Washington D.C., Dec 12, 2013 / 04:35 am (CNA).- Despite facing a long path to recovery after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, the people of the Philippines have not given up hope, says a U.S. Congressman who recently visited the country.
“I met with numerous survivors who told us heartbreaking stories yet radiated a calm and inner peace,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s global health panel.
“One man told us how his father drowned only a few feet from where we stood and how he had stoically carried many waterlogged dead bodies to a mass grave. He said he nearly collapsed emotionally, however, when he carried the lifeless body of a three year-old girl,” the congressman continued.
“He said he just broke down, overwhelmed, and felt he could continue no more. Yet amazingly, a few hours later, there he was—determined to rebuild and overcome and full of faith in God.”
Rep. Smith and Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Al Green (D-Texas) toured the Philippines from Nov. 22-26 as a delegation from Congress.
They discussed the ongoing response to the typhoon and the current state of its victims at a Dec. 3 hearing at the U.S. Capitol.
The massive storm, locally known as Typhoon Yolanda, made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 8 with wind speeds of 195 miles per hour, the strongest storm yet recorded. The typhoon killed over 5,000, while 1,600 are still missing and millions have been displaced from their homes.
Rep. Smith cited the encouraging words of Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, who said “the typhoon was the strongest in the word … but our faith in the Lord is even stronger … no calamity or natural devastation can quench the fire of our hope.”
“The Filipino soul is stronger than Yolanda,” the archbishop said.
Sean Callahan, CEO of Catholic Relief Services, told the congressional hearing that the most urgent needs for storm victims include shelter, water, hygiene, sanitation and food.
He said the massive amount of debris keeps storm victims from returning to their homes and will pose public health threats if not addressed soon.
The relief agency is also continuing its response to help victims of the October 2013 earthquake in the Bohol province of the country.
Rep. Smith commended the relief agency’s work in an interview with CNA.
“Right from the start, Catholic Relief Services was there and doing an extraordinary job of getting plastic sheeting, clean water capability, and other kinds of basics without which people would have been sicker if not dead,” he said.
Smith said the Catholic relief centers are providing “a whole lot of good things to help the people.”
He also praised the U.S. military’s “unbelievable job” in providing an emergency response. The work of the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy prevented “a far higher death toll,” he said.
Storm victims’ displacement from their homes is one of the key issues facing the Philippines, the congressman said.
“Four million people are displaced. It’s unprecedented,” he said.
Rep. Smith said the emergency response is now shifting to a recovery phase. Disease epidemics are a major threat and need to be “aggressively fought.”
One risk is Dengue fever infection, which is “very painful.” The disease is mosquito-borne and the stagnant water remaining from the typhoon provides a large breeding ground for mosquitoes.
“There’s much more that has to be done to kill these insects,” the congressman stated.
Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection transmitted through water contaminated with infected animal urine, is also a threat, as is rabies carried by stray dogs.
Furthermore, Rep. Smith said that the 19,000 Filipinos airlifted to Manila are vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers. Pregnant woman are also especially vulnerable during the storm recovery due to a lack of clean facilities, clean blood and accessible roads to hospitals.