Bangon Visayas - Relief Work in the Philippines

Today Andrew shares about his experiences working with Samaritan's Purse on their disaster response team in the Philippines in the days immediately following Typhoon Haiyan. As I read it, I was amazed by the destruction he saw and the resilience of the Filipino people. For continued updates on Samaritan's Purse's work in the Philippines, visit their website.  Also, if you'd like to read his previous updates from the Philippines, you can read them here and here. Enjoy! - whitney

bangon bantayan philippines typhoon haiyan samaritan's purse

The word "bangon" means rise up in the Visayan language. The Visayas are a region in the Philippines that were devastated by the recent Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda, as the locals call it. I just returned from the Visayas after spending ten long days working with Samaritan's Purse on their disaster response team (DART).

On November 8, Whitney and I were in Phnom Penh, eating Mexican food, when I found out that I was officially given a spot on the DART team with Samaritan's Purse (SP). My plane ticket was booked for the following morning. As I packed my bags, I started thinking through different scenarios. It's always hard to know the exact situation that you'll find entering into an area right after a disaster.

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Surveying the damage on Bantayan Island with the SP team

My role as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) specialist meant I needed to know how to get people clean water as quickly as possible. I have been working as a WASH program manager in Cambodia for over two years, but this was different than anything I've done before. In Cambodia, we mainly work with household water treatment and small-scale water systems in rural areas. The typhoon, however, had left a path of destruction throughout cities and everything else in its path. I started thinking about the larger community-sized water treatment options available. SP has used these kinds of systems before in another places like Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. But I still had not seen one in real life. So, I started reading through the instruction manuals and reviewing all of the technical information I could get my hands on.

bangon bantayan philippines typhoon haiyan samaritan's purse

The next morning I left to go to the airport with my boss Patrick. We were the first ones from SP to land in the Philippines. We arrived in Manila Saturday night and met up with the rest of our team the next day. On Sunday morning, we went to a meeting at the United Nations office. There were over 50 other organizations represented at the meeting. We didn't yet know the level of destruction that would be found, but we all knew that it was enormous.

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Military presence over Bantayan Island

The next morning our team flew down to Cebu City where we were planning to set up our base office. I was originally supposed to fly to Tacloban City, but that flight was canceled because they were only allowing military flights at the time. I was a little disappointed that I could not get there because I heard that it was the neediest, but at the same time relieved because of all the reports of violence and looting.

So after flying to Cebu, we drove up north to the city called Bogo. We could see many houses were damaged in Bogo, and many people who lost their homes were living in evacuation centers or crammed into remaining family members' homes. It's really interesting to being able to speak English with others in a foreign country - something I was not used to in Cambodia. It helped me connect with people a lot faster and quickly feel connected emotionally.

Although we were only planning to do an assessment that day, we felt so bad for these people and their needs that we stayed late and went to a nearby store to purchase plastic tarps for them to use as temporary shelter. 

That day there was some fear that another typhoon was going to hit. Fortunately the next storm that was picked up on the radar did not come directly into our path and ended up only leaving a small amount of rain. 

The next day we prepared for our first distribution to people on Bantayan Island (see link for a map).  This was an area where the eye of the typhoon had directly hit and was one of the most devastated areas. Many of the people on this island were fisherman, and all their boats had been destroyed. They had very few resources left. As I went around the island doing my initial assessment, I found the people were able to find water in wells that were on the island. I encouraged them to boil the water before drinking to avoid diseases.

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Distribution by SP and local churches of food and hygiene kits

Then we started providing food and hygiene kits to an initial 3,000 families. That may not seem like very many, considering there were hundreds of thousands affected, but it took three semi-trucks to transport all these materials. We distributed the relief kits through local churches so that they would be able to participate in the work as much as possible. While in the churches, I saw thousands of people who were very thankful for the donations. At the same time, it caused quite a stir in the village, and thousands more came and gathered outside the church expecting to receive something. When we had finished for the day, we had to sneak out the back of the building to avoid the crowds that had gathered. Fortunately there were no riots, and everyone stayed calm.

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People waiting in line for their kits

I was happy to see people get some help but sad to see others who were still left waiting. Later that week we started to prepare for our next distribution. We also started to see many more organizations coming to provide relief. 

A few days later, I went to smaller islands a few hours from Bantayan Island which were also severely affected. One was called Kinatarken Island. I was amazed to see how many people were living there - over 8,000 people. They were really struggling to get enough water because their power lines were all down and did not yet have a generator to run the one well pump that served 4,000 people there.

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On my way to smaller islands via boat

It was difficult getting to the island because there was only small motor boats that would go back-and-forth every day. The journey to the island took about two hours - a significant amount of time when you are trying to reach multiple places as quickly as possible.

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A smiling boy & testing well water on the islands

The next day I started working on a plan for how to help them but realized I was getting very sick. I had started to develop a severe rash all over my legs and one of my arms, and it was becoming so itchy that I had to find a doctor. I ended up heading back to Cebu City so I could go to the hospital and get some medicine. 

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No matter what, kids never stop smiling

I was so thankful for one of the guys at the church named Dave who helped me find the hospital. Within a couple hours, I had finished a blood test and picked up medicine from the pharmacy. We were never sure exactly what caused the rash, but Benadryl, sleep, and being home with Whitney seemed to make it go away quickly.

The day before I left, SP sent a team to Tacloban where the majority of the deaths and injuries were. I'm praying for their wounds to heal through medicine and the love of God and for all those who lost their homes and are struggling to rebuild their lives.

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Unloading supplies at dusk

You can follow him on Instagram at @aconard09 for photos of life in Cambodia.