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Philippines Emergency: Faith Stronger Than Typhoon

By Jim Stipe

Three people clung to a tree, hanging on for their lives as 195 mph winds tore at their clothing and pelted them with debris and rain. They watched as others were blown away by the wind.

Hermogenes Cortez Jr., whose friends call him John, works on his emergency shelter, along with a carpenter and volunteers.

Hermogenes Cortez Jr., whose friends call him John, works on his emergency shelter, along with a carpenter and volunteers. They built the frame in just 1 day. Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS

That's how John describes the scene outside his home as Typhoon Haiyan, believed to be the strongest storm ever to make landfall, ripped through the middle of the Philippines on November 8.

His given name is Hermogenes Cortez Jr., but his friends call him John. "Like John the Baptist," he says, smiling. The nickname is a testament to his deep Catholic faith. Years ago, in the complex he shares with his extended family, he built a small chapel. Once a month, a priest would celebrate Mass in their chapel. On the other three Sundays, they were led by John, who is a lay minister.

John, his wife and their two children, who live in the Haubon section of Ormoc, lost their home but escaped injury. His two aunts weren't as fortunate: their house collapsed with them inside, injuring both. One of them is still in the hospital 2 weeks after the typhoon.

Like many Filipinos, John has lived through numerous typhoons—but this is the first time one destroyed his home.

The roof of John's emergency shelter consists of a strong plastic tarp provided by CRS.

The roof of John's emergency shelter consists of a strong plastic tarp provided by CRS. The structure will be complete after he adds walls and flooring. Photo by Seki Hirano/CRS

Fortunately for John and his family, Catholic Relief Services was able to provide a quick, inexpensive way to shelter the family. While families such as John's collect the salvageable pieces of their old homes, CRS is showing them how to use these materials, along with tools, durable tarps and other hardware, to build temporary shelters that can be upgraded later on.

The scene in John's front yard is now quite different. A CRS-hired carpenter and volunteers come together for what looks like an old-fashioned barn raising, using materials and tools from CRS and wood John salvaged from the storm. As they work, a new form is raised from the very wood that the typhoon ripped from the ground. While families begin to rebuild, CRS staff are on hand to show them simple ways to make their houses more durable and resistant to wind and rain.

John is looking to his temporary emergency shelter for longer-term use, joking that it's "a permanent temporary shelter." He thinks it will last a year or more, and plans to use it as a base for making upgrades when he saves money. He says he'll strengthen it and build additions to provide his family with longer-term use.

The typhoon may have destroyed John's house, but it also strengthened his Catholic faith.

"God knows what happened in this country," he says. "The typhoon makes my faith stronger, because I'm still alive!"

Jim Stipe is a CRS communications officer who specializes in digital and visual media. He is based in Baltimore, Maryland, and is currently on temporary duty in the Philippines.

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