Rebuilding lives in the wake of Super-typhoon Haiyan

Since joining the board of Catholic Relief Services two years ago I have made three visits to various CRS project sites around the world.  It has been an extraordinary blessing to witness the good work being done worldwide on behalf of Catholics in the United States.  While many noble efforts are carried out in the name of individual Catholics and local communities, CRS is the official humanitarian development and relief agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

My visit in early February to the Philippines was the first time I had seen CRS in action in one of its signature program areas, emergency response.  This visit came in the wake of the November Super-typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda, as it is called locally.  Three months after the devastating storm raked across the island nation, I participated in a delegation that included, among others, Dr. Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of CRS, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB.  Our delegation spent time with local CRS staff, local Church officials and international Caritas partners who have been on the frontlines of the disaster response in Tacloban and Palo on the island of Leyte, where we spent a considerable portion of our time. 

Since Catholic Relief Services was already on the ground in the Philippines at the time the storm struck in November, the CRS response was swift.  In spite of the logistical nightmare, CRS started distribution of emergency services within a week of the disaster.  Within two months of the storm, nearly 45,000 households had been served.  The relief operation will reach 60,000 households with emergency shelter, water, sanitation and basic household items.  That is just the beginning.

At this time, the CRS response is transitioning from relief to recovery activities targeting 20,000 households for transitional shelters and another 15,000 to assist with recovery of their livelihoods.  Vast areas of coconut farmland and thousands of fishing boats were destroyed by the storm.  The local economy has been severely disrupted.  Thousands of transitional shelters are being constructed from abundant downed coconut palm lumber, cut by hand with chainsaws and covered with metal roofing.  These efforts are making very suitable housing available for large numbers of families.

The whole experience was a bit overwhelming.  Among the lasting impressions that my visit to the Philippines have left me with is the amazing faith of the Filipino people.  I have never visited a country where the Catholic faith is so evident and the faithful so fervent, even in the face of such devastation and hardship.  As we visited cities and villages people were always ready with a smile; always eager to request a blessing.  In a country in which the Catholic faith is such an integral part of the fabric of the culture, the response to humanitarian needs tells only a part of the story.   The church infrastructure has also been devastated.  In the Archdiocese of Palo, which was among the hardest hit areas, 90 percent of church buildings were damaged or completely destroyed.  Sacred Heart Cathedral, which had recently been renovated in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the archdiocese, was heavily damaged.  It lost its roof and we celebrated Mass one evening in a transept of the devastated church with starlight as our only ceiling. 

Obviously there is much work remaining to be done.  I was deeply impressed by the dedication of the national and international CRS staff on hand to facilitate this long-term recovery.  For the last three months many staff members have been housed in the local archdiocesan chancery in Palo where they sleep in tents and labor selflessly with tremendous skill and professional competence.  I am very proud of our CRS staff, and of the tremendous financial support that has been directed to CRS and the USCCB to assist with disaster relief and recovery.  While CRS is mandated to assist with the humanitarian efforts, the USCCB is able to dedicate a significant portion of a national collection for Haiyan to help rebuild the churches that have been damaged and destroyed. 

Little by little life will return to normal.  They will rebuild, even after such devastating losses.  Their faith is their greatest resource.  Please keep the victims of this disaster in your prayers along with those who generously give and labor to assist them. 

Archbishop Coakley was elected to the CRS Board of Directors in November 2011. He was appointed Chairman of the Board in November 2013.

This devastating typhoon brought the highest sustained winds of any storm ever to make landfall anywhere on earth.  In addition to 200 mile per hour winds, Haiyan brought a devastating 10-foot storm surge that inflicted unimaginable damage over a vast swath of land across the mid-section of the Philippines.  As a result, 4 million persons have been displaced and more than 1.1 million homes damaged.  In total, it is estimated that the storm affected 14 million people and resulted in more than 6,000 deaths with more than 1,700 still missing and presumed dead.  Thousands of families lost their livelihoods.  The damage to infrastructure will take years to rebuild.