Typhoon victims wait in line for free rice at a businessman's warehouse in Tacloban, Philippines, which was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan. Aid agencies faced challenges getting food and water to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos affected by the storm. CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters

Canadians join rush to aid devastated Philippines

By 
  • November 12, 2013

Updated 11/12/13

TORONTO - As pictures and reports of the devastation in Tacloban City, Philippines, reached the world’s newspapers and computer screens Nov. 9, Toronto Filipinos were attending the Saturday 5 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

As he presided, Fr. Bienvenudo Ebcas had no idea what had happened to his two brothers, Pedro Gaudiamo and Romel. His sister Cleofe had told him how their 83-year-old mother, Ursula, was still trembling after witnessing the roof of their home in Oro City torn off by high winds.

Mass ended, but nobody in the 90-per-cent Filipino parish was leaving.

“In silence we brought out our Philippine flag, then we sang our Philippine national anthem,” Ebcas told The Catholic Register. “I couldn’t sing any more. Everybody was crying.”

There are 11 million Filipinos affected by the strongest winds ever to hit landfall. An estimated 673,000 have lost their homes. As of Nov. 12, The Register's press deadline, there were an estimated 2,500 dead, but many of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines have not been reached and the fate of rural communities remains unknown. Further complicating matters was threat of further storms.

Canada’s response to the crisis built day-by-day. On Nov. 8 the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development pledged $30,000 for emergency response. On Nov. 9 that number jumped to $5 million. On Nov. 11 Development Minister Christian Paradis announced a matching fund which, in addition to the $5 million already pledged, would double Canadian charitable donations made before Dec. 9. As of Nov. 12 Canadian Forces had dispatched the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) to help with the most acute needs.
Internationally the United Nations launched an appeal for $301 million.

By Sunday parishioners at Assumption were bringing clothes and other supplies to the parish and volunteers were sorting and packing them. At 11 p.m. Ebcas returned to his room from the sorting effort to see a message on his computer screen about his brothers. They had survived.

Not all of Ebcas’ parishioners have been so fortunate. Some have been unable to get news about their relatives.

Some have learned that family members are dead.

The parish has organized volunteer amateur radio enthusiasts and Facebook users to help Toronto Filipinos re-establish contact with family back home.

“What they do is use Facebook, and then (message on) Facebook people who are amateur radio users, who will contact their friends from different towns and then relay the news to the ones who have a Facebook page and then relay it to Canada,” explained Ebcas.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has stepped up with an initial contribution of $100,000, which will be combined with similar contributions from other Caritas-affiliated organizations in Europe and the United States.

Development and Peace is warning people not to send used clothes or canned food, which could take months to arrive.

“Every single time we tell the people, they don’t need your old coat, your old winter dress. What the people need is your cash, your financial contribution,” said Development and Peace Asia program officer Jess Agustin. “We need to respect the local people, because they are the ones who are responding to the situation and they know what the people need.”

The need for cash won’t be short term, either, Agustin said. The level of devastation in parts of the Philippines is comparable to the destruction left by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, he said. Years of reconstruction lie ahead.

“In fact, that’s the strength of Development and Peace. In the immediate, emergency situation in fact it’s the local people who actually provide help. They know the needs of the people. All we need to do is send them financial support to buy relief goods.”

Development and Peace is already talking about long-term reconstruction and development strategies, building on its experience with five years of reconstruction in Indonesia and East Timor following the 2004 tsunami.

Development and Peace has for years supported land reform and agricultural projects in the Visayas region of the Philippines. Much of the progress may now be in danger. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims more than one million farmers and hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice have been hit by the typhoon. Progress the country has made in recent years toward self-sufficiency in rice has been set back.

As news filters back from its partners in the Philippines, Agustin is learning about communities hit by Typhoon Haiyan who are extending aid to worse hit communities. Bohol, which was rocked by a 7.23 magnitude earthquake on Oct. 15, is sending aid and personnel to the Eastern Visayas Region, worst hit by the storm.

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