A Report by Fr Pat O'Donoghue
Fr Pat O'Donoghue is the Regional Director of the Columbans in the Philippines. He visited Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan Ciy last week. He wrote this report on 8 January, the Solemnity of the Epiphany here in the Philippines.
I arrived in Cagayan de Oro in the early afternoon of Monday, 2 January. The signs of the calamity were visible from the air as we approached the airport, but the full extent of the damage hits you when you stand on the river bank or visit those places where whole neighborhoods were simply washed away.
The damage to the water system was such that most of Cagayan still did not have running water when I arrived. On the way from the airport we saw groups of people surrounding trucks or fire hydrants where water was being dispensed while others were coming and going with all kinds of water containers – the innovative spirit of people once more shining through the difficulties. Drinking water was also being dispensed at points set up by the Red Cross and others who had large water purifying machines. The lack of water leads to many difficulties one of which is the difficulty people have in doing any kind of cleaning up. Water was restored to the western side of Cagayan by Thursday, January 5, a big help.
Holy Rosary Parish, which is served by the Columbans, was affected but, when compared to other parts of Cagayan and Iligan, only relatively so. Fr Paul Finlayson estimates about 100 families are affected with about 30 homes destroyed. Food and other immediate necessities have been provided for these families. At a meeting on Tuesday, January 3, attended by most Columbans in Mindanao, it was agreed that we will continue to cooperate with the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro which are doing a very good job of coordinating the relief operations, without prejudice to the specific needs of the parish.
What is the more pressing need now is that of rehabilitation, which must include relocation for most of those affected. There is little point in rebuilding homes in those areas that could be hit again in the immediate future. Getting this right and utilizing all the help that has been promised by the Government, foreign governments, aid agencies and private individuals is both a priority and a challenge. In the meanwhile, there is a need for some kind of intermediate accommodation so that people can get back to some normality. We will continue to provide any further 'immediate' aid where it is seen to be genuinely needed.
The effort now is to get people out of the evacuation centers which are mostly schools and churches and into temporary accommodation. Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma SJ pastoral letter just before Christmas urged those who were not affected to 'adopt' a family and care for them not only during Christmas but also in the coming months until that family can go to a more permanent home. Of course, relatives are already doing this for their own families, but one of the fears that some people have is that if they leave the evacuation centers now they might lose their status as genuine claimants on the aid that is promised. There are a number of tent communities being set up also to give each family some way of being together.
There is a lot of pain not only for those directly affected but also for those who heard the cries of others for help and were unable to do anything. I’m not sure that time will heal all this, but certainly God can and the faith of many of these people is both challenging and humbling. One eight-year-old boy who lost his mother and two of his siblings had found a photo of her and would look at it and say, 'I will see you in Heaven, Mommy'.
There are the happy stories too: the child who was saved by riding on the back of a neighbor’s Labrador Retriever. The owners of the dog were not at home when the tragedy struck. Or my little friend Cedric, who is all of four years old, who clung to a floating refrigerator when he got separated from his parents. He was found by fishermen several miles away later that morning still astride the fridge.
There is much more that could be added to this, but I simply want to give you some snapshots of the situation as I experienced it. In truth it reduced me to silence, or more accurately perhaps, it called to silence. In so many ways it is overwhelming and yet people do what they can and many have sent help. At times I felt like an intruder, but as I listened to the stories and simply held a hand or embraced the person, I was glad I was there and privileged to be with such people.
I want to thank all those who have sent in money to our fund and to assure you that we will continue to monitor the situation in both Cagayan and Iligan so as to best use the money we have received. As I mentioned above, we see the greater need now to be that of rehabilitation and that is probably where we will use most of the money left in the fund and any that will get added to it. I hope that this is acceptable to all of you.
Finally, on this Feast of the Epiphany, may Jesus show His face to all those who are still suffering so terribly. May He also show His face to those who, by the help they send, the prayers they make or their work on the ground, have become that face of Christ for others.