Stronger than any disaster
It has been more than a year since one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded tore across the Philippines. Peter Watts reports on how Freemasons came together to help to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure
On Friday, 8 November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with terrible impact. More than 6,000 people were killed when 195mph winds and storm surges flattened entire cities. ‘People were hopeless, desperate, traumatised,’ explains Cynthia Guerra, programme manager at Plan UK’s Philippines office. ‘Children were begging for food and money, unable to return to school. Houses were destroyed.’
One year later, things are starting to improve. The reconstruction work has included the rebuilding of fourteen classrooms and two health centres that were obliterated or badly damaged in eastern and western Samar, two of the worst hit areas. These rebuilding efforts were made possible by Freemasons, who donated £185,000 after seeing the scale of the devastation.
‘The International Red Cross and Red Crescent launched an appeal for over £60 million so we knew it was a large disaster,’ says Katrina Baker, Head of Non-Masonic Grants for The Freemasons’ Grand Charity, which considers emergency grants after major natural disasters. ‘It was the scale, affecting 14.1 million people. The extent of the destruction was awful.’
The Grand Charity sent £50,000 to help provide immediate relief in the form of hygiene kits, emergency shelter and medical aid, but many Freemasons wanted to do more. ‘The masonic community called on us to set up a dedicated Relief Chest,’ says Baker, and it was these donations that were used towards the second phase of the recovery operation. ‘Phase two is the transition from immediate assistance offered on the ground to long-term recovery work. The government, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and local partners conduct in-depth assessment of need in the area.’
The typhoon marked the seventh time a dedicated Relief Chest had been created by the Grand Charity, the first coming after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when the masonic community – individuals and lodges – insisted they wanted to help. With Freemasons contributing £185,000 to help the people of the Philippines, the Grand Charity passed on the money to Plan UK, a charity that specialises in working with children in some of the world’s poorest regions.
‘We have three or four NGOs that we know are reliable and have worked with in the past,’ explains Baker. ‘We ask them each to submit a project, then the Council decides on the most suitable one. We like it to be something tangible, so people can see where their money has gone, but it also has to be something that is necessary. In this case, it was schools and health centres.’
‘The Grand Charity sent £50,000 to help provide immediate relief in the form of hygiene kits, emergency shelter and medical aid, but many Freemasons wanted to do more.’
In the Philippines, Plan UK consulted with village leaders, but also spoke to women, children, farmers and fishermen to ‘gather their priority needs’. Plan UK’s Guerra takes up the story: ‘Due to the magnitude of the damage, health services were not operational, which caused major problems,’ she says. ‘Education had also been hampered as more than 2,500 schools were damaged.’
Known as Yolanda in the Philippines, the typhoon first hit land in eastern Samar. Sixty-six health centres were destroyed and thirty-five damaged in eastern and western Samar. Schools were also devastated, with more than two hundred damaged or destroyed in the two regions. Marie, a student in eastern Samar, gives an idea of what children and teachers faced: ‘Some classrooms were flattened; others had roofing blown out,’ she said. ‘Students were all in one room and standing as there were not enough seats. Our books were unusable.’
Plan UK was able to rebuild and stock several health centres and schools, something that will help around 4,720 people. These are permanent buildings with first-class facilities, built to withstand any future disaster.
‘The health centres have birthing facilities including scales, blood-pressure apparatus, wheelchairs and examining tables with stirrups,’ says Guerra. ‘For schools, we provide blackboards, learning materials, tables, chairs and toilets. All the structures are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.’
Plan UK lets the Grand Charity know how things are progressing by sending regular updates. ‘Plan UK is a great organisation to work with,’ says Baker. ‘They get back to us immediately if we need to hear from the project, and report to us every three months. We can speak to people on the ground ourselves if needed, but we’d rather let them get on with the work.’ Baker notes that Plan UK is so engaged that it is still informing the Grand Charity of projects that were funded in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The message is that masons have contributed to projects that are built to last, ensuring short-term relief with long-term benefits for a hard-pressed community.
‘Children and communities have expressed so much appreciation,’ says Guerra. ‘The project both restores physical structures as well as bringing back dignity.’
Or, as one student put it: ‘We consider this an early graduation gift. Typhoon Yolanda may have been the strongest typhoon we have ever encountered, but together we are stronger than any disaster that may come our way.’