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By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
Missionary Doug Donithan scrolled through the collection of photos that he’s taken over the years in Tacloban, his home city in the Philippines where he has served for over 20 years.
Photos flashed across the screen of smiling children playing in and around modest but immaculately tidy homes; quaint street markets filled with busy customers; worship sessions in two different rental buildings that served the group as churches; and fisherman launching their boats into the crystal clear water.
These photos are how Donithan still remembers the place he calls home. However, he has already prepared himself for what he will see when he returns there today.
On Nov. 8, news media around the world followed the devastating events caused by super typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda). The storm, which slammed into the Leyte Province last Friday morning with 235 mph winds and a 16-foot high wall of ocean water, took thousands of lives and obliterated almost every object in its path.
Recent photos show streets littered with corpses and debris, and survivors are scavenging for whatever they can find to survive until help finally comes. Most of them have nowhere to take shelter and are sleeping on the ground, exposed to the elements.
Since the storm hit, international relief efforts have been trying to bring supplies to the survivors, but they are struggling to even find places to land amidst the rubble.
Donithan, a Grayson County native, had returned home to visit and help his father, who has been struggling with a persistent back injury, when the typhoon hit.
Since the storm, he has kept constant watch on the news, as it is his only resource for updates on the city.
“There is no water, no electricity, cell phone services are out, except for satellite services through the military. I didn’t know until yesterday if the people that I live with had survived,” Donithan told The Gazette in an interview on Tuesday. Someone had finally managed to send a message through the government to Donithan’s niece, confirming that his roommates had survived the storm.
However, their lives are the only thing that they escaped with. “We lost everything. The roof was taken off of our house, and from what I understood, part of the walls are down,” he said.
The rental buildings where two churches had been established through his mission work have also been destroyed.
On Tuesday, a smaller storm hit the city with heavy torrential downpours, Donithan said. “We were already having major problems getting relief, and this will only hinder relief response even more.”
Just in the city, which has an estimated population of 200,000, news stories are projecting that the storm easily killed between 2000 - 10,000 people. “These numbers don’t even include the islands,” each of which contain hundreds of other citizens, Donithan said.
Rescue teams also expect to find countless other bodies hidden under the debris from collapsed buildings.
Tropical storms, earthquakes and other devastating natural disasters are not uncommon in the Philippines, but storm experts are arguing Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest storms in world history. “I’ve been there during typhoons, earthquakes, a volcano eruption that killed thousands — but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Donithan said.
After hearing about the typhoon, Donithan struggled with the decision to leave his family in Virginia. “I returned here because they needed me to help with [my father’s] health problems, so I was struggling at first with what to do. But God came into my heart and I realized that I was born for this. It does not shock or scare me. I will grieve like all of the others, but I was born for this,” he said.
His family, while they are concerned for his safety, supported his decision to go back.
“My mom said, ‘this is what you should do, and I feel at peace about it,’” he said.
However, just getting back may be a difficult task.
“Originally, I was planning to go by myself, but everyone was telling me not to,” he said. After doing some searching, he contacted Operation Compassion, a group that is traveling to Tacloban to offer trauma counseling for the survivors. The group has narrowed down two possible options for getting into the city: either they will arrange a direct flight that will take them straight in, or they will have to go in through a back way.
“If we can’t get a direct flight, we will have to take a flight to a nearby city, take a van across the city, and get on a ship or a ferry that will run us to the opposite side.”
From there, the group will have to travel to the city on foot, which is dangerous because they could attract looters with the supplies they will be carrying.
Just recently, Donithan heard that the runway had been cleared of debris, which thankfully makes landing in the city more of a possibility.
Once he reaches the city, Donithan will be living in the same conditions as the other residents, while he works to establish contact with as many relief efforts as he can. “Since I’ve lived there for so long, I will be networking and helping groups get aid to the people,” he explained.
When asked how long it will take to repair and restore the city to livable conditions, Donithan said that it could take years. They don’t expect electricity for months, and even water is hard to come by.
He is also concerned about that he will find when he gets back, he said on Tuesday. “I’m expecting the worst. I’ve already heard that one of our church members was killed, and we only know that because she lived fairly close to where we lived,” he said. “As for others, I have no idea.”
Both vehicles owned by the group are destroyed, and there will not be a way to travel to the two churches, which are located 20 and 40 miles away from the house.
There is one working hospital, Donithan added, but it has already run out of medicine.
The prisons were also destroyed, freeing inmates — some who are considered high-risk — to congregate with the rest of the society, he added.
Donithan has already been warned that he and other humanitarians that venture into the area will do so at their own risk, and are expected to fend for themselves.
“I’m excited to go back, for the opportunity to do what I can to bring hope and comfort and help them survive through this,” he said.
Although he is a missionary, his tasks will be more about acting to help instead of spreading the word of God through scripture.
“My mission right now is about survival. We are the instruments that God uses, and we must make ourselves available for the missions He gives us.”
Answering a Calling
Donithan moved away from Grayson County at age 18 to pursue career possibilities. He went to Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Ga., then moved to Tulsa, Ok., where he worked at Oral Roberts University.
“I was always interested in missions, and I figured out quickly that a normal 8 to 5 job wasn’t going to work for me,” he said.
Donithan received a pilot’s license, and originally had plans to go into missionary aviation, but instead he joined up with a six-month outreach where he visited Samoa, Hong Kong, China, Korea and the Philippines. “Those six months changed my whole life. I knew I was called to do whatever I could to help people.”
He felt drawn back to the Philippines, where he eventually wound up working and living in the middle of a garbage dump that housed 20,000 other people.
“Their work was scavenging in the garbage, and they made houses out of whatever they could find,” he said.
The dump was called the “Smoky Mountain Garbage Dump” because of the constant smoldering that was caused by spontaneous combustions.
He remained there for three years, working in several fields to provide medical help and educational resources through his ministry.
He then moved to the islands, where he established two churches and continued his mission work in the city and surrounding islands.
“Almost 100 percent of the people we spoke with wanted to hear what we had to say. The citizens there are like that — they are the most warm, friendly and hospitable people you will ever meet on the face of the earth,” he said. “They are also resilient. They will lose everything, and then turn around and give someone the last thing they have.”
Before Donithan left for Tacloban earlier this week, he set up an account at Wells Fargo for those who are interested in providing financial help for the typhoon victims. Donations can be made to “The Philippines Relief Fund,” part of Doug Donithan Ministries Inc., or sent to Donithan’s home address: Doug Donithan Ministries Inc., 200 Alpine Place, Galax, VA 24333. Donations are tax deductible, and any and all donation amounts are welcomed and appreciated. Funds will be used to assist the typhoon victims and to rebuild the ministry in Tacloban and surrounding areas.