Rowing in the same direction: How the Archdiocese of Cebu answered challenges of Odette

How was it possible for the Archdiocese of Cebu to mount a massive relief and recovery effort for victims of super typhoon Odette that ravaged many parts of Cebu?

To date, the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission on Service-Cebu Caritas’ post-Odette activities have served 92 parishes and 81,363 families in Cebu.

Cabu Caritas distributed 44,964 Bags of Love, 2,135 sacks of rice, 530 boxes of canned goods, 215 boxes of noodles, 2,358 gallons of drinking water, 400 hygiene kits, 400 household kits, 600 shelter repair kits, 1605 galvanized iron sheets, and 1,950 Hardiflex boards.

Four months after that nerve-racking night of December 16, 2021, Cebu Caritas, Inc.-Commission on Service looked back to the days and weeks after the destructive howler unleashed its fury on densely-populated areas of Metro Cebu and farming and fishing communities in the southern, southwest, midwest, and mid-northwest towns of Cebu island.

Rev. Fr. Alex K. Cola, Jr., Cebu Caritas, Inc. president and Commission on Service chairman, recalled that one day after Odette struck, Caritas did a rapid damage assessment. This included counting the number of families affected and listing down their immediate needs.

“But It was difficult to go to the affected areas right away because of damaged roads and debris all over, making it almost impossible for four-wheeled vehicles to pass through. Government personnel were still busy with clearing operations,” Fr. Cola recalled.

Need for data

He also lamented that there was no parish database readily available so that they had to rely on information and updates from the disaster risk and reduction offices of local government units.

“It would have been easier to gather data if there was an existing structure in the parishes. Donors needed the data to release funds and send support,” he adds.

Bienvenido Tan, Jr., Cebu Caritas’ Humanitarian Program coordinator, said the first indication that things were bad was a report received by the Caritas office from Rev. Fr. Harvey Argoncillo that roads in the parish where his brother-priest Rev. Fr. Ralph Argoncillo was assigned were no longer passable because of fallen trees and other debris. Barangay Rosario, Aloguinsan in midwest Cebu was now isolated. But this was just the beginning.

Soon after, Tan said, they were getting photos of damaged houses and infrastructure in other parts of the province.

“We (the Cebu Caritas staff) then discussed our next moves,” Tan said.

Damage assessment

It was only two days after the typhoon struck that Tan and his team were able to see for themselves the extent of the destruction in the towns of Barili, Sibonga, Argao, and Carcar City. The parish churches of Talaga, Argao and Sibonga were badly damaged, with roofs ripped off. The Sibonga parish convent also bore the brunt of Odette’s ferocious winds.

Tan said they immediately did a rapid damage assessment.

Teams from Caritas Philippines led by Cotabato Bishop Colin Bagaforo and the Cebu Archdiocesan Relief and Rehabilitation Unit also made their own assessment. And, based on this and data gathered from the Provincial Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Office, they came up with a database of affected communities, parishes, and families.

Rev. Fr. Alden John Baran, Cebu Caritas, Inc. program director and Commission on Service vice-chairman, credited the various non-government institutions and government agencies that helped Caritas in its post-Odette efforts, especially in data gathering and initial damage assessment.

Caritas Cebu typhoon Odette response

Streamlining relief efforts

Fr. Cola also noted that for the first time in the history of the Archdiocese, government agencies, non-government organizations, and humanitarian groups met with Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma and Cebu Caritas to streamline relief, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts.

“The coordination meeting with NGOs, government agencies, humanitarian organizations, and religious congregations was a big help because we were able to maximize relief operations. No community was underserved or over-served because of this coordination,” Fr. Cola said.

Various religious congregations operating in the province also coordinated with Cebu Caritas and gave updates on their relief and recovery efforts. This was another first.

“Help and technical assistance came from Caritas Manila led by Rev. Fr. Tony Labiao and Caritas Philippines under Bishop Bagaforo. We appreciate the help of our 85 Diocesan Social Action Center partners, as well as the support of the religious congregations and the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Fr. Cola added.

Other dioceses, corporate and individual donors also provided relief goods. Caritas Germany and Habitat for Humanity pitched in with substantial donations and grants. All these were funneled to affected parishes.

Odette’s lessons

If there’s one important lesson that Odette has taught him, it’s the value of collaboration, according to Fr. Baran.

“The response of the church does not come from Cebu Caritas alone but also from other religious institutions and organizations. Through collaboration and coordination, our relief efforts were more efficient and effective,” he notes.

Another takeaway was the need for resource mobilization.

“There were donation drives to raise funds for relief operations. We are glad that many individuals and organizations helped us. Even personnel of the Carmelite Monastery donated their monthly compensation for Odette relief,” Fr. Baran said.

He added that along the way, he discovered new ways and processes of doing things and achieving results.

Fr. Cola, on the other hand, stressed the need to orient parishes and communities on disaster mitigation measures.

“We have to continue doing disaster risk reduction seminars to prepare communities for future calamities,” he says.

Faith in action

Tan, who has been organizing communities in his previous stints with other commissions in the Archdiocese, lauded the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers who opted to spend their Christmas holidays distributing relief goods to affected communities.

“Ang diwa są Pasko taliwala są Odette — even if we left our families behind, we were happy. Nawala among kakapoy tungod sa mga pagpasalamat nga among nadawat ug sa tabang nga atong nahatag,” Tan said. (The spirit of Christmas amid Odette. All the weariness was gone because of the words of gratitude we received and the help we were able to give.)

Fr. Baran cited the zeal of the volunteers who provided the much needed warm bodies for the relief distribution.

“Odette allowed us to show our willingness to help and to serve those in need and to give comfort to affected families. One time, I heard one soldier handing out relief goods say, ‘para sa Diyos, para sa bayan. (For God and for country),” he added.

Baran said the presence of the church was appreciated by the priests and the communities. The affected families saw the work of the church.

“They saw a church in action — a church which is there not only to administer the sacraments but to also serve the people in times of calamities and disasters,” Fr. Baran said.

“Mao ni ang buhat sa Caritas (this is the work of Caritas)— that our faith will be put in action,” he added.

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