Letter from the Philippines: Communications vital to survival and recovery

December 05, 2013

April Grace G. Mercado is a United Methodist Communications field representative in the Philippines. She is part of a team that has been on the ground in the storm-ravaged islands assessing how to help reconnect the nation’s communications. She sent this update Dec. 3 to help fellow United Methodists understand the enormity of the task ahead and how vital its success is to the future for the Philippines.

TACLOBAN, Philippines (UMNS)

We arrived in Tacloban on Nov. 19, more than 10 days after Typhoon Yolanda hit. 

Tacloban is the capital of Leyte province. Surrounded by water, it sustained storm surges of up to 5 meters from the typhoon, known outside the Philippines as Haiyan. The storm caused at least 6,000 deaths and an estimated $2 billion in property damage.

The Philippines archipelago sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire and the typhoon belt, which spawns about 80 typhoons each year. A quarter of those strike the Philippines area, but none has been more devastating than Yolanda.

The typhoon destroyed most communications antennas and towers, knocked out local radio and television networks and disrupted satellite feeds. Local government leaders, dealing with the impact of the storm on their own lives, were unable to take charge and communicate.

United Methodist Communications recognized the need for communications relief. The agency worked with one if its partners, Inveneo, a technology company specializing in communications for development, to send a team into the affected area. I helped lead the team as United Methodist Communications’ point person on the ground.

Major road blockages impeded relief, resulting in looting in downtown Tacloban during the first five days after the storm. Many people evacuated to Manila and Cebu, living in makeshift houses and tents if they had nowhere else to go, until government agencies took action.

Twelve United Methodist churches were directly affected by the storm. The churches are among 201 in the denomination’s Davao Episcopal Area. Many are on islands throughout the Visayas and Mindanao, which makes traveling in the episcopal area challenging.

For at least five days after the storm, the bishop’s office was unable to contact two clergy members in the Tacloban area and the district superintendent in Baybay, but all were safe, and no clergy members were killed in the typhoon. With no other means of communicating except mobile phones, the bishop’s office relied on witness accounts and word of mouth to learn about the status of people affected by the storm.

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