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Bishop John Arnold’s travel diary from the Philippines: DAY SIX

Friday 6th December

It is 4.30am, the rain has gone and it is already hot. At 5am I can just see a small boat one hundred yards off the beach, which turns out to be ours. We wade out to it for the short journey to the island of Hilantagaan.

Bishop John Arnold in the Philippines with CAFOD Day six

Bishop John Arnold in the Philippines with CAFOD Day six

This is clearly a poor community, devastated even further by the Typhoon. A main source of income and food is fishing. Of the 300 boats of the islanders, 48 were damaged and 4 destroyed. Of 847 houses on the island only seven are undamaged, with houses tilted on their sides, houses flattened completely and most roofs gone.

But what pride they have. It seems that the whole village is up and busy with a team of ladies, young and old, sweeping the road and the sandy beach. As far as possible, everything is meticulously clean and tidy and again the smiles and welcome are evident – all the more startling in the face of such ruin.

We met the Barangay, a young man voted into office just one month ago. His full-time job is to be the organiser, decision-maker and all-round boss of the community. This system works throughout the Philippines. In the cities a Barangay may just cover a few streets, but it means that there is some immediate, local structure and point of reference. Not an easy job since most Barangay Chiefs receive only an honorarium. This young man gave up a job in Cebu as a security guard and now he faces making the decisions for the survival of his community.

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We go to the local primary school, with no roofs and three classrooms completely destroyed. There are classes today under tarpaulin sheets for 825 shy, laughing Filipino children. Not too many discipline problems there! After all the poultry yesterday, I notice many cockerels in the village. Some are roaming free, some are tethered and some locked in very confining spaces. Are they for meat or trading ? No, for cockfighting. They are increasingly confined and limited so as to raise their frustration and make them more aggressive. It seems to me such a strange “sport” for such a gentle people. Yet it draws big crowds and betting is rife.

We leavethe island about 10am and begin the long journey home to London.

As we get ready to leave, I reflect on everything I have seen and the people I have met. There are four aspects I feel will stay with me most.

In the first place, I think that the sheer courage and resilience of the people made the trip quite unique. How could they remain so calm and grateful in the light of all that they had suffered and with all that now has to be done in recovery?

I have never been to a disaster area before, but this reaction struck me as quite wonderful. It made for a sense that the recovery will be full of hope and determination and will gather momentum. But I am left asking what quality allows them, as whole communities, to think in this way? How can they be like this – not just individuals but everyone we met without exception.

I come to the conclusion that it is a deep-rooted, and enviable, religious faith which invites a trust and a hope for the future. It was remarkable that such an emphasis was put on restoring the churches. I came to realise, in the various discussions, that the churches were not only vital meeting places but represented a focal point for people’s lives, both spiritually and socially. They represented well-being.

Secondly, there was the sense of collaboration among the various Caritas agencies that seemed to be a key value in the success of the relief work. The day-long meeting that I attended for the representatives of the nine affected dioceses, civic authorities and Caritas agencies demonstrated a sense of a united effort to meet the needs of the crisis, highlighting any duplication of effort and also making sure that no community is being left out in the relief work.

It represents a very effective response of the Church throughout the world and puts into effect the generous response of Catholic communities across the world, and their giving in time of a crisis. Throughout the five days we met with so many people from any number of Caritas agencies all working together. It spoke very clearly to me of a sense of the Gospel in action, something which Pope Francis continually urges.

The third aspect that will stay with me concerns the children. I was afraid that I would hear much about traumatised children and something of the lasting effects of their experience. I was very encouraged, therefore, to visit the school on Friday morning to find five hundred children laughing and playing and settled with determination into their studies, despite their school buildings being in ruins. What a friendly welcome they gave me. Their smiling shyness was so reassuring. Yes, I am sure that there will be some who will have nightmares because of what they witnessed but there does not seem to have been any collective and lasting trauma.

Finally, I found it curious that even at a little distance from such devastation, things just seemed to carry on as normal. Cebu City was busy about its own daily business, with shops, restaurants and hotels all full and the roads packed with traffic. Just up the road, almost I suppose within commuter distance, life had been drastically changed with loss of livelihoods and homes and, for some seven thousand people, the loss of life. There would be no question in my mind that the people who were not directly affected did not care, quite the opposite. But life has a way of going on. What is so important is that we should be made well aware of what is happening when such awful events occur and recognise that we have a role, and a responsibility, in helping the recovery.

As I come to a close with this diary of my trip to the Philippines, I am only too aware that there are more than four million Syrians facing dreadful hardship, as refugees, and that progress in alleviating their suffering is hampered because of the continuing violence and lack of security.

There are all too many other places in our world where there is so much to be done so that people may live in peace, with dignity, free from poverty. Are we doing anything like enough to help? Sadly not, despite some heroic efforts. That remains the challenge. It’s Francis’ challenge to us.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

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Bishop John Arnold’s travel diary from the Philippines: DAY FIVE

Thursday 5th December

Bishop John Arnold in the Philippines with CAFOD

Bishop John Arnold in the Philippines with CAFOD

True to form, we have another early start. The plan is to travel to see the north of Cebu Island and two other islands affected by the typhoon.

The journey out of Cebu city takes about 45 minutes, through very slow traffic. There is terrible gridlock here, particularly of course in the rush hours.

We drive about 100 miles north along the coast of Cebu island. For about sixty miles there is no sign of any storm, just one or two fallen trees but property seems undamaged. But it all becomes very evident very suddenly, almost as we come around a corner of the coast road.

Within just a couple of miles we know all too well that this is a disaster zone. All along the road are fallen trees, their trunks cut to free the traffic. In some meadows every tree has been flattened and they lie in parallel on the ground.

Housing is devastated too: the estimate is that 90% of homes are damaged and half of those completely destroyed. After three weeks many families have constructed shacks using the debris and there are a lot of emergency tents in evidence.

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Even the most robust of buildings have damage – it is particularly the roofs that have been peeled back and many seemed to have flown a long way from their buildings. This had been a real danger to people as so many of the roofs of houses were made of corrugated sheeting which, when tossed about by the fierce wind, are like enormous razor blades doing damage to property and people.

After three hours, we eventually reach the northern tip of Cebu Island. We go straight to the ferry port and wait about 30 minutes for the next ferry to Bantayan Island, an hour away. It is a curious collection of passengers. There are quite a number of uniformed soldiers, some armed, with relief work to do.

There are also some relief workers, all wearing t-shirts with the logo of the charity they represent. There are some individuals and families who seemed to be making a regular trip to and from their homes. And there are some tourists, given Bantayan is a developing tourist destination, with its sandy beaches and palm trees. Some of the hotels are still functioning and the tourists bring invaluable income to the community here, in the most difficult of times.

The island certainly looks idyllic as the ferry approached, with its palm-tree edged beaches and hotels but it becomes immediately obvious as we dock that terrible damage has been done, just as we have seen elsewhere. Some of the modern concrete buildings seem to have escaped the worst but the housing has suffered. We go straight to a little community called Pili, about half an hour away on the other side of the island, where Caritas Germany and Caritas Switzerland have their combined relief project.

We go to the community centre which is a collection of buildings around a square. The buildings are damaged, including a little chapel. The square is full of hundreds of people quietly queuing for goods at the distribution point.

The method is very good. The people have to register their names against the electoral roll and they receive a voucher listing the goods that each family will receive. This list includes three sections: food, toiletries and tools. They present the voucher and receive the goods in a plastic dustbin (useful in itself).

We are now day 28 after the typhoon and I would certainly have expected a tension and a frustration from people who have, in many cases, lost homes, livelihoods and family members, especially as this is the first relief distribution they had received. But the calm and orderly queue is wonderful to see and always there are thank yous and smiles.

We drive around the island. Bantayan has two important food industries: poultry and fishing. We see some enormous battery farms. One has hardly been touched by the storm but another one, less than half a mile away has lost half of its 18,000 chickens and its sheds have collapsed.

At 4.30pm we arrive at our hotel. Some of the chalets have lost their roofs and the main building has quite a lot of scaffolding and damage. But they are managing to host us and a few others. The evening begins with a regular and planned power cut. The room is simple but clean and there is running water, not long restored

I meet with the owner of the hotel, a German, who built it twelve years ago. His friend shows us some terrifying film taken on his phone of the Typhoon in progress, with trees almost horizontal and driving rain. He describes the two phases of the storm, separated by a silent stillness as they sat in the eye of the typhoon. He is now helping with the repair work.

At the end of the evening, there is a torrential downpour outside, but nothing compared to what we saw on the German’s phone.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

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Bishop John Arnold’s travel diary from the Philippines: DAY FOUR

Wednesday 4th December

Bishop John Arnold in Tacloban with CAFOD

Bishop John Arnold in Tacloban with CAFOD

Today there are representatives of many organisations meeting together all day at Archbishop’s House to discuss progress and needs in the response to this crisis. There are also obstacles to be overcome. I am only an observer but think that there will be much to learn.

The relief agencies, almost all of them members of Caritas Internationalis, have been remarkable and we have representatives present from Singapore, Spain, France, Canada, United States, Sri Lanka, Korea, Australia, Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and New Zealand, as well as the UK.

The meeting opens with a prayer from me, requested at the last minute, and then we are into a very complex discussion. The statistics we hear are appalling: 13.2 million people have been directly affected, of a total population of 97.3 million, with 4.4 million people displaced. 1.1 million houses have been  damaged, 500,000 of which have been totally destroyed. Basic materials are needed for rebuilding; timber, nails, hammers, roofing materials.

20% of livelihoods have been lost, 45% of fishing boats destroyed, 47% of crops ruined and the land is not ready for the planting season which starts here in January so an entire harvest is at risk. Vast numbers of coconut palm trees are destroyed which will take at least 7-10 years to grow again before the coconuts are edible. The prospects for the coming year are poor for all the families and the economy must be helped to revive as quickly as possible.

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There are reports from the nine affected dioceses – Palawan, Aklan, Antique, Capiz, Iloilo, Ceby, Samar, Eastern Samar and Leyte – about what progress had been made and what the priorities are for continuing work. Three of the bishops were present together with a bishop president of Caritas Philippines.

The Archbishop of Palo, whose diocese we visited yesterday, tells us about the three hour duration of the Typhoon as he experienced it.

He began in the Cathedral but moved from there when the roof collapsed to another building which also collapsed, to another building which began to crumble and finally to a school which was thought the safest haven even though the roof had already been blown away. The people were frightened and the thing he remembers most is the screams of terrified children.

There are still some villages in the Diocese of Aklan who have not had any assistance as roads are blocked. Palo has lost 70 parish churches. These are vital meeting places for the people, and for the social rebuilding of the community. Another diocese needs transport, communications between islands. Other dioceses emphasised the on-going need for food and shelters, seeds for planting, fishing boats.

The organisations present think the meeting is essential for the exchange of information, and I could see the complexities of planning and coordinating the response. Wherever the disaster may be, the response is always going to be different, to meet the particular circumstances of the damaged communities.

There is a lot of talk about the dioceses which have not been affected and their preparation for what may come. There are four typhoons likely to hit the Philippines before the end of the season and Disaster Risk Reduction is becoming a more sophisticated science. There is a strong recommendation that everyone should be prepared.

There is also talk about psychological “First Aid” and many priests, religious and deacons have recently been trained and are ready to go to disaster areas. Impressively, an offer of bibles was warmly received. The plans to rebuild chapels and churches are seen as a priority – albeit something that aid agencies are unlikely to help finance.

There is also the offer to priests in the disaster area to have a respite time and exchange with priests of non-affected dioceses. But the time is not thought to be right for that – the familiar priest should be with his suffering people at this time. This could be done later. There were ideas of twinning parishes for building a direct source of finance, with one community assuming responsibility for the recovery of another

Human trafficking of children and young women is also spoken about and the need for priests to alert their congregations about this increasing practice.

Alistair Dutton, of Caritas Internationalis, chairs the whole meeting, and sitting next to him, I marvel at his notes and minutes, all of which are drawn in a great variety of colours and doodles and designs. He says he remembers the material better if he draws it.

We ended on a very strong note that there is plenty of money to be spent from the appeals around the world and it must be spent wisely and urgently.

The meeting ends at 5.30pm and there is a Mass at 6pm, which most attended. I am asked to be the celebrant and give a little reflection on the Gospel which is, appropriately, about the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus’ great generosity in providing much more than was needed.

Again we break into small groups for dinner and I am able to have excellent conversations with Jim Murphy before his return overnight to London. He has been a good companion and I have liked his integrity and sense of justice in providing for the needs of those in distress.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

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Bishop John Arnold’s travel diary from the Philippines: DAY TWO

Tuesday 3rd December

CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold

CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold visiting our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

We were all back together in the hotel lobby at 3am and on the way to Cebu airport for an internal flight to Tacloban. As we left, there were a number of hotel guests coming in from the street, finishing their nights out. In the car to the airport we saw plenty of signs of life, even at that time of night. As in so many places that I have visited with CAFOD the rules of the road seem to be to go as fast as humanly possible and to overtake the vehicle in front.

Tacloban is a forty minute flight away in an 80-seater plane. Most of the passengers seemed to be relief workers of one type or another. We passed over a couple of more or less uninhabited islands and then began our descent onto the island of Leyte, which took the full force of the Typhoon as it hit landfall from the Pacific, and which also suffered the water surge.

The first thing to be noticed was the impact of the Typhoon on the trees. Even from the air it was a rather odd sight to see so many trees that had not just been stripped of foliage but had their trunks snapped in the force of the 200 mile an hour winds.

This is particularly dramatic with the coconut trees; they are usually so supple and can bend freely, but thousands of them were just “cropped” by the force of the wind. They are a vital source of revenue for fruit and timber and this is a major blow in itself.

The airport we arrive at is a concrete building but it has been gutted with much of the upper storey in a state of collapse. The evidence of relief work was clear with vast piles of tarpaulins, tents, and sacks of food. There were a number of military helicopters and as 6am came, things were beginning to wake up, with lots of soldiers and relief agency workers on the move, most of them from Catholic Relief Services (CRS), CAFOD’s American sister agency.

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What can I say first about the level of devastation? It is beyond description but I will try. Along the coast where the Typhoon struck, no buildings were undamaged no matter how robust. In Tacloban and neighbouring Palo it seems that ninety percent of the buildings were totally destroyed and the remaining ten per cent badly damaged. Even the few modern factories and steel and concrete structures have roofs peeled away and collapsed walls.

The wind had done immense damage but it was the water surge that actually moved whole rows of buildings hundreds of metres, and threw vehicles against buildings and into trees and open fields. We are now three weeks after the the event and there has been a great deal of work done to clear the roads of debris. That means that traffic can flow but both sides of the roads are chaos. The many wooden houses have gone completely, replaced in these three weeks by much smaller shacks and cabins constructed out of the debris. The small percentage of brick and cement buildings are all damaged, mostly with the loss of their roofs but also with serious damage to walls.

Our first stop is at the CRS office in Palo, about a twenty minute drive from the airport. This is in a building belonging to the Archdiocese of Palo. Forty relief workers live here and others come to work in the building’s ground floor. As a concrete building it had been named as an evacuation centre and the first floor has been occupied by families since the storm. The relief workers actually sleep in tents in the corridors as this helps to minimise the danger of disease-carrying mosquitoes and the nuisance of the many flies.

We have a short presentation of the work being done and an explanation of where the Typhoon struck and the path that it took across the island of Leyte then over the open sea before hitting the northern part of the island of Cebu. It is the few miles of quite densely populated coast from Tacloban to Palo, Tanauan and Cogon that took the worst damage and loss of life. Tanauan is estimated to have had 1,000 casualties, Palo another 2,000 – this stretch of coast had about 5,000 of the 6,000 confirmed dead. Of course the death toll is not finalised, particularly as many rural areas are still not fully accounted for.

We drive to Tanauan and meet Fr Abraham at his parish church. He shows us the sports ground where he had buried almost 1,000 in a common grave two days after the Typhoon. He said that many were well known to him and some had been lay leaders in the parish. It was there that we saw the distribution of water through the use of “water bladders”, huge rubber sacks which are refilled by lorries containing smaller “bladders”. This process is much more efficient than trying to build reservoirs in which the water can remain clean.

The parish church had been flooded to about 5ft and had been the evacuation point for fifty families. No-one had died there but the people had set out to clean and repair it immediately and it stands out from the devastation all around. A sign on the wall spoke of the church being a Jesuit foundation in something like 1704 and that it had survived a major Typhoon before. The building next door was a school, and although very badly damaged, it now acts as the makeshift home for several families, including a very young couple and their first tiny baby born after the Typhoon.

The next stop is to see a “Cash for Work” group at Cogon. The water surge created great piles of debris – building materials, fallen trees, house contents, vehicles and anything else in its path. Some of these piles of debris are several metres high and densely packed. These remain all around the place. Groups of local men are hired to clear the debris. It gives them work and pay for essential needs for their families and is a very necessary service to the community, remembering that most of these men have lost whatever other livelihoods they had.

The work includes the possibility of the discovery of bodies. The group we visited had discovered three bodies in the last five days. After three weeks, the decaying bodies and rotting animal carcasses are a health hazard and have to be handled carefully.

We then go to a distribution centre at Camire where hygiene packs are being distributed and explanations given about their purpose and need. They contain towels and soap and basic utensils and medicines.

Our last stop in the area is at the Cathedral of Palo. Just three months ago a major refurbishment had been completed on this enormous building. About ninety per cent of the roof has been peeled away and much of it still hangs precariously on one side of the building. The ancillary buildings were also seriously damaged. The Archbishop was in the Cathedral during the Typhoon, with many families for whom it was a designated evacuation centre. Later, we pass his residence which, being perched on a high hill, had been affected by the wind but not by the water. But what a mess: a sturdy brick building; the roof had gone and much of the second floor collapsed.

By 10.30am, it is very hot and humid, the temperature well up in the thirties centigrade. We are then driven to Ormoc on the other side of the island, our road marking the route followed by the Typhoon. It is about 100 kilometres and the journey lasts about one and a half hours. The villages we pass along the way, once we are a few miles clear of the coast, have only suffered wind damage but this is still immense.

Along the road the pylons are down in their hundreds, with big trees uprooted and the same level of destruction on the buildings. There are big notices in many villages along the way asking for help and for food for the villagers. We are told that, to a large extent, the food needs are now being met but the sight of children begging is still difficult to bear.

The strangest sight is the many valleys which were previously full of hundreds of coconut palm trees. For several miles these trees were uniformly “cropped” – the tops broken off by the force of the wind. There is such a uniformity about them that it seems as though they might have been deliberately harvested in that way. In some places the majority of the trees have simply been uprooted entirely as if the whole place had been felled for logging.

Ormoc is a small town and ferry port. It has also seen its share of the damage. We wait there for a 3-hour ferry back to Cebu, and it is getting dark as we dock. It is a delightful trip in so far as the scenery of mountains dropping to the water’s edge, but whenever we are in clear sight of the villages on the shore, there are so many signs of the same devastation.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

Tuesday 3rd December – evening

At the end of the day, I can reflect on the people I have met. That, if anything, has been an even bigger surprise than the devastation. Words fail, really! We have been met with smiling faces and a remarkable acceptance that all this has happened and things must simply start again. We heard stories of drama and trauma, of people having their homes collapse around them, of lost relatives, of ruined livelihoods – but never a word of anger. All I heard was much repeated gratitude.

This was particularly clear when we were at the distribution centre. About 150 families had gathered and registered for their packs. A very entertaining Filipino, a natural actor, had explained the packs and some basic instructions, with some humour, to a very attentive audience and then they had queued quietly to receive the packs. They were full of smiles and thanks for the generosity of those providing the relief.

The relief workers we spoke to said that in other places they had worked around the world, they had witnessed panic and aggression and anger in similar situations, but not here in the Philippines. When our group was introduced as being from the UK they smiled and waved and some applauded.

Our little group will have a meal together tonight but I will report on that tomorrow.

The other remarkable group of people I meet are those working on the humanitarian response for the international NGOs. They are people who become in some ways rather stateless as their jobs take them to relief work all around the world as events dictate.

This morning, there was an Ethiopian priest who is now an expert on clean water supply, following the work that had to be done in his home country after the drought in the seventies. There was also a young American woman who has come from her work with CRS in Syria, to use her expertise in trauma and resettlement.

When we return to the hotel, there is an impromptu gathering of these various Caritas personnel in the lounge of the hotel. Represented were CAFOD, CRS, Trocaire, Caritas Sri Lanka, Noraid (Netherlands), Caritas Spain, Caritas New Zealand, Caritas Internationalis and Caritas Switzerland.

There is a very good sense of camaraderie and collaboration between the various representatives and they are eager to learn one from another, especially sharing the results from their previous responses to humanitarian crises.

Some of them are fascinating for their personal journeys. The man representing Caritas New Zealand comes from Peterborough and at one stage of his life felt that he had to put the gospel into action in some practical way and the service of the poor nagged at him. A member of the Elim Church, he has lived in Africa for some years but is married to a New Zealander. He is director of humanitarian response and, incidentally, is intrigued by the voice of Pope Francis in his statements and challenges on poverty, which he believes speaks well beyond the boundaries of the Church.

I spoke with him more with the following day and investigated – as I have with other NGO workers – how they feel drawn to and sustain that generous freedom to travel to where they are needed, at a moment’s notice, and to live abroad for long periods of time in places that they may not have chosen to live.

The evening was over by 11pm and I feel that it has been more than a day – but fascinating and interwoven with hope. It is time to make use of the bed, some four or five hours sleep in the last sixty is really not sufficient.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

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Bishop John Arnold’s travel diary from the Philippines

Sunday 1st December – Monday 2nd December

Bishop John Arnold speaking at a Hungry for change event

Bishop John Arnold speaking at a Hungry for change event

I had thought that my travels were all but over for this year. I was wrong. At the closing session of the Bishops’ Conference in Leeds, in November, it was agreed that it would be important for one of us to go to the Philippines, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, to show our solidarity in a time of distress with the Filipino church, and also represent in some way the 120,000 Filipinos living and working in the United Kingdom who were feeling so keenly the sadness and the grief of the people of their homeland.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, as the President of the Conference was keen to make the journey himself but it proved practically impossible and I was delegated to go as an envoy in his name and that of the Bishops.

My experiences travelling with CAFOD have already taken me to some very testing places. Northern Uganda was regarded as a war zone when I visited CAFOD partners in Gulu. I saw something of the effects of the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, but in the better times of rebuilding. And I have certainly seen poverty on a grand scale, most recently in the favelas of Sao Paulo. But I had never previously been to a disaster zone, especially so soon after the event.

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The trip is for less than a week and it is a long way to go but there is a strong feeling that this is the right thing for someone to be doing on behalf of the Catholic Community and indeed the many people who have responded so magnificently to the appeal that followed the disaster. The United Kingdom is always so generous in its humanitarian response.

I arrive at Heathrow for a flight to Cebu in the Philippines, meeting my companion for the trip – Matthew Carter, Humanitarian Director at CAFOD. We are also to be joined by Jim Murphy MP. Jim was recently caught up in the tragedy of the helicopter crash in Glasgow and was involved in helping to bring the injured out of the pub just two nights ago. After such an incident, it is generous of him still to be making the trip.

The journey to Cebu is long enough for me to gather some practical information and get abreast of the response being made. I discover that CAFOD was among the very first to respond to the Typhoon’s destruction, because of its existing network of local church partners and its collaboration with other Caritas agencies.

It is dark when we arrive in Cebu City, but the temperature is in the eighties and it is very humid. Our second flight from Hong Kong was packed with Filipinos. It seems that the last three weeks has seen every flight back to the Philippines full of concerned relatives and friends.

While Cebu Island was directly in the path of the Typhoon, Cebu City largely escaped its impact, so we have arrived in a bustling, modern city – the second largest in the Philippines – where there are really very few signs of the disaster at all.

Although we drive through the city in the dark, I can see that on the one hand there are dramatic ultra-modern shopping malls, but also all too much evidence of shanty town houses. We walk into one of the malls to get a meal, a magnificent structure set around a generous sized park. There must be thousands of shops here. It is all very modern and very crowded for a Monday evening, at 9pm, and sadly – even in this country of great faith – Christmas appears to be just as commercialised as back at home

We meet Catherine and Janet who are part of the CAFOD disaster response team here, and have been hard at work since the days after the Typhoon struck. They update us on the work being done by CAFOD and its partners, and we meet several more Caritas workers from Coraid (Netherlands) Caritas New Zealand and Trocaire of Ireland.

Also in our party now is Peter, the political assistant to Jim Murphy, and Morris the Humanitarian Director for Trocaire . We have slightly different schedules in the few days that we are here but the time spent with them is good and interesting. Jim Murphy now has the portfolio for Overseas Development for the Labour Party. There are some good conversations and thought-provoking ideas.

We head for bed at 11.30pm for a few hours sleep before we meet in our hotel lobby at 3am for a flight into the disaster area. I am not sure what to expect or how I might react but the mood here among the relief agencies is very positive and they say that the courage and determination among the worst affected is strong and hopeful.

Donate to CAFOD’s Philippines Typhoon Haiyan appeal >>

About the author: CAFOD Chair Bishop John Arnold, and Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, have visited our emergency projects in one of the towns that was worst hit by the recent Philippines typhoon.

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