A Catholic church in USA helps save a Filipino town

CANGUMBANG, Philippines — Making her way through the ruins of this flattened village on Monday, Michigan native Elsa Thomasma called out the names of parents and children who lived here before Haiyan hit.

The typhoon that smashed into the Philippines 10 days ago destroyed this village of farm workers, but no one died. The people say they survived because of Thomasma and the community center and storm shelter built with money donated by parishioners from her Holy Angels Catholic Church in Sturgis, Mich.

"We are all so grateful to Elsa, the shelter really saved lives," said Maila Lesterio, 22.

Many Americans and U.S. religious groups in the Philippines who help poor families and their children year-round were on the island province of Leyte when Haiyan struck. But only now have they been able to make it to some of the remote villages they serve.

Many of these remote spots have seen little aid despite an increase over the weekend of an international rescue and recovery mission.

U.S. helicopters were making continuous trips to the island to deliver food, water and emergency supplies from Navy ships anchored in the Leyte Gulf. Residents lined up for goods at distribution points that did not exist the first week after the storm hit Nov. 9.

Some gasoline stations on the island had opened. People were out repairing damaged homes or making temporary shelters out of the remains of their old ones.

However, up to 4 million people lost their homes and needed shelter, said the government. The storm killed close to 4,000 people, according to official statements, and left nearly 1,600 people missing.

Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla pledged Monday to restore power in all typhoon-battered regions by Christmas. But that would involve erecting 160 power transmission towers and thousands of electric posts toppled by Haiyan.

That hope seems an unlikely when whole villages lie in ruins, roads are clogged with debris and bodies are still being found and buried.

"The darkest night is over, but it's not yet 100%," regional military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda said Monday.

In Cangumbang, a town of 400 people 10 miles south of the devastated city of Talcloban, Thomasma was elated to find that the storm shelter her church helped erect worked well.

She raised $40,000 for a shelter that would allow villagers living in shanties to ride out the frequent typhoons here in greater safety. The shelter was on 12-foot concrete pillars, higher than the previous record flood.

Most people in Cangumbang had climbed the stairs into the center, which opened in the spring. Deaths were common here in previous typhoons, which strike the Philippines with regularity around 20 times a year.

But Haiyan was a monster, with sustained winds of 147 mph that pushed the ocean water into the island like a tsunami, smashing to pieces wooden and concrete structures, mowing down trees and drowning people who could not hang on.

One of those who was here was Colorado native Troy Peden, founder of Volunteer for the Visayans, a group that helps Filipino children attend school and families earn a living. Visayans are the majority ethnic group of the Philippines.

"We were built to step up for this," said Peden, 48, of his group as U.S. and Philippine helicopters thunder overhead.

Peden looked around for the people they've been helping for two decades in a village that looked like a war zone. Coconut trees were snapped in half; pieces of houses were scattered everywhere.

Peden said he went past the San Roce slum area of nearby Tanauan town, a place he has been too many times over the years.

"I don't recognize anything," he said. "Every landmark is gone and every home is leveled."

In Cangumbang, Lesterio said the winds began shortly before dawn as she cowered in the shelter with other families.

"It is just like the end of the world," she said. "The building was shaking, the roofing was starting to move, bricks were coming off and the children were already screaming."

Though the roof ripped off, all beneath it survived. Corazon Mabhin, 27, and her six children were the last family still living inside the roofless shelter, under tarpaulins to avoid the fierce tropical sun and frequent rain.

Thelma Loteyro, 40, did not make it to a shelter. She said her family had stayed afloat on a flood of seawater that rose to 20 feet in some places before they struggled into the third-floor window of a nearby building.

"In the first couple of days, I was terrified to think of coming out here," said Thomasma, 24, who spent the storm elsewhere on the island, away from the people who thank God for her presence.

Before the storm, Thomasma took Mabhin for hospital check-ups for her pregnancy. One of Mabhin's 2-month-old twin girls is named Elsa, after Thomasma.

"Elsa needs a rich husband as everyone needs her help," joked Mabhin, whose husband, a seasonal rice harvester, earns less than $500 a year.

Peden took about 80 people to his home in Tacloban the day of the storm. He moved his family ahead of the storm to nearby Samar island, then returned to Tacloban with food and medical supplies.

"He's a very good man, he helps the poor people here," Solidad Gapate said of Peden. "After the typhoon, I hope there will be more people like Troy."

Gapate, 62, runs a lodging for foreigners who volunteer in Tacloban. A Norwegian mother and her teenage daughter who were volunteers here had to swim for their lives after the typhoon filled her first floor, she said.

Filipinos said they hoped the terrible experience of the typhoon would not chase away American volunteers.

Peden didn't think so. Many children here are sponsored with donations from Americans, including the 16-year-old daughter of Loteyro. He said Americans like coming here to help because of the Philippines' use of English, a shared popular culture, and the hospitality of the Filipino people.

As he got ready to leave for another 10-hour round-trip shopping run for the people here, Peden called out the list of things he planned to get.

"Rice, vegetables, tarps, candles, infant milk powder for the twins," he said. "Ice cream?" he asked to laughter, as power to run a freezer is probably months away.


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