As emergency workers in the Philippines toiled deep into the early morning hours to determine the full extent of Super Typhoon Haiyan's (or Typhoon Yolanda, as the Filipino's call it) impact on Filipino individuals, families and communities, many Utahns with ties to the island nation waited, worried and prayed.
“I have heard from my sister in Cebu, and she tells me that our relatives are all OK, although my parents’ house doesn’t have a roof any more,” said Chris Jan Cortes of South Jordan, a native of Ormoc in the Philippine province of Leyte, one of the first areas hit by the eye of the storm with its 200 mile per hour winds.
“But I haven’t had direct communication with anyone from my home town,” Cortes said. “I’ve been trying to call since last night. I have a lot of friends and relatives there. I just don’t know what is happening with them.”
Officials at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know just how Cortes feels. A press release issued by the church late Friday afternoon indicated that "all Mormon missionaries serving in the church's 21 Filipino missions are accounted for, with the exception of some serving in the Philippines Tacloban Mission." That part of the Philippines has been hardest hit by the storm, and church officials say they are "working to establish contact with Tacloban mission leaders."
"A church Welfare Department employee is traveling to the island of Leyte with communication equipment to establish contact with the Tacloban mission president," said Stephen B. Allen, managing director of the church Missionary Department. "We plan to be in communication with those in Leyte by Saturday in the Philippines."
The LDS press release also indicated that efforts are being made to contact all church members in the affected areas. What is known, the release indicated, is that some 14,000 church members and others have sought refuge in 200 LDS meetinghouses in the country.
Maria Findlay, a Philippines native who lives in Murray, has been anxious about her son, Mark, who is a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines Butuan Mission. Knowing that he is safe is a relief, she says, although she is sure the missionaries "have been having an experience.”
Which is something to which both she and Cortes can relate, since they both went through similar typhoons when they lived in the Philippines. Findlay remembers seeing the roof of her parents’ home “flapping back and forth” during one such storm when she was a little girl. And Cortes remembers Tropical Storm Thelma in 1991, during which thousands of people lost their lives in the post-storm flooding.
“Thankfully, they are better prepared now and the flood damage should not be so severe as that,” Cortes said. “But this is a much stronger storm.”
That notion was affirmed by Cynthia Santoni, who with her husband, James, oversees the Academy for Creating Enterprise, which teaches entrepreneurial skills to returned LDS missionaries in the Philippines. Reached at 1 a.m. local time in the home she shares with her husband and three children in Mectan Island, Cebu Province, she said the storm was “very, very scary.”
“We experienced the earthquake two weeks ago, we have experienced volcanic eruptions and other typhoons, but we have never been through anything like that,” she said just minutes after electricity was restored to her area. “We tried to distract our children with games and desserts — anything to entertain them. But it got so dark and the wind started howling. We could feel our walls shaking so much, it was almost like going through another earthquake. Only it was longer and more powerful. It was frightening.”
Thankfully, Santoni said, “we have known for about a week that this was coming, so we were all able to prepare well.”
“Our staff was evacuated — many of them are staying at the LDS meetinghouse that is in the Cebu City Temple compound,” she said. “Last time I spoke to them they said they are fine, although they can still feel the strong winds and the rain.”
LDS officials in the Philippines indicated that even before the storm hit, meetinghouses were being prepared for use as shelters for those in need of safer housing, and missionaries from the church’s 21 missions in the Philippines were moved to safer places, if needed.
“If there is any concern about the safety of an area, we move our missionaries out of that area,” Allen said in a prepared release. “We’ve known about this storm for some time, and all mission presidents have moved missionaries to areas where they believe they can be adequately sheltered from the typhoon.”
The church has also established an emergency monitoring center in Manila to track needs and opportunities for service as they arise.
“We have set up this command center to monitor Typhoon Yolanda and to help our priesthood leaders in assessing the needs of the members and the communities,” said Willy Dasalla, project specialist. “We are receiving reports from the stakes and the different congregations, and we are doing our best to respond to the needs that are being reported.”
Meanwhile, back in Utah, friends and family members of those in the eye of the storm continue to wait and watch for news and information.
“I called last night,” said Nina Shaver, a Filipino native who now lives in American Fork. “My sister told me they can’t reach anybody in my hometown — they’re not getting a signal.
“I’m going to keep calling,” she said. “I don’t know when I will talk to someone.”
Meanwhile, she said, “we’re just praying about it.”
“I’m praying for my hometown,” she added. “Right now, that is all I can do.”