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Commentary: Sharing pain, hope, in typhoon’s wake

Children from Dagami, Leyte, gather around United Methodist Communications team members April Mercado (front, center) and Ernani Celzo (back). These children are survivors of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Children from Dagami, Leyte, gather around United Methodist Communications team members April Mercado (front, center) and Ernani Celzo (back). These children are survivors of Typhoon Yolanda.

A sign that withstood the 195-mile-an-hour winds of Typhoon Yolanda stands outside Tacloban City in the Philippines.  Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

A sign that withstood the 195-mile-an-hour winds of Typhoon Yolanda stands outside Tacloban City in the Philippines.

Maggie Yrasuegui shares FEBC-First Response Radio’s ministry with the team. Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Maggie Yrasuegui shares FEBC-First Response Radio’s ministry with the team.

The United Methodist Communications team saw this graffiti written on the steel gate of a drugstore along Avenidas Veteranos in downtown Tacloban while recording GPS coordinates. Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

Photo courtesy of April Grace Mercado.

The United Methodist Communications team saw this graffiti written on the steel gate of a drugstore along Avenidas Veteranos in downtown Tacloban while recording GPS coordinates.

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By April Grace Mercado
December 18, 2013

Amid the destruction of Typhoon Yolanda and the heartbreaking stories of suffering and hardship, I’ve seen the human spirit spring forth, ready to provide aid and relief in all forms.

I was part of a four-person United Methodist Communications team sent to the disaster area, along with hundreds of relief workers, after the Nov. 8 typhoon. My team focused on providing communications relief to the Visayas region, particularly in hard-hit Tacloban and neighboring towns.

The destruction shown on the news pales in comparison to what you see with your eyes on the ground. I experienced a paroxysm of emotions and realized that being on the ground was more emotionally exhausting than it was physically draining. I wondered how I would feel if I lost my entire family and home and had nothing to eat, all at the same time. Even as I share in the grief of the survivors, I know I will never fully understand what they’re going through because I have never been in such a situation. It’s hard to make sense of the seemingly endless destruction and destitution.

As my team visited the area, many of us prayed for those affected. We prayed that happiness will replace their sorrow, that laughter will replace their cries and that rejoicing will replace their mourning.

The locals have blessed me because they do not forget to smile, despite the ruins. They have blessed me with their overflowing gratitude for the help they have received, and most importantly, they have blessed me through their ability to spring back and emerge from this tragedy transformed.

Equalizer

For my partners and me, keeping our composure and pretending not to be affected by what we saw at ground zero was hard. We were in full survival mode. For days, I kept telling myself to stay focused on what needed to be done.

In Tacloban, the disparity between the rich and the poor was so great that many locals called the calamity an equalizer. Not even the rich were spared.

As my team went through debris-cluttered streets, using the Open Street Map app to locate city hall, we heard people shouting at us and pointing at a maze of rubble. “There’s a dead body here, there’s a dead body here!”

It broke my heart to ignore their pleas when all I wanted to do was assure them that everything would be all right. But I had to press on.

Lost in thought, I wondered if the people really knew what a storm surge was before the typhoon hit. Would it have made a difference if the local weather bureau and the government had warned of a tidal wave or tsunami instead? According to survivor accounts, the surge was as high as coconut trees, and many people held on to tree leaves for hours to survive the sweeping currents.

We could have prevented much loss of life if information had been disseminated properly to the public. That might have saved all the senior citizens and children who perished while taking refuge in the basement of the Leyte Coliseum.

Communication struggles

Days after Yolanda — also known as Typhoon Haiyan —wreaked havoc in Central Philippines, communications were impossible because of widespread power outages and cellular tower destruction. It has been a painstaking task to get communications and stories out of the devastated areas so that help can start coming in. Satellite phones were rendered useless during the storm and for two days afterward because of thick clouds overhead.

On the week that we arrived, local network providers had restored cellular and data connectivity in the heart of Tacloban and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster had installed its portable and inflatable VSat, providing Internet connections for relief organizations.

To help get vital information and stories in and out of the region, our team provided services to other non-governmental organizations and agencies, setting up a wireless link from the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster for the Save the Children headquarters and providing the United Methodist Committee on Relief with tools and training on the use of the OSM app and satellite phone. We also help connect local media like FEBC-First Response Radio, Solar News TV, ABS-CBN-DZMM and DZRH-Bombo to international organizations such as Internews and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

As we work together to bring short- and long-term communications relief, I realize this is one of the finest examples of our human capacity to love others, especially those in need.

United in times of adversity

While my team worked in Tanauan, a town about 18 kilometers outside Tacloban, I had the opportunity to shake the hands of two American volunteers who were in charge of the aid drop in town. I thanked them on behalf of all Filipinos for their time and effort because every minute spent helping the displaced meant time away from their families. They said it was “an honor to serve the Filipino people.” I could not have expected a more touching reply. They are living testaments of the fact that adversity brings out the best in people.

I have met and worked with many foreign aid workers from different cultures. I am in awe to be in the company of volunteers who have gathered with different responsibilities but one purpose: to help. I will never be in any place but total gratitude to all the nations, organizations, private companies, institutions and individuals that extended a helping hand.

“With the outpouring of pledges and donations, this calamity has become a blessing to everyone,” said Bishop Ciriaco Francisco, who leads The United Methodist Church’s Davao Episcopal Area.

While the outpouring of relief can help, it cannot replace the loss the survivors have suffered. There is no magic pill to make their pain go away. I am sure that we all feel hopeless and powerless against the enormity of what needs to be done in terms of rebuilding and rehabilitation. If we could only make it happen overnight, we would.

But many of us believe that if we combine all our efforts, we might help those affected get back on their feet sooner than expected.

Commitment

As the emergency phase winds down, we can start improving communications within our church walls and have an impact on communities in need. Communications will play an important role in the long rehabilitation process, and United Methodist Communications is committed to being part of that work.

After all, the church exists not to serve itself but to serve the world.

*Mercado is the United Methodist Communications field representative in the Philippines. For more information about this article, contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 ornewsdesk@umcom.org.