Even before Typhoon Haiyan made its first landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 8, the prayers started going up to heaven. Prayers came from the Philippines, of course, but also from Filipinos in the United States and around the world.
Many came from Chicago, where James Villar spoke to his parents by cell phone early that day. His father, Ray Villar, called to see how things were going in the city where he and his wife, Lila, raised their children. After retiring, they started spending half of their time in the Philippines, helping to build a church and run Bible classes in a farming hamlet near Sapian, in the province of Capiz.
“It was Thursday morning when I was dropping my kids off at school,” James Villar said. “He wanted to know how I was doing. I was asking him about the storm, if they were going someplace safe.”
Ray Villar said he and his wife were making everything secure, and planned to ride out the storm in their home.
“After that, I didn’t hear from him,” James Villar told Our Sunday Visitor on Nov. 14. “We started seeing the reports on the typhoon. We didn’t realize it was going to be that big. We started seeing reports of massive devastation, and on Sunday, we started making plans for what we had to do to find them.”
Finally getting word
Indeed, Haiyan — known locally as Yolanda — broke all kinds of storm records. When it surged through the Philippines, it was 370 miles wide with sustained winds of 195 mph and gusts of 235 mph. It brought 27 inches of rain and a storm surge of 17 feet at Tacloban, the biggest city in the hard-hit central Philippines. The death toll was still fluctuating as reports from outlying areas came in, but on Nov. 14, the United Nations was reporting 4,200 dead and more than 3 million displaced.
The Villars appealed for news of their parents on Facebook. That brought word a few days after the storm; a freelance photographer in the area had to leave his motorbike and travel on foot to where the elder Villars were, but he sent back pictures and video of them in good condition, sheltering neighbors.
“Their house was OK — it just lost the roof,” Villar said. “Most of the other houses are destroyed. The church is destroyed, and the Bibles they used for their class are ruined. The photographer said our parents were so thankful that we sent someone to check on them.”
The Chicago-based Villars have turned their efforts toward collecting relief supplies through the Rizal Center, a Filipino community center, with the help of the St. Andrew parish and school communities.
Resilient through faith
Meanwhile, people in the Philippines were gathering to pray for the dead and to give thanks to God for their survival. It is what they have done over the centuries after all kinds of disasters. While Typhoon Haiyan might be unprecedented in its scope, it is one of many disasters the archipelago nation has endured.
“In times of crisis like this, after a typhoon or an earthquake, people say, ‘Thank God we survived,’” said Stephanie Savillo of Chicago. “They don’t blame God for the misfortune. They don’t blame God for the typhoon.”
Father Leoncio Santiago, a priest originally from the Philippines who is now a chaplain at Hines VA Hospital in Illinois, said that hope is a defining characteristic of Filipino faith.
“When push comes to shove, it is our faith that sustains us,” he said. “Otherwise, we would be hopeless in the face of destruction. The Filipinos have always been very resilient.”
For example, Father Santiago’s home island of Bohol suffered severe damage from an earthquake in October, damage from which it will take years to recover. The church in his hometown, built by Spaniards in the 18th century, was flattened. The only thing left standing was a statue of Mary.
“The focus of the people was not the destroyed church, but the surviving statue,” Father Santiago said. “You look up to your faith to give you hope. We will not be able to carry on if we don’t have hope.”
The Philippines are a primarily Catholic country, with thousands of people attending weekday as well as Sunday Masses and crowded prayer services and novena services, according to Filipinos who live in the United States. They address the Blessed Virgin as “Mama Mary,” Savillo said, and understand that she will take care of them because she is their mother.
“When I went there, I went to church on a Wednesday, and I was like, ‘What is going on?’” she said. “Is there some big festival I don’t know about?”
It was a regular novena service for Santo Nino, the Holy Child, a very popular devotion in the island nation.
In the week after the typhoon, Savillo had been in contact with her niece, who lives two islands north of the primary area of destruction. Before the typhoon hit, she said, her niece and her niece’s neighbors were all praying that God would spare them. After the storm passed, “she sent an email again, saying God is good.”
Now Filipinos from the areas that were not affected are trying to take boats and get to friends and loved ones whose homes were destroyed. Organized relief efforts took time to get off the ground because, in the affected areas, roads, airports, communications services and other infrastructure were also in ruins.
Teresita Nuval, the director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Asian Catholics, shared an email from a Chicago-area woman whose family lives in Guiuan, the first area of the Philippines hit by the storm. The woman wrote of watching footage on the Internet.
“I could hear screams and cries for help as I watched the videos. The hardest part was getting a word if my family survived the ordeal. I was not sure if any of our people and my family could have survived in the lashings of Yolanda,” she wrote. “I did not get a full sleep from Thursday through Monday trying to get a word that all of them are safe. Unfortunately, just as Haiyan made its landfall, Guiuan was isolated and was unreachable. … All Sunday and Monday, I was crying because they haven’t located my immediate family. It was dreadful not knowing what had happened to them. … I resigned my family’s fate to God’s intervention at the end of Day 4, Monday. … Prayers are more powerful than any typhoons! As soon as I woke up on Tuesday, the message that I have been waiting for in the last four most difficult days of my life was in my inbox. My mom, my sister-in-law and her daughter, and my sister and her family had been found ALIVE.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.