All LDS missionaries in Philippines now 'safe and accounted for'
Aaron Favila, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church announced tonight that it has contacted all of its missionaries in the Philippines and that all are safe, four days after a deadly and destructive super typhoon ravaged the island nation on Friday night, killing thousands.
The Philippines Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an advisory that all missionaries "are safe and accounted for" after Typhoon Haiphan, according to the Philippines newsroom page at lds.org.
On Monday morning, the church released a statement that all but 24 missionaries had been reached. Sunrise in the Philippines on Tuesday arrived at what was nearly 3 p.m. Monday in Utah — and new information developed quickly as the effort to locate missionaries began anew.
Once contact was established with each set of missionaries, who work in pairs, church leaders personally contacted their parents, according to an update Monday night.
"The church expressed its love and sympathy to all those affected by this disaster and all the people of the Philippines," the statement added. "Church buildings provided life-saving refuge during the storm and are now serving as shelters and disaster relief sites.
"The church is pleased to engage with other relief agencies in the Philippines to address the aftermath of the storm. We are providing food, water, shelter and other life-sustaining resources. More information about relief efforts will be updated on mormonnewsroom.org."
In some cases, helicopters helped locate missionaries in the areas where communication and ground transportation were most compromised, said Heidi Estes, a missionary mom from Lehi whose daughter is in the Philippines and who has followed developments closely via social media through other parents and through church members in the Philippines.
Estes and her husband Brent learned that Sister Lindsey Estes and her companion, Sister Mary Pike of Carrollton, Texas, were safe in a phone call late Sunday night. The two women were serving in Naval City on Bilirin Island northwest of Tacloban.
"I'm grateful," Heidi Estes said of the effort made to reach each missionary.
All of the final 24 missionaries to be reached were from the Philippines Tacloban Mission, including former Miss Tooele City, Sara Webber, whose story was typical of the group.
Tacloban was hit particularly hard by Typhoon Haiyan — the British paper The Guardian described the capital of the Leyte province as "obliterated" while Euronews said it had been "flattened" — and communication was sparse. Only a small percentage of cell sites or towers were working.
The advance warning for the storm provided time for the church to move missionaries to secure areas outside of Tacloban city, often in church buildings. Each missionary also had been provided a 72-hour kit ahead of the storm. Those actions allowed church leaders to express a measure of confidence that the missionaries were safe.
The storm damage severed communication lines and and rendered roads useless, making it difficult to reach all of the missionaries.
That combination was part of the reason Sister Webber and her companion, who were serving in Carigara, a coastal city west of Tacloban, were difficult to reach. Sister Webber's mother, Gidget Webber, had spoken early Monday morning with the wife of LDS Asian Area President Brent Nielson, who reported that efforts to reach Webber and her companion were being hindered by the closure of the single, damaged road from Tacloban to Carigara, according to a report her father, Jim Webber, posted on Facebook.
When communication with Tacloban Mission President Jose Veneracion Andaya proved impossible, the church sent a Welfare Department employee to Leyte to establish contact.
On Sunday night, Elder W. Craig Zwick, an executive director in the church's Missionary Department, said in a statement that "church leaders continue to make contact with missionaries throughout the Tacloban Mission in the Philippines, and all those we have been able to reach are safe. We anticipate that as we continue to re-establish communication, the remaining missionaries will be located and found well. We unite our faith and prayers with others in behalf of the people of the Philippines."
Attention now turns to efforts to relieve the suffering caused by one of the strongest storms to hit Asia, with winds reaching 295 kph, worse than a Category 5 hurricane.
The impact was devastating.
"I have not spoken to anyone who has not lost someone, a relative close to them. We are looking for as many as we can," Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez told CNN.
Officials are enforcing an 8 p.m. curfew.
"Tacloban is a chaotic, dangerous place right now," Nelia Baltazar, 52 years old, shouted over her shoulder to a Wall Street Journal reporter from her perch on a motorbike behind her husband. "We just want to leave."
The Philippine islands are home to the largest concentration of Latter-day Saints in Asia, with more than 675,000 church members. The church has 20 other Filipino missions, about a third of which were in the storm's path.
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