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Last November, missionary Doug Donithan — originally from Grayson County — made the dangerous trek back to his home city of Tacloban in the Philippines to help his neighbors deal with the devastating aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan (also called Typhoon Yolanda).
Because of the chaos and debris that the storm had left behind, many relief efforts had trouble reaching the communities to help. To get back home, Donithan had to fly to another island, travel to his island by boat and then hire a van to drive back to his house.
He’d seen pictures and videos on the news, and he had steeled himself for what he would find when he got home. But nothing prepared him for the sight when he finally arrived.
“I was in shock, mostly… I drove right past my house, because I didn’t recognize it,” he said.
The structure had been flooded up to the second floor, destroying most of his belongings, and the roof had been torn off, exposing Donithan and his roommates to the elements. The churches he had developed as part of his ministry had been destroyed, as well as their ministry vehicles.
But this was only a small example of the devastation that he saw. Modest but immaculately kept homes throughout the city and in neighboring islands had been reduced to piles of rubble. Electricity, food and even clean water were nonexistent, families slept out in the cold and rain and finding bodies amidst the wreckage became a daily occurrence. “The official death toll is around 10,000… but that doesn’t include the thousands of [unidentified] people who were buried in mass graves,” said Donithan, noting that many of the island residents were unable to afford proper funerals for their loved ones.
For several months, the islanders and relief workers focused on a survival initiative, which in recent weeks has shifted into the restructuring of the Filipino community.
A Storm’s Wake
Donithan has served as a missionary for Tacloban for more than 20 years. Prior to discovering his second home in The Philippines, he was a part of outreach efforts in Samoa, Hong Kong, China and Korea.
Although he spends most of his time living on the islands, he makes regular trips home to visit his family. It was during one of these home visits in November when he received the news that the typhoon had hit, and he knew that he had to get back to the islands.
In the early months, several organizations offered life-saving efforts for the Filipino people. “When I got there, just figuring out where to start was the biggest challenge,” he said. “I was being approached by all of these organizations, saying that they wanted to work through us. It was overwhelming.”
Emergency shelters were formed to keep families safe and warm, and makeshift hospitals were set up to provide emergency medical care. Military police were stationed to keep order and prevent crimes such as looting and child trafficking, and a curfew of 8 p.m. was established to cut down on crime.
When it was available, Donithan sent messages back home to Wynn Combs, who manages Donithan’s Facebook page. “I have a pocket wifi, which I used to send pictures,” he said. Donithan used his camera to capture the community’s need, in the hopes that donations would be sent in to help.
It worked. Soon, donations began pouring in from local churches and private individuals. “People I didn’t even know were contacting me,” he said.
He noted that God’s Pit Crew, which had established itself in the Philippines building houses, made a substantial donation to the ministry with money that was left over from their project.
The Philippines are classified as a farming and fishing community, but many of those resources were destroyed and food was scarce for several months. He noted that the coconut trees — a major source of food for the Filipino community — were leveled as a result of the storm, and would more than likely take a full decade to grow back.
“I’ve lost about 20 pounds since November,” Donithan said.
In a short time after he returned, Donithan saw the full extent of what a Filipino community is made of. “I’ve traveled around the world, and I’ve never seen a group of people who were so resilient,” he said. “I went into one village where 250 people had died, and one girl —whom I’d known from when she was a child — lost four children, her mother and five or six other members of her family. But because she had to, she picked herself up and went on. I see so many stories like that, and it’s difficult to understand how someone could survive something like that.”
It was this level of loss that truly tested Donithan’s ability as a missionary. “People don’t understand how others could survive all of that. But when you are forced into that situation, something just comes over you and you rise to the occasion. You just do it,” he said.
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was born for this. God gave me the grace to be there, and I know that I was born to be there at that time so that I could help.”
Restructuring a Community
Today, rescue efforts have shifted from survival mode to reconstruction and restoration of the city.
“The process of rebuilding is so very slow,” Donithan said. While crews work to construct basic-but-sturdy homes for the islanders, many are staying in temporary homes built with tents and tarps.
Following the destruction of the churches, Donithan’s ministry was moved into an empty gymnasium that was still partially covered by a roof. And, thanks to receiving enough funds, the ministry was able to buy and ship another vehicle to the island.
As the citizens dealt with their grief, the church expanded from 150 members to nearly 350. “People were coming from everywhere looking for hope,” he said.
The messages they got from the church soothed their spirits, which at times hurt more than their bodies, Donithan said. “I saw people holding up signs when I got home, but they didn’t say ‘We need help’… instead, they said ‘We need hope.’”
The ministry currently offers 100 different Bible studies per week. “People are more open to the Word during a tragedy. We’re hoping that when everything calms down, that they stay open to it.”
As the ministry helped the community, Donithan noted that it also stayed busy pulling its own resources back together. “We lost a lot... our churches, two ministry vehicles, every piece of sound equipment, musical instruments, our projector. Everything we had, we lost,” he said.
Back at his home, Donithan listed a number of items that were destroyed by the storm, even small items like toasters and coffee pots. “There are so many small things here [in the U.S.], things that we take for granted,” he said.
After putting up emergency shelters made from tents and tarps, the ministry partnered with an organization made up of many churches in Manila to construct basic, sturdy houses to stand against the elements. “These structures will be very basic, with a cement floor, coconut lumber, plywood and tin roofing. Even though the house is small, it is an improvement in getting people out of temporary tents and shelters,” Donithan said in a newsletter that was sent to the states this year.
The communities are also rediscovering food sources, launching fishing boats again, and re-opening markets.
A Christian group trained in trauma counseling came to the local churches, to help with those who still suffered from emotional trauma following their losses. “When additional storms hit with winds and rain, [many people] felt trauma and fear all over again. The children and the elderly were most deeply effected.”
Donithan noted that returning to school has helped many of the children cope. Classes were resumed in tents, shelters and even inside the damaged school buildings.
Some areas, including Donithan’s residence, now have electricity again. “We have electricity, but no roof,” he said, noting that the roof is a high priority project that they are hoping to finish before the rainy season, which will begin in about six weeks.
The structure’s current ceiling is a blue tarp that stretches from wall to wall.
“We are in the process of getting cost estimates for the structural and roof damage. The delay, other than finances, is lack of access to building materials and acquiring a skilled laborer with the appropriate knowledge of construction.”
The gymnasium still doesn’t have electricity, but the ministry was able to buy a portable generator, a portable sound system and an acoustic guitar to replace the equipment that was lost.
A Continued Need
In April, Donithan came back to the United States to visit his sick father. But even while he is here, he is still working hard to help his community back in the Philippines.
“The ministry goes on. It doesn’t stop here. When I’m here, I’m sharing what we are doing there, and trying to get aid to send back.”
The efforts toward recovery have come a long way, but Donithan says that it could take years before Tacloban looks the same as it once did.
Another hindrance is that new tragedies in other parts of the world have shifted focus away from the Philippines. “When something new comes along, [the media] moves on and people forget. They don’t realize that there’s still an emergency,” he said.
In the next few weeks, efforts will need to be stepped up even more. “The big concern is that typhoon season is coming back again in just a few months,” he told The Gazette. “We need to keep the message out there, so people can continue to pray about it.”
• Donations can still 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. Money will be used to assist the typhoon victims and to rebuild the ministry in Tacloban and surrounding areas.