Inside the Redemptorist Catholic Church in Tacloban, thousands of local residents packed into the church’s low, wooden benches, waiting for rice and water after Typhoon Haiyan barreled across the central Philippines on Nov. 8. The cathedral was one of the city’s few structures left intact.
At another local church, where residents had fled for shelter before the storm, the scene was different: The church grounds remained scattered with the corpses of those who drowned inside.
It was one of the tragic dynamics of a terrible disaster: Even places of shelter weren’t safe as a storm surge of unexpected proportions rushed inland and destroyed miles of homes and buildings, leaving residents desperate for food and water. Officials estimate the typhoon affected as many as 9.5 million people.
President Benigno Aquino declared a “state of calamity,” as scientists reported the typhoon was one of the strongest ever recorded: The storm packed sustained winds of up to 195 miles per hour, with gusts up to 235 miles per hour.
But it was the typhoon’s 13-foot storm surge that engulfed seaside villages and created what some observers called tsunami-like conditions. (Indeed, huge ships forced ashore evoked memories of similar scenes in Japan’s disastrous 2011 tsunami.)
Though as many as 750,000 residents had evacuated their homes before the storm, many shelters—like churches, schools, and government buildings—couldn’t withstand the massive wall of water.
A UN official said the surge had also destroyed some of the region’s pre-positioned disaster supplies, as water surged through warehouses full of food and emergency provisions.
Though initial estimates indicated the death toll could reach 10,000, President Aquino suggested the count could be closer to 2,500. But as many communities remained isolated from outside help, and some residents dug mass graves, it was unclear if the president’s low estimate would prove accurate. (One woman told The New York Times nearly half of the 5,000 residents in her hometown seemed to be missing, and possibly washed out to sea.)
Meanwhile, badly damaged roads and airports slowed the flow of relief, and desperate residents looted many local stores within days. Aid organizations mobilized to deliver food, hygiene kits, and medical care to stranded communities. The groups included Christian organizations serving in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) maintains more than 200 staff members in the Philippines, and reported, “Many of our staff have been directly affected by the typhoon and have lost almost everything.” The ministry reported it would assess needs and deliver aid.
Operation Blessing Foundation Philippines—the local outreach of the Virginia-based Operation Blessing International—maintains at least 40 staff members in Tacloban alone. The ministry reported it would offer medical care, help clear roads, and supply chlorine generators to provide hundreds of thousands of gallons of clean water.
Other Christian ministries working with local churches to offer relief included World Vision, The Salvation Army, Tearfund, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Relief.
Beyond the desperate physical needs, many survivors also face coping with grief and devastating loss. One woman, eight months pregnant, told the Reuters news service that 11 family members vanished in the storm, including two of her daughters. “I can’t think right now,” she said. “I am overwhelmed.”