Rickson Yesar lays block for a new house on Jinamoc Island, an island near Tacloban, Leyete, Oct. 22. Hundreds of thousands of survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the central Philippines Nov. 8, 2013, continue to live in tent camps or substandard h ousing, waiting for the construction of new homes. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

Filipinos continue to mourn loss of family, homes a year after typhoon

By  Simone Orendain, Catholic News Service
  • November 10, 2014

TACLOBAN, Philippines - The sun was fierce over the field of dried grass and clumps of earth marked with 3,000 small white crosses. Priests in white vestments walked along the rows of graves, sprinkling streams of holy water from plastic bottles.

The blessing was part of the Catholic community's remembrance of the thousands who lost their lives in and around this city of 224,000 in the central Philippines, one year after their lives were ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan.

More than 7,300 people died or went missing. More than 1 million people were left homeless and jobless. A year later, people harbor a deep sense of loss.

A Mass Nov. 8 -- the one-year anniversary of the storm -- commemorated the dead and served to offer survivors a sense of hope.

Rosedel Vilarma, 36, was among those at the Mass. She told Catholic News Service she was trying to come to terms with her younger brother's death and that his children, ages 1 and 4, went missing during the storm.

"I just prayed that hopefully he was forgiven for his sins and the Lord has now accepted him. I also prayed we would find my niece and nephew," Vilarma said.

In Palo, a few miles south of Tacloban, another mass gravesite was being prepared for a blessing. Days after Haiyan did its damage, the archdiocese's cathedral, which lost its roof, was a burial site for hundreds of victims, some of them entire families of multiple generations.

Inside the Palo's Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Mass-goers filled pews under a web of scaffolding as the roof replacement project, now 10 months long, continued.

Archbishop John Du of Palo tried to rally the faithful during his homily.

"We have been destroyed, but look around," he said. "God has called us back. So many have died, but the hope of those who survived continues to give life."

He repeatedly urged the congregation to follow God, whom, he said, is "the way, the truth and the life."

At the cathedral's new memorial garden, Jonno Cuesta repeatedly traced his hand over one name on a stenciled grave marker: his father's.

"I'm still sad," Cuesta, 25, told CNS. "We still can't quite accept what happened to our papa."

Cuesta said that his father was a fisherman and an excellent swimmer and it was a shock to see his lifeless body after the storm surge inundated Palo's shore. What made it harder, he said, was that the rest of his own small family survived.

Father Isagani Petilos, rector of Santo Nino Church in Tacloban, said the church continues to minister to many who are struggling to accept the loss of family, home and job.

"By the homilies that we have, to continue our celebrations, these are avenues where people can once again pour out their questions to God," Father Petilos said.

He explained that addressing survivors' material needs -- decent shelter and a way to earn a living -- also played an important role in healing.

"Because they go together. Having no house would always remind them, 'Before we had these beautiful things. Before, even if our life was simple, we had our home with my family. Now my home is gone and also, my family is gone,'" he said.

The need for housing is the greatest challenge facing international aid one year after Haiyan. Philippine authorities recorded 1.1 million partially damaged or destroyed homes. Aid agency tents still serve as shelter in dozens of towns and rural communities.

Joe Curry, country director for Catholic Relief Services, estimated that about 95,000 displaced families continued to live in homes too weak to withstand another powerful disaster.

"That's a huge number of people to address," he said. "We at CRS have committed to building a total of 20,000 shelters to provide more long-term housing solutions for families and we just hope that the humanitarian community can address the balance."

Father Petilos said the government should use creative ways to acquire land so it can be used to develop permanent housing. And while the different agencies sort material needs, the religious community will continue to minister to the faithful, he said.

"We are not social workers. We are not social scientists. We're not psychologists. But for us, we provide the best remedy, the best relief. That is the faith in our Lord," he said.

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