by Jill Ragar Esfeld
TOPEKA — “I wouldn’t say I knew what needed to be done; I would say I knew to be patient.”
When disaster struck his homeland in the Philippines a month ago, Ping Enriquez, a parishioner of Christ the King in Topeka, knew from experience that it would take some time before it would be clear how he could best help recovery efforts.
After all, he has been involved with multiple disaster relief efforts there — since, in fact, he volunteered to help with earthquake recovery at the age of 13.
“There’s always a knee-jerk reaction at first,” he said. “It takes patience to sit back and see what needs are being met, and what needs are not being met.”
Meeting the greatest need
Enriquez, who was born in Manila, moved to Topeka almost 40 years ago. But he’s stayed connected to the area as owner of Ad Veritas Construction Company, which does much of its work in Asian Pacific nations.
He was there in October when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit, killing nearly 1,000 people. When the typhoon struck a few weeks later, Enriquez said, “It was probably the worst thing that could have happened.”
Back in Topeka at the time, he was fortunate to have a close friend in the Philippines he trusted to evaluate the situation.
“One of our roofing contractors, Ray Lamdagan, lives where the earthquake struck,” he said. “One of the things I told him on my way back to Topeka is: ‘You need to be my boots on the ground. You’ve got to let me know how we can help.’”
After aid poured into the islands and Lamdagan saw that nutritional and medical supplies were becoming accessible, he contacted Enriquez with the one great need that was not being met — personal privacy.
“Ray and I decided if we could develop temporary toilet/bathing stations with septic tanks,” said Enriquez, “we could provide a little bit of dignity for people going to the bathroom and taking showers in privacy.”
On a business trip in California, Enriquez met a generous couple that handed him a $5,000 check and said, “Do what you need to do.”
With that seed money, he opened an account at the Educational Credit Union in Topeka, and people began dropping off checks.
“As of yesterday,” said Enriquez, “we’ve raised over $10,000, which basically will fund materials for two restroom/bathing stations.
“I just wired the money to Ray so he can start purchasing materials for the first station.”
Lamdagan is donating all the labor and hopes to have the first station built before Christmas.
Another kind of patience
Patience was also the course of action taken by Teresa Arnold when she heard about Typhoon Haiyan — but it wasn’t the course she wanted to take.
A parishioner of St. Thomas More Church in Kansas City, Mo., Arnold is from Tacloban, the area hardest hit by the storm.
When the typhoon hit, she lost all communication with her family. All she could do was wait . . . and pray.
“Then, suddenly, one of my sisters finally got a hold of us through text,” she said. “And that is when she told us everyone is OK, except my brother’s wife was missing.”
After giving an account of the family, Arnold’s sister told her they were in desperate need of water and food.
“They were telling people to go to the airport to get water and food,” said Arnold.
“But she was afraid she wouldn’t make it, because it’s a four-hour walk.”
There were other problems. Arnold’s sister was recovering from tuberculosis.
Her medication had been washed away with the storm, and the family was concerned she would have a relapse.
Looting was also now out of control, and the family feared if they left their home, looters would take what little they had left.
“But my brother had to leave so he could search for his wife,” said Arnold. “My brother walked days and days and just kept looking.”
Survivors searching for loved ones described horrendous conditions.
“There was a dead body floating beside a dead body, beside a dead animal,” said Arnold.
Survivors didn’t have the strength or energy to move the bodies. They just checked for familiar faces and moved on.
The stench of death was unbearable. Because the threat of a cholera epidemic was so great, the government began preparing to bulldoze trenches for mass graves.
“My family was, like, ‘No, they can’t do that. We haven’t found my sister-in-law yet!’” said Arnold. “It isn’t humane to just use a bulldozer and just put them in the trench.”
At the time the typhoon struck, Arnold’s sister-in-law had been away visiting family.
Knowing the storm was coming, her brother had encouraged the trip because he thought she would be safe — her relatives lived on higher ground.
But the wind and waves grew treacherous and her family’s house was washed away.
“She ended up running with her relatives,” said Arnold. “When the water was up to their necks, they got separated.”
Arnold’s sister-in-law clung to a plastic tub and floated until she got to a point where she could walk again. Eventually she found a Red Cross station.
“She didn’t know what to do,” said Arnold. “There was no transportation; she didn’t have any money.”
She decided to stay at the station where she would be safe and to pray her husband would find her.
She made the right choice, said Arnold. After walking for a week, her brother finally found his wife.
“And actually now, they are never separated,” she added.
Medication also reached her sister to continue her tuberculosis treatment.
“You know when you pray,” said Arnold, “something happens.”
With her family accounted for, Arnold has turned her efforts toward collecting food, clothing and toiletries for the disaster survivors.
“Right now, they’re telling me it is too dangerous to send it there,” she said. “It might make it to Manila, but it won’t make it to Tacloban.”
Authorities are saying by March the airport and some of the roads should be repaired.
“Hopefully, by the first week in March, I will be able to ship this out,” said Arnold.
“Typhoons are very common in the Philippines,” said Jonathan Dizon, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas who is native to the islands. “We normally get 15-25 every year, each with varying strengths.”
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration releases tropical cyclone warnings in the form of Public Storm Warning Signals.
“The one that hit Tacloban would have been classified as Typhoon Signal #4,” said Dizon. “While I was still there, the strongest typhoon that I experienced was Signal #3.”
Depending on signal strength, Dixon said school and work may be canceled as heavy rains tend to flood the streets very quickly.
“During a typhoon,” he said, “families tend to just stay home, much like in a snow storm.
“Some areas are easily flooded — there’s a chance of prolonged power outage and the strong winds can bring down trees, power lines and other weak structures.”
The Philippines is a Third World country, and most of its people are too poor to afford homes built to withstand such storms.
“One of the beautiful things to watch after a storm is how a community comes together to help clean up the debris and see which families need help,” said Dizon.
Arnold’s family has slowly begun that cleanup process, but she said they tell her the task is overwhelming and the smell is “just unbearable.”
“The mud in the houses is a foot thick,” she explained. “My sister said they have to scrape it, wash, scrape and then rest.
“The next day they do it again.”
Hanging on through faith
One of the greatest tragedies left in the wake of Haiyan is the destruction of ancient Catholic churches that were the foundation of the country’s faith heritage.
“Those early churches that the Spaniards — the Franciscans and the Jesuits — built; they’re all gone,” said Enriquez. “Churches that are 250 years old — they’re gone.”
And yet the people’s faith has persevered.
“The faith of the people carries them through the day-to-day challenges,” he said.
“They still have Masses outdoors — they may be under a bridge or under a tree — but they have Masses every day.
“And they have novenas to every saint you could imagine. They celebrate their Catholic faith. That’s what buoys the whole country.”
“The strength of the Catholic faith in the Philippines is the reason the country is so resilient in the face of natural disasters,” he said. “We trust in God’s power to deliver us from mortal danger — and also trust in his providence in the event that we lose everything we own.”
When lives are lost, Dixon said, the deep faith of the Filipino culture helps them grieve because they believe in the abundant mercy of God.
Through that same faith, they accept natural disasters as part of their collective life as a community and as a country.
“The destructive power of nature allows us to see firsthand the might of God,” he said. “Because of our faith, we see that God is still Lord over all these calamities.
“His true power is found in his love made manifest through charity.”