On Friday November 29th I set out with a group of 16 people from Utah in coordination with the Philippine Improvement Group to provide relief aid to many of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda as it is referred to in the Philippines. Ryan Ogden, who spent two years in the Philippines as a missionary for the LDS church founded the Philippine Improvement Group over five years ago and has been back to the islands to provide humanitarian aid several times. Naturally, when the typhoon struck in November he coordinated a special service tour with several other local returned missionaries and volunteers and began raising funds with all proceeds going to the reconstruction of the Philippines.
The destination was the small island of Bantayan, situated just north west of Cebu Island in the middle of the Philippines. The remote location of the island made travelling very difficult. In order to get to the island we had to take all modes of transportation including planes, buses, taxis, boats, and vans just to arrive at the very north point of Bantayan. The island of Bantayan is a very modest place with three main towns. The city of Madridejos, the place where we offered relief, was devastated with 95 percent of the houses damaged in some way due to the ferocious winds of the typhoon. Madridejos only experienced four casualties compared to the thousands of deaths that Tacloban, a city on the island just to the east had experienced. The combination of the low tide and the unique shape of Bantayan Island, which has many caves underneath of it, helped prevent a massive tidal wave when the typhoon hit. Yet the island had not received any serious aid, even after three weeks time. This is most likely due to the enormous amount of aid required in several areas of the Philippines and the lack of effective transportation required to access the island.
The native Filipinos are used to typhoons each year but this one was drastically different than all of the other ones. The typhoon desolated the city of Madridejos, leaving it without electricity. Some of the local authorities predict it will take months before power is restored to the island. The aftermath of the typhoon also severely damaged the economy, not only for Bantayan but for all of the Philippines. The island supplies a large majority of the chickens to Cebu Island, home to 3.8 million people. Many chickens were killed and others had to be sold away immediately because of lack of supplies for the farmers. Many people are still struggling psychological from such a tremendous and traumatic experience. Yet the Filipino people are resilient and are happy despite the destruction to their homes and cities.
When we arrived we immediately set to work cleaning up the debris from the storm by tearing down collapsed roofs, chopping down trees, and cleaning up pieces of metal and wood. We were able to successfully clear out a private school that hosts students from kindergarten to college. We relied on the strength we had as a group, providing manpower to accomplish projects that would have taken the local Filipinos days to do in just a number of hours. After clearing out the school we shifted our attention towards a beach resort that had been decimated by the storm. Because it had been weeks since the storm had hit, the debris became a buffet for all manner of insects that would quickly attack as we tried to clear out the rubble. With the help of the local people working as a team we were able to quickly and effectively clear out the debris so that repairs can be made and the local economy can begin to heal itself.
Local Utahn Chris Haleua helps provide food to the people of Madridejos Around 700 people received food aid.
In similar fashion, our projects included clearing up a local farm and many houses in a neighborhood that had palm trees and other pieces of metal lying on the roofs and impaling the homes. Now that these places are cleared reconstruction can begin and people can try to go back to living normal lives. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation showed that there were many other things that the people needed other than physical labor and manpower. This includes materials, supplies, food, and counseling. Perhaps the most memorable part of the experience was providing food to over 700 people that had been diagnosed by doctors earlier in the week as malnourished, 620 of them being children. Part of the relief effort was to supply food and to visit local schools to help the children cope with their trauma and stress. This was done through a series of presentations that the kids were able to participate in. It was great to see them laugh and smile and let go of some of their worries, even for just a small moment. We also talked to them about the importance of getting an education and graduating because only 25 percent of the children make it to graduation.
Despite all that the group was able to accomplish, it does not even scratch the surface of all that needs to be done for this community, not to mention all of the other cities affected. It will take months, if not years for this city to recover from the typhoon. However, if any group of people can rise up and overcome these circumstances it is the people of the Philippines. Working in unity with NGOs and other governments the Filipinos will quickly erase the memories of Yolanda from their minds and if the members of the Philippine Improvement Group were able to make a difference in the life of just one person than it was all worth it.
Brenen Sidwell, member, Utah International Mountain Forum