Caritas Philippines leader calls typhoon devastation 'unimaginable'

Romeo Ranoco | Catholic News Service
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MANILA, Philippines -- The devastation brought on by Super Typhoon Haiyan is on a scale so big it is "unimaginable," said Jesuit Father Edwin Gariguez, head of Caritas in the Philippines.

"This is beyond our capacity," Father Gariguez told Catholic News Service by phone from Cebu province Nov. 13. "That's the reason why we have our Caritas network with us now."

The head of Caritas Philippines and his counterparts from the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the communications staff of Caritas Internationalis, were on their way to Leyte, one of the provinces that bore the brunt of Haiyan's first lashing on the central islands of the country. The plan was to appraise the needs on the ground and make contact with the various dioceses that have been affected.

Father Gariguez said the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services was doing the same kind of work ahead of a mid-November meeting with aid agencies and local parish priests to be hosted by Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu. When the typhoon hit Nov. 8, the CRS country representative to the Philippines, Joe Curry, was already in Bohol dealing with relief from the Oct. 15 earthquake.

With about 600,000 people displaced by the storm, the task of getting aid to Filipinos posed a challenge in terms of coordination and the logistics.

International aid began arriving the week of Nov. 10, while local relief began immediately after the typhoon hit.

But five days after the storm cut a path of damage that obliterated as many as 90 percent of the houses in some areas, there were still stories of people not receiving anything.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Nov. 13 he expected the death toll to be around 2,500 -- lower than initially predicted. That morning, the government put the death toll at 1,833; of those, 1,300 were in Leyte.

The same day, Rene Almendras, the president's Cabinet secretary, said all national roads leading to the island provinces of Leyte, Samar to the east and nearby Biliran were open and passable. Provincial bus service also was back online, and airports had been opened. At least two of those would be hubs for receiving relief goods.

Jesuit Brother James Lee, head of the Church That Serves the Nation, the social justice arm of the Philippine Jesuit province, said Nov. 12 that hungry Filipinos were blocking aid trucks, demanding food to let them pass. He said his organization's relief efforts would involve coordinating to make sure the food arrived safely at its destination.

Taking the massive need and the work to meet it into account, Father Gariguez said, "As a church this is part of our ministry ... we are doing this as part of our mission: to help the poor and the vulnerable. So we are really happy to be of help and to contribute whatever we can to ease the life of our people who are really very much burdened by this disaster."

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