on behalf of those affected will continue in that spirit. Locally and internationally, we are committed to helping the people of the Philippines rebuild their lives.”
The Order established councils in the Philippines in 1905, and today there are more than 300,000 Knights in some 2,500 councils in the three jurisdictions of Luzon, Mindanao and Visayas.
When Haiyan hit, the Supreme Council announced an immediate emergency disbursement of $250,000. In the following weeks, Knights and others sent $500,000 more in donations to the Order’s emergency relief fund. In addition to helping the dioceses hardest hit by the storm allowing bishops to continue their charitable works among their people these funds have been used to support a K of C relief center on the outskirts of the ravaged area, where food, water, clothing and other goods are distributed to the most needy. The funds have also purchased basic materials for fishermen to get back to work, and for farmers to start clearing and working their fields again.
As international relief agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, which has committed $20 million to recovery efforts, attend to the larger issues, the Knights of Columbus has been employing its on-the-ground council structure to identify underserved areas and bring direct assistance.
Using Supreme Council funds, the Visayas State Council, under Deputy Rodrigo N. Sorongon, purchased canned goods, rice, bottled water, utensils and other necessities, and packed them in sacks for delivery to remote villages. Relief supplies were transported along muddy roads to northern Cebu two days after the storm. Truckloads of supplies followed, and were distributed in areas along the Pacific coast that suffered the greatest losses.
An aerial view shows a coastal village in the province of Samar three days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines. (CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters)
Vicente Ballon, a Knight who lost loved ones and who barely escaped the storm himself, offered a glimpse of the destructive force of Haiyan. He described how three successive ocean surges carried away family members and finally left him clinging for life to a mangrove tree. His wife was in Manila at the time, and they were reunited a few days later after he was able to board a military evacuation plane.
“The height of the water was 15 to 18 feet. The winds were blowing really hard,” said Ballon, a member of San Joaquin Council 13493 in Palo. “It happened so fast, only seconds, and they were gone.”
“It’s hard to talk about what happened. How will I rebuild? I don’t know yet,” he added.
SIGNS OF HOPE
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila traveled to Tacloban City for the Palo Archdiocese’s jubilee in late November 2013. He told Columbia that when he first saw the scarred hills, once thick with coconut and palm trees, and the huge piles of wood that had made up thousands of homes, his thoughts turned to the human suffering.
“If this is the result of the storm,” he remarked, “imagine what the people were going through at the time all this was happening.”
After Mass, a woman approached the cardinal to discuss the needs of the people. He asked how she and her family would celebrate Christmas amid so much destruction. “She said that maybe with everything that they had lost, this would be the first time they will be able to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas,” Cardinal Tagle recalled. “Without the lights and the wrapped gifts, they would truly know how simple Christmas can be, like the poor Christ Child in the manger.”
Archbishop John Du of Palo offered another sign of hope when he decided to conduct previously scheduled priestly ordinations in the cathedral even though parts of its roof were gone. A tarp was placed over the altar and the shell of the cathedral was filled to capacity with people seeking the strength and solace of their Catholic faith. Archbishop Du said that to postpone the ordinations would be to deprive parishioners of new priests in a time of crisis.
Likewise, Pope Francis showed his solidarity with the victims with prayers and a monetary donation immediately after the storm. At the end of December, his apostolic nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, stayed with Archbishop Du to celebrate Christmas Mass and to bring the pope’s blessing, prayers and best wishes to the Filipino people.
Archbishop Palma, who recently served as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, has a special connection to the area. He was archbishop of Palo before being named to the Archdiocese of Cebu in 2010. In an interview at his residence, he said, “It’s so inspiring to see from here in Cebu and from all over the world, caravans of aid being delivered to people. It’s so inspiring to hear the testimonies of children, like one little child celebrating his birthday, and instead of asking for gifts for himself, he said to his father that he will send his gifts to the children in Leyte. It is inspiring to know that in Iligan, which suffered the typhoon and flood the other year, together with Cagayan de Oro, the bishop said that they have more than 5,000 sacks of rice for Leyte.”
Second collections in dioceses throughout the Philippines for Haiyan relief have consistently been larger than the usual Mass collections, Archbishop Palma also noted.
Almost forgotten in Haiyan’s aftermath was the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the Visayas region in mid-October, causing heavy destruction and toppling the bell tower of the historic Basilica of Santo Niño de Cebu, near the site where Ferdinand Magellan planted a cross for Christ in 1521 during his trip around the globe.
Archbishop Palma said the people have good reason to feel weary from disasters, and many are in need of counseling and encouragement. Yet the prayers, outpouring of aid and solidarity from around the globe have provided much consolation.
The archbishop added, “It may cost us millions, and we will need help from all over, as we have already seen, but the faith of the people will rebuild, sooner than many expect.”
BRIAN CAULFIELD is the editor of Fathers for Good and vice postulator for the canonization cause of Venerable Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus.