Update on UCCP response to Typhoon Haiyan

Update on UCCP response to Typhoon Haiyan

Matt Fehse, Global Mission Intern serving with the UCCP, reports the latest efforts of the church as it responds to this massive disaster.

As we receive updates from Global Mission Intern Matt Fehse, who is serving with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines they will be posted here. Formerly, he was assigned to the Human Rights desk, but is now being utilized in disaster response as the UCCP works with communities and congregations to rebuild.

Update December 9, 2013

Hi everyone,

I arrived in Maasin on the island of Leyte where the Southwest Leyte conference had to relocate their office from Tacloban where it was swept away during the storm.  We spent a couple days there packing rice and relief goods to distribute in Samar.  I spoke with Conference Minister Dose Rose and asked her about the difficulties the conference had.  She had said that prior to the storm, they had a program in the area they ran for disaster management, but the training was largely ignored during the storm and many church communities were unprepared.  Church buildings were opened to provide shelter for those whose homes were simple structures and vulnerable to the storm’s strength.

Going forward, the conference aims to raise 9 million pesos (~$204,000) for a three part response over the next year which entails: 3 million for relief goods, 3 million delegated to local churches for their needs, and 3 million to purchase items (e.g. galvanized iron, nails, and tools) for rehabilitation of member’s homes and potentially extend beyond that if funds allow.

Difficulties the conference is having are largely concerning transportation.  The church there has no vehicles, so they must loan them from the local government units where they pay the drivers an honorarium of 500 pesos a day and each truck of goods costs 10,000 pesos ($226) in fuel for a round trip.

Due to the transportation issues occurring all over the Visayas, the relief mission was to be delayed by a couple days as many of the goods were still stuck on Cebu island having trouble finding a freighter to bring them to Leyte.  I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it to Tacloban to meet with the reverend and bishop there, so I went ahead of the relief team and took a van north.  As we entered the outskirts of the city, thousands of tents bordered the highway where signs were being held by families begging for food and water.  It was incredibly difficult to see as we flew passed them in an air-conditioned van with my backpack full of snacks and water.

When I arrived at UCCP’s hospital, Bethany Hospital, I met with Reverend Mylene and she toured me around the facility.  Flooding from the storm surge reached the top of the second floor destroying most of the equipment there and toppling the emergency generator rendering the hospital mostly ineffective after the storm.  They accepted walk-in patients for free medicine they could offer and consultations.  Three days after the storm, just before the start of a worship service in front of the church, a woman successfully gave birth with the help of hospital staff in attendance.  There were three other babies born that week.

Since then, the hospital has opened the premises up to Doctors Without Borders who will work there for the next 3 months as well as a French medical team from Medecins San Frontieres .  They installed a water filtration system and offer free water to anyone and are able to do most of the services the hospital lacks.  It’s also used as a gathering point for pastors from congregations around the area and for field coordination.  

They frequently send out teams to surrounding communities to do trauma healing and stress debriefing.  For children they play games, one in particular called “Balay (Home), Baguio (Storm), Bata (Children).”  It’s a game similar to musical chairs where children run around screaming and giggling when someone calls out “Baguio!”  They have to change homes which are made up of two other children facing each other holding hands as a roof.  Afterwards, they have the children share how it feels about changing homes during the storm.  For the adults they have them sing songs then break up into small groups with men and women segregated as they process each other’s feelings and hopes while talking about what to do with the immediate future.

To my surprise, three trucks packed with relief goods showed up at the hospital with a team of UCCP workers from Mindanao who spent 2 days traveling nearly 400 miles across islands and oceans.  Plans abruptly changed and we left that evening for East Samar to bring the aid to a church there.  In the cozy company of 12 others in the back of a truck, we traveled 7 hours through the night to the church, slept in the pews for 5 hours, then began distribution.

We started the day with a worship service and breakfast.  After distributing the relief goods, we joined with the community in cleaning up the property and repairing the roof.  Late that morning, we packed up and headed back to Tacloban witnessing the damage we missed.  With a few bags full of water bottles, we tossed them to road construction crews working on clearing the highway and waved to people.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but God’s love is visible through the laughter heard while food was being distributed, while a coalition of people all over the world congregated on these small islands in the middle of the Philippines to help, and in the messages and help that continue to come pouring in.  Please continue to pray and support efforts here, the hopes and dreams of the people around the Visayas can be achieved.

Update November 26, 2013

Hi everyone,

The pastor here said I can stay as long as needed.  In Cebu City I’m not much of a resource drain as the city’s fine so I can take care of myself.  I spoke to the Bishop a few days ago when we were in Bohol and he’s planning on a trip to Tacloban to assess the damaged to UCCP’s Bethany Hospital and to deliver the generator and chainsaw needed there.  We should be leaving this evening, but he’ll contact me if anything changes.

We arrived in Tagbilaran early Friday morning, slept for a couple hours, then collected to travel to a place called Cabigian.  Due to the earthquake knocking out one of the main bridges, we had to take a long route around on dirt roads which about doubled the length of the trip.  When we arrived, we set up the consultation stations and medicine distribution center.  We were able to serve about 400 adults and children total offering medicine for colds and coughs in children (the most common issue) and hypertension in adults (most common issue) among other medical problems.  A small minor surgery section was set up where patients suffering from abscesses could be operated on and I was blown away to see what people underwent there with just the help of antibiotics and a basic pain killer. 

We followed similar form for the next two days, Saturday arriving in Sagbayan (which was the epicenter of the earthquake last month) and Sunday in Catigbian.  Over the three days, we were able to serve just under 1,000 people, distribute approximately 600 food relief packages, and perform dozens of minor surgeries.  Speaking with the doctors there, this was one of many medical missions they’ve attended with UCCP.  This particular one to Bohol was delayed because of the typhoon, but communities were selected based on need as the community health centers in the municipalities were badly damaged.  Even before the earthquake, the communities were severely under-served by the community health centers as they often lacked medicine or the staff was only able to work once a week.

As effective as these medical missions are, doctors that I spoke to said there’s still medicines lacking and it’s mostly due to cost.  Ear drops and eye drops for children who are suffering from infection are needed.  Although these infections can be overcome with time, it’s usually at the cost of impaired vision or hearing loss.  Drops for the children run at about 250 pesos per bottle ($5.71) and although it seems like such a small cost to prevent such damage, that’s equal to a day’s wage for many provincial laborers thus it’s difficult for families to purchase and attempting to include them in the inventory for the medical missions can easily overwhelm the mission’s budget.
The job I had there was to shout out patient’s names to collect their medicine.  It usually brought a smile to their faces as I completely butchered most names.  Some of the other volunteers said they will be emailing me more photos and some video if you guys would like me to forward that along.

Update November 20, 2013

Hi everyone,

I landed in Cebu City yesterday morning and we had our briefing today for the medical mission we’ll be going on.  We’re leaving for Bohol late tomorrow evening and will arrive early Friday morning to Tagbilaran.  There is a group of 60 going, mostly consisting of doctors and nurses, but many church workers as well to provide trauma therapy.  We’ll be traveling to a community called Catigbian on the first day, then two other locations over the next two days to be determined by the Bohol conference.  The team will provide medical consultation, minor surgery, distribute small relief packs of medical/toiletry, and worship.

The West Visayan Jurisdiction is coordinating with the East Visayan Juristiction on all relief efforts.  While this one is going on, another relief team will be dispatched to Panay on the island of Aklan which is just north of Cebu on November 23rd.  We return from Bohol on the 25th, but will go on the relief mission on the 28th to north Cebu island.  There we will be distributing food packs good for 1 week to individuals there.  Here’s part of what I sent Tom Morse about what’s in the pack:

The UCCP has set a standard of 500 pesos per relief pack which consists of one week of food: 5 kilos of rice, 4 cans of meat, 2 instant noodles, 1/2 kilo salt, 1/2 kilo sugar, a pack of coffee, 2 packs of matches, pack of milk, 2 packs of biscuits, and water. That’s $11.46 per week, or $1.63 a day.

What the church was doing leading up to the storm:

Just prior to the typhoon arriving, the program coordinator of the West Visayan jurisdictional office contacted the other program coordinators of the 6 conferences in the Visayas to discuss what their responsibilities will be during the storm and to report on the damages after the storm has passed.  Communication lines went down, so it took several days before many of the program coordinators could respond through text with assessments of the damages to their conferences.

On the 2nd day after the storm, appeals were sent out for aid from the larger, non-affected conferences for immediate help.  Data collectors were sent out to the surrounding islands.  Two municipalities on the island of Antique, Barbaza and Culasi, suffered damage where 95% of the homes and crops were destroyed.  In Panay, Aklan, 10 UCCP churches were destroyed.  Additionally, those who weren’t affected by the earthquake in Bohol last month were hit very hard by the typhoon. 

From there, they were able to organize very small relief missions which consisted of distributing food packs that would last an individual about 2 days.  It’s only been recently as financial and material support began coming onto the region they’ve been able to organize larger relief missions.

Difficulties in reaching to those affected:

I’m sure you guys saw Anderson Cooper’s broadcast and his criticism of the Philippine government.  He made many people here very angry, but he still continues to defend what he said and I think he painted a very arrogant image to anyone who heard what he had to say.

The typhoon is just the tail to a string of disasters the government’s been dealing with over the last two months.  At the end of September, fighting with Muslim separatists broke out in Zamboanga in Mindanao.  Over 10,000 homes were burned to the ground and displaced more than 100,000 people.  In early October, heavy rains in the area caused flooding which displaced another ~17,000 people.  The area is still a mess and recovery is slow.  Just a couple weeks later, the earthquake hit Bohol and even now there remains 350,000 displaced people which 80% are housed in makeshift shelters.  Roughly 3 weeks after that, Typhoon Yolanda arrives.  A year ago, Typhoon Pablo hit Mindanao and killed over 1,000 people and the area is STILL being repaired.  Simply put, no government in any part of the world could have done better than how the Filipino government is operating.  There’s definitely been corruption and mistakes made, but when you contextualize it with what the government’s been dealing with, Cooper spoke extremely out of line.

Also, air-dropping relief goods to far-flung areas isn’t much of an option.  Having discussed this with aid workers, the issue is that people will try to chase the helicopter down wanting to be evacuated.  These are people who haven’t eaten in potentially a week and have little to know water.  If crowds form to rush where the relief goods are dropped, people will be crushed in the frenzy (which has happened at several relief distribution sites already) and potentially people may collect and hoard goods at the expense of others out of fear of relief coming only so often.  There are still communities around the island of Leyte that haven’t been surveyed at all by government assessors.

Additionally, getting relief goods to places around Samar and Leyte have been difficult due to an extreme fuel shortage.  The market there has completely collapsed, so it’s common for a liter of fuel to be sold at 180 pesos per liter (USD$16.52/gallon).  This cost makes it difficult to fuel up the trucks to delivery the relief goods and for people/families to travel to relief centers as rationing businesses will only sell fuel 1 liter at a time.  Other goods are being hoarded by sellers to artificially drive up prices.

The other difficulties in getting the goods there is the rise of “disaster tourism.”  People from all over the world are traveling to the affected areas to take pictures and do amateur reporting.  This has caused commercial flights to be completely full, making it difficult for aid workers to get there on time and all together.  The tourists then consume the scarce resources available in a given area and clog up communication lines (cell towers and internet, internet is only available at Tacloban airport in Leyte) which further delays development.

Couple this with the fact that the insurgent group, the New People’s Army, have been raiding relief trucks, the military who is mostly responsible for the distribution of goods and undertake humanitarian work has had its hands full for a while and this typhoon was beyond their expectations.

Best ways to help:

Any materials and goods that are needed at the relief centers can be purchased here, so the program coordinator here said the best way to help the victims is sending money. The way the funds get to the Western and Eastern Visayas Jurisdictions is through the UCCP National Offices; they prioritize where funds will be sent to local conferences. Make a Donation

I asked the program coordinator if there was anything else American churches could do and she responded with prayer.  She said the disasters the Philippines are facing are symptoms to a larger problem and encourages Christians to advocate for the protection of the environment, to stop the wholesale mining industry, and the unchecked logging (particularly in Leyte which has caused landslides and flooding).  The lack of care and concern for the environment has caused these storm’s after-effects to grow stronger and more destructive.

She also wants Christians to speak out on the militarization of communities around the Philippines.  Conflicts between different Muslim separatists groups and between members of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines is being dealt with weapons rather than peace-talks.  This is causing the country to be divided, making it difficult to unite during calamities.

Thank you for the prayers and concerns.



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