More than 100,000 Latter-day Saints in the Philippines have been left reeling from a pair of natural disasters that have devastated major sections of their populous island nation.
First, on Oct. 15, a 7.2-magnitude quake rattled the island of Bohol, claiming some 200 lives and destroying or severely damaging the homes of dozens of members. (See Nov. 10, 2013, Church News.)
That catastrophe, sadly, would precede a far more deadly and destructive act of nature.
On Nov. 8, Typhoon Haiyan struck the eastern Philippines, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more. Hit especially hard was the city of Tacloban on Leyte island, where driving rain and winds topping 200 mph turned a community of 220,000 people into a watery wasteland.
The Associated Press reported that Haiyan reduced Tacloban to a tangled mess of destroyed houses, cars and trees. Meanwhile, hungry residents quickly stripped area malls and shops of food and water.
The Church is prolific across the Philippine islands, with more than 660,000 members. Many Latter-day Saints are numbered among Haiyan’s victims. At press time, it was still unknown if members were among those killed or injured in what is being called one of the strongest storms in recorded history. Church officials were also working to collect information on damage to member homes and meetinghouses.
More than 10,000 members and 4,000 others sought refuge in some 200 LDS meetinghouses, according to a Church welfare report.
All missionaries across the country are safe and accounted for. The storm all but wiped out communication in the greater Tacloban region. It took several days for the Philippines Area office to make contact with all the missionaries in the Tacloban Philippines Mission.
Missionaries across the affected region were given advanced warning of the encroaching typhoon, allowing them to move to secure areas, including many Church buildings. Prior to the storm, each missionary had also been provided a 72-hour emergency kit filled with food and other provisions.
After accounting for all missionaries serving in the disaster zone in the Philippines, local leaders have turned their focus to assessing the needs of the members in the country, said Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Seventy and president of the Church’s Philippines Area.
“All Internet, all power, all cell phone was down and, at this very moment, is still down,” he told the Church News Wednesday morning, Philippines time. “There is no communication coming out of that area. We still have extreme difficultly in getting anything in that area.”
He said after the storm local leaders immediately contacted the mission presidents. Four missions were badly affected – the Tacloban, Cebu East, Bacolod and Iloilo missions. Because of problems communicating they sent someone to find the missionaries that were all accounted for by Monday, Nov. 11. Elder Nielson said miracle after miracle happened as Church leaders worked to locate and evacuate the missionaries — which had all arrived in Manila by Thursday, Nov. 14.
“It was a horrific storm,” he said. “These missionaries have seen terrible, terrible things.” The missionaries have been treated by a medical doctor and have had a mental health adviser evaluate their emotional needs. Church leaders are now turning their focus to the Latter-day Saints in the disaster zone who are still in Tacloban and have “no water, no place to stay, no power, no utilities.”
“We are very concerned about them,” Elder Nielson said, noting that they have not been evacuated. “It is very difficult.”
Limited transportation and communication have undermined relief efforts. Debris and downed power lines blocked roads. Water and power systems were destroyed or severely damaged.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Church provided food, water, shelter and other supplies to displaced families. Other Church-organized relief efforts were underway to offer additional support to affected members and their neighbors. In addition, the Church was coordinating relief efforts with government and other humanitarian organizations.
Delivering relief to the Philippines is expected to be a massive effort involving dozens of nations and private organizations such as the Church. On Nov. 12, the United Nations appealed for more than $300 million to help victims. The international organization estimated that Typhoon Haiyan had displaced 660,000 people.
Bruce Muir, director of Church Emergency Response, said Church leaders are still assessing needs. In coming days, local leaders will buy supplies in Manila, Philippines, or other Asian countries, and ship them into the disaster zone. “We will do whatever we need to do,” he said, and added that some 116,000 members from at least 42 stakes and districts have been impacted by the disaster. “We know that the place is devastated,” he said, noting that everyone is working hard to evaluate the status and needs of members and others. “There are still a lot of question marks. Transportation is difficult. Communication is down.”
News of the typhoon prompted members worldwide to pray for their fellow members, missionaries and all the people of the Philippines. Many in the Church have ties to the islands.
Love, Cncern for Filipino members
For four years, Elder Ben B. Banks, an emeritus Seventy, called the Philippines his home while serving in the Philippines Area Presidency. He would leave the island nation with a deep love for the Filipino people and their rich culture.
Elder Banks’ thoughts have returned to his friends in the Philippines as he’s followed the news reports of deadly Typhoon Haiyan.
“It has just been gut-wrenching to watch,” he told the Church News.
In the mid-1990’s, Elder Banks was called to be a counselor in the Philippines/Micronesia Area Presidency. He was later assigned to preside over the area.
He would spend his assignment visiting almost every corner of the sprawling island nation. At each stake conference, mission tour or priesthood leadership training he was inspired by the faith and devotion of the Filipino members.
“They are a beautiful, sweet people who are humble and dedicated to the gospel,” he said.
The Philippines are a natural home for the restored Church, he added. “People there are willing to talk about religion — they are a church-going people.”
Elder Banks added that some of the most sacred doctrinal talks that he has heard in his decades of Church service have come from the pulpits of Filipino meetinghouses.
The Filipino members also possess a deep love for their families and cherish their trips to the temple, he added. Many sacrifice almost all they have to claim their temple blessings.
While saddened by the staggering death and destruction in the Philippines, Elder Banks said he finds comfort knowing the Filipino members are looking out for one another. The country is vulnerable to several types of natural disasters including volcano eruptions, earthquakes and, of course, typhoons. He has witnessed, first-hand, the capacity of the Filipino members during troubled times.
The local priesthood and Relief Society leaders, he said, “are absolutely fantastic.”