Letter from the Philippines

17th November 2013 - by Stephen Awre

We have received the following letter from Fr. Pat O’Donoghue, Columban Director of the Philippine Region. 

Dear Friends,
Firstly, my sincere thanks to all of you who, either personally or together as a region, have emailed or phoned to let us know that you are in solidarity with us and the people of the Philippines as they struggle once more to deal with a devastating calamity.
Secondly, my apologies if I haven’t been able to answer all of you individually.  It has taken me a little longer than I thought to send this communication.  Part of the reason for this is that I have been waiting to try to get as much information “from the ground” as possible before doing so.
All Columbans are safe.  Though there were some side effects of the typhoon in some Columban areas, the full force of the typhoon hit places that we have never been in, such as Samar and Leyte.  And, as you have seen on your TVs or computers, the effects were horrific. I have experienced a number of natural disasters over my years here and seen the immediate effects of others but I have never seen the extent of the destruction caused by Haiyan.

One result of this is that it is taking a very long time for aid to reach the victims. When the effects are “localized” and the surrounding areas “escape”, immediate aid can be provided in a relatively short time to the victims.  But here, the devastation is so widespread that even those places where relief supplies had been stored were severely damaged.  Add to that the blocked and impassable roads, inoperable airports and the almost complete loss of communication and you see how the difficulties are compounded.
It is only in the last few days that the relief operations seem to be gaining traction.  It was heartbreaking to see images of people begging for help and those who were most willing to help unable to do anything because they were unable to get to the places most affected.

Since yesterday, the roads and ferries are useable and relatives and friends (as well as the relief agencies) are travelling to the affected areas with food and blankets etc. despite tremendous difficulties.  Some of those travelling still do not know the fate of their relatives and are naturally apprehensive at what they will find.  This willingness to drop everything and, whatever the difficulty, go to help relatives and friends, so characteristic of the “Filipino”, never ceases to challenge and inspire me. 

Like others, we are waiting on news of those we know who live in those areas.  Frs. Barney Martin and John Keenan – both university chaplains – know many students from these areas and we know there will be casualties – either students or their families.  We already know that the Redemptorist Church and compound in Tacloban (among the worst affected cities) was damaged, though we believe the Church is now functioning as an evacuation centre. 

The Mercy Sisters (founded from St. Marie’s of the Isle, Cork) were also very badly hit – 50% of their hospital and 75% of their school severely damaged and their own provincialate also damaged.  A workers’ community housing project of the RSCJ sisters in Ormoc City (which was begun in the wake of another disaster in 1991) was completely destroyed – 33 houses, the community center and the sisters’ own house.

The task of rehabilitation for the victims of Haiyan seems almost insurmountable at this point.  The immediate difficulty seems not to be the amount of aid but getting it distributed to where it is most needed. Experience teaches us that relief agencies (together with those on the ground) are best able to now take care of these immediate needs. 
On behalf of all Columbans in the region, my thanks again to all of you for your concern and prayers.  It is truly and deeply appreciated.
Fr. Pat O’Donoghue SSC
Director, Region of the Philippines