Riders on the storm: PC(USA) supports Philippines partners in Typhoon Haiyan recovery

LOUISVILLE (PNS) About two months after he began his yearlong term as a Young Adult Volunteer in the Philippines, Duncan Kirk found himself in an unforeseen situation ― dealing with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

One of the strongest tropical storms on record, Haiyan struck the central Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others.

Kirk was in Tagbilaran, Bohol, when the typhoon struck. Bohol is a small, rural island in the Visayan Islands, just one island west of Leyte, where the typhoon did the most damage. Kirk was in Bohol working on recovery from a different natural disaster, an earthquake that had struck the area the month before. He then traveled to Leyte to begin working on relief for Haiyan with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“The UCCP responded extremely strongly, and there were and are still constant trips from churches and church people from all over the country to ground zero to see and do what they can,” Kirk wrote in an email to Presbyterian News Service. “While I was there, there were goods from all over the nation coming in, as well as locally, but the effort for the ultimate relief was carried out by the local church.

“I worked with the church in Maasin, which was in Southern Leyte and, much like Bohol, was largely untouched by the typhoon, other than the continued loss of power…” Kirk wrote. “The church itself was one of the churches spearheading bringing immediate necessities such as food, toiletries and medicine to the damaged northern Leyte, and some of the church leaders from northern Leyte were living with the UCCP members in Maasin.”

Although the UCCP isn’t a large denomination within the Philippines and doesn’t have a lot of staff available to help with recovery work, the church is committed to the work and to developing its skills, said Laurie Kraus, coordinator ofPresbyterian Disaster Assistance.

“Their sense of calling to this recovery work is powerful, and they’re utterly committed to doing what they need to do,” said Kraus, who visited the Philippines with a PC(USA) delegation in February.

In a town outside the heavily damaged city of Tacloban, the UCCP had received a load of food large enough for 55 families. But when 300 families showed up at the distribution center, the church repackaged the food so that all the families could eat, Kraus said. Not all of the families were members of the UCCP, and in a country where people tend to stick with their own religions, this act of generosity was a counter-cultural move, she said.

“That’s the heart of these people,” she said. “I’m really proud that we’re supporting these people.”

The PC(USA) is committed to working with the UCCP to develop its disaster-relief ministries and “to build the church’s capacity to be there” after disasters, Kraus said. As of now, the UCCP doesn’t have any staffers who focus solely on disaster recovery. When a disaster strikes, people in the church’s mission office handle most of the response.

So far, PDA has received more than $2.5 million to aid in recovery after Haiyan; $150,000 of that money has been sent to ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance and is designated to the efforts of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, of which the UCCP is a member. That money has been used for shelter, food and hygiene kits. PDA is working with the UCCP and Presbyterian World Mission to determine how to program the rest of the funds.

A major problem plaguing the relief efforts is corruption within the Philippines government, Kraus and Kirk said. The government ties up aid, preventing it from getting to the people in a timely manner. The initial “emergency” phase after a disaster — during which the focus is on food and shelter aid — typically should last a few weeks before the short-term recovery work of livelihood assistance and rebuilding begins. That process has been slowed down in the Philippines, Kraus said.

“Resource distribution is the toughest thing the rehabilitation process is working against, and to make matters worse, the Philippine government and even businesses to an extent, are known for corruption and generally ‘getting theirs,’ no matter the cost to the people,” Kirk wrote.

A bright spot in the recovery efforts is Silliman University, a UCCP-affiliated university that is a PC(USA) partner. Silliman wasn’t hit by the typhoon but is doing a lot of innovative recovery work, said Mienda Uriarte, World Mission’s area coordinator for Asia and the Pacific.

The university’s engineering department has built portable water purification units, many of which have been funded by the PC(USA)’s Philippines Mission Network. The school’s nutrition department is working on developing food packets that can be easily distributed in future disasters.

And, acknowledging that climate change is affecting weather patterns in the Philippines, the university is also designing shelters made from cargo containers. The containers, which are built to withstand a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, are fire-, termite- and waterproof and can be used as classrooms or worship spaces. The university hopes that each village will eventually have a container that can be used as a safe gathering place for the community during future disasters, Uriarte said.

Kirk hasn’t been directly involved with the relief process for the past few months, but the UCCP churches continue to raise money and send needed goods, he said.

Kirk wrote about the bright spirits of the Filipinos he’s met:

“It was somewhat comforting to see that even after the horror of the typhoon and the wreckage and deaths on all sides, kids were still playing tag, people of the church were making inappropriate jokes and people were generally not wallowing in sorrow, like I would have been. I am not sure you could call it ‘resiliency,’ but it made me see the typhoon as a temporary obstacle, a disaster of the past that we could put behind us and proceed into a happier future.”

To donate to PDA’s efforts for disaster relief in the Philippines, click here.

by Bethany Daily