Stuart Katz

My Philippines Disaster Relief Journey, Part I: First Impressions

Donated goods awaiting to be loaded to go to "survivors" on surrounding  islands
Donated goods awaiting to be loaded to go to "survivors" on surrounding islands
Interior of the synagogue at the Jewish Association in Manila
Interior of the synagogue at the Jewish Association in Manila


Preparing "Family Packs" for survivors
Preparing “Family Packs” for survivors

Donated goods awaiting to be loaded to go to "survivors" on surrounding  islands

Donated goods awaiting to be loaded to go to “survivors” on surrounding islands

The news has been filled with accounts of the devastation in the Philippines after the recent typhoon that struck there. The latest counts have placed the number of confirmed deaths at over 4,000, with an additional 1,600 still missing, over 18,000 injured, and approximately two million displaced.  The toll placed on the country includes not only human casualties but a significant loss of infrastructure in many parts of the Philippines.  The economic costs will certainly rise into the billions.

 After hearing about the impact of Yolanda on many of the islands, I began to back my bags and headed out earlier this week. On Tuesday afternoon, I landed in Manila.  My initial plan was to get started on volunteer work first thing on Wednesday morning.  However, as I have found in other disaster situations, a dependable timeline flies immediately out the window.  As I stood on the tarmac that afternoon, I witnessed numerous C130 military aircraft with what appeared to be disembarking evacuees.  My impulse was to help immediately if I could.  I decided I would go to my hotel, call a couple of the centers with whom I was signed up for Wednesday, and see if I could start now.

On the ride to the hotel, my taxi driver was fascinated by the fact that I had come to the Philippines from Israel.  He expressed continual praise for the Jewish People and the People of Israel, which was gratifying to hear.  He also offered a suggestion, telling me that if I really wanted to help, I should go to Tacloban. More than three quarters of those who died in Typhoon Yolanda lived in the province of Leyte, and Tacloban is its capital.  It could be considered ground zero for this natural disaster.  After talking discussion, my taxi driver took me to see a friend of his, who set me up to go to Tacloban on Thursday.  That day seemed ages away at this point.

After checking in at the hotel, I made my phone calls, then headed out to the CAAP (Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines)  headquarters and registered with the DWSD (Department of Social Welfare and Development). I was then sent to an orientation session to explain what I would be doing in the response efforts. The orientation began in a friendly, upbeat manner, but within the first minute, I was already lost.  At first, I thought I was just tired and couldn’t focus.  Then I realized that I was watching a PowerPoint presentation with English text and a Filipino oral presentation. I decided to just smile along with everyone else.

After the presentation, they split us into groups, but I still had no idea what I was going to do.  I approached the trainer and asked if I could get a briefing in English. Thankfully, she told me to come with her.  We began to walk around this base, with warehouse after warehouse stacked with raw goods.  Finally, we sat down at a table, where she introduced me to the rest of the informal assembly line – all locals.  There must have been several hundred school groups and youth organizations present, as well as corporate employees – all packing goods in an incredible show of team building.

I was placed on the coffee line and learned that each “gift package” contained coffee as well as rice, corned beef, sardines, noodles, and chopped meat. For several hours, I worked with the rest of the team – a group of strangers who worked as one.  Before the evening was over, our team had prepared 1200 family packs for distribution.  Around 2:00 a.m., I finally returned to the hotel.

Wednesday was an incredible and busy day.  It began with a meeting and tour of the Jewish community in Manila.  I received a lecture on the history of Filipino Jewry and the wonderful relationship that the community has for the Jewish People and for Israel.  From my years in the travel industry, I was already aware of how hospitable the Filipino people were to Jewish citizens and visitors alike. My thanks go out to Lee Blumenthal for all his insight and knowledge sharing, as he taught me even more.

After the briefing, I traveled to Pasan City to volunteer. There, I was assigned to the Operation Research Center.  My task there was to conduct an inventory of all volunteer opportunities across the country and share them with call-ins and via social media.

A couple of business meetings followed in the later afternoon.  Afterward, I was afforded a unique and special opportunity to provide the best comfort of all to many families.  I was given a list of found storm survivors, along with contact information on the loved ones in search of them.  I was able to call these family members and advise them that their missing loved ones had been seen alive!

For a country that had spent about 30 hours in the storm’s center, there were moments and stories of joy amongst the tragedy and sadness.  A few of these stories particularly stay with me.  There was Aisa from Tacloban, who had been one of the first evacuees to Manila.  She worked alongside me that night and told me how she had found out only 48 hours earlier that her mother, who she thought had perished, was alive.  Although hungry and waiting to be evacuated, she remained a survivor.

The most moving story to me was that of Caramen of Leyte, a woman who was looking for her brother and was told that he was dead.  I had information in front of me that indicated he was alive, but I had nothing other than an address and the source of information – and Caramen on the phone. I asked her to hold on, and I contacted the third party.  Her brother was actually staying there, in Cebu, so we ended up doing an old-fashioned conference call.  I held the speaker of one phone to the receiver of the other and heard the joyous screams.  I knew that the mission was accomplished.  Acting as operator, I interrupted the call and asked them to call one another directly!

As my calls continued, other cries of joy were heard throughout the night and many tears were shed. Admittedly, some of them were mine.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis