MANILA, Philippines — Two weeks after Super Typhoon Haiyan laid waste much of central Philippines, the exodus from the worst-hit areas brought an influx of about 15,000 evacuees to Manila where lay Catholics have been responding to pressing needs.
Aulyn Loberanes and Mercy Candelaria are catechists-in-training. But on a recent Saturday at Villamor Air Base south of Manila, the two students from Stella Maris College in Quezon City were helping mothers with small babies.
"It's totally different because we … catechize little children," said Loberanes, a 19-year old senior. "Here we are helping change diapers for babies."
For Loberanes, even this seemingly small act was a way to carry out her desire to assist those in need.
"We're here because of what happened in Tacloban. It makes me so sad. We can't fully comprehend why that happened, but we just have to help these mothers and these people who lost their homes," she said.
The typhoon's wrath was felt particularly hard in Tacloban in the eastern province of Leyte, where a 15-foot storm surge slammed its coast, causing roof-high flooding and leaving thousands of dead in its wake. Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 5,200 people and more than 1,600 people remained missing, the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported Nov. 25.
The council has assisted more than 3.4 million people displaced by the storm.
The storm's powerful winds leveled entire communities and shattered the infrastructure in a wide area, causing power outages and disrupted communications. Roads were filled with debris for days, hampering relief operations and blocking aid from reaching many communities.
Survivors from Tacloban and other surrounding towns and provinces who made their way to the air base shared anguishing stories of how they lost everything. They described helplessly watching loved ones being swept away by the storm surge or desperately clinging to tree branches just out of reach of the raging waters. Many survivors said they ate rotting food and fruit from fallen trees to stave off hunger.
Loberanes marveled at the mothers' stories.
"We also help the parents, counseling them that they are still lucky to have their life, that they were able to save their own lives and also the lives of their children," she said. "It's been such a joy to counsel them."
Candelaria, 19, was focused on one thing before she entered the air base.
"My first thought was 'I'm going here, just for service, not for anything else,' just the call," she told Catholic News Service.
"This my first time to encounter this kind of service and I'm so glad. It's a great joy and honor to be here … in the field. You see the persons – those who survived – and you can help them, even in little ways," she said.
Aiding people in traumatic situations has been Froilan Maglaya's profession for nearly 20 years. A social worker with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, Maglaya had been working for 24 hours as the emergency coordinator on duty at the air base when he spoke with CNS.
"We see Christ in the images of the poor," said Maglaya, a member of the Philippine national council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. "Regardless of how challenging and how difficult to deal with them, if they yell at you, you just accept it. … Maybe they are angry because they are very stressed or in an unfortunate situation.
"Looking at the poor with Christ within them, we are more blessed. We are more empowered. We feel that Christ himself is challenging us and blessing us," he added.
Maglaya acknowledged that this philosophy fits perfectly with his profession. He joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in college and his volunteer work there led to a career in social service.
"You can really feel the love for the poor… especially for Filipinos. You know, there are a lot of opportunities going abroad, working for other countries but (I'm staying) here."
"Maybe it's God's will," he said.