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Letter from the Philippines: Communications vital to survival and recovery

By April Grace G. Mercado
December 3, 2013 | TACLOBAN, Philippines (UMNS)

April Grace G. Mercado is a United Methodist Communications field representative in the Philippines. She is part of a team that has been on the ground in the storm-ravaged islands assessing how to help reconnect the nation's communications. She sent this update Dec. 3 to help fellow United Methodists understand the enormity of the task ahead and how vital its success is to the future for the Philippines.

We arrived in Tacloban on Nov. 19, more than 10 days after Typhoon Yolanda hit.

Tacloban is the capital of Leyte province. Surrounded by water, it sustained storm surges of up to 5 meters from the typhoon, known outside the Philippines as Haiyan. The storm caused at least 6,000 deaths and an estimated $2 billion in property damage.

The Philippines archipelago sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire and the typhoon belt, which spawns about 80 typhoons each year. A quarter of those strike the Philippines area, but none has been more devastating than Yolanda.

The typhoon destroyed most communications antennas and towers, knocked out local radio and television networks and disrupted satellite feeds. Local government leaders, dealing with the impact of the storm on their own lives, were unable to take charge and communicate.

United Methodist Communications recognized the need for communications relief. The agency worked with one if its partners, Inveneo, a technology company specializing in communications for development, to send a team into the affected area. I helped lead the team as United Methodist Communications' point person on the ground.

Major road blockages impeded relief, resulting in looting in downtown Tacloban during the first five days after the storm. Many people evacuated to Manila and Cebu, living in makeshift houses and tents if they had nowhere else to go, until government agencies took action.

Twelve United Methodist churches were directly affected by the storm. The churches are among 201 in the denomination's Davao Episcopal Area. Many are on islands throughout the Visayas and Mindanao, which makes traveling in the episcopal area challenging.

For at least five days after the storm, the bishop's office was unable to contact two clergy members in the Tacloban area and the district superintendent in Baybay, but all were safe, and no clergy members were killed in the typhoon. With no other means of communicating except mobile phones, the bishop's office relied on witness accounts and word of mouth to learn about the status of people affected by the storm.

Much of the existing telecommunications infrastructure in Tacloban, Philippines was shredded by Typhoon Haiyan. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Much of the existing telecommunications infrastructure in Tacloban, Philippines was shredded by Typhoon Haiyan. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Nongovernmental organizations and mobile network providers worked quickly to restore communications in the area. The World Food Program's Emergency Telecommunication Cluster provided data connectivity for agencies working in Tacloban, while mobile network providers continue to restore mobile and data services in the region.

Through local initiatives, charging hubs were set up in strategic locations across Tacloban to serve residents and relief volunteers. Major broadcasting companies gave away prepaid sim cards with credits and provided free calls and texting to help survivors connect with families and friends.

When the United Methodist Communications team arrived in Tacloban, we located the United Nations On-Site Operations and Coordination Center and started working with the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, set up at Leyte Sports Stadium. We also connected with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster and World Food Program in their temporary office at the city hall. They had set up a portable satellite link that inflates at different pressure points to provide data connectivity to all international and local NGOs working in Tacloban.

We visited the FEBC First Response Radio hub, located on the roof of city hall. The hub provides public service announcements within a 10-kilometer radius. FEBC also distributed 1,000 crank radios to the residents, and about 300 solar-powered radios were given to schoolteachers. An additional 30,000 crank radios will be distributed in the weeks to come.

We regrouped that day with partners from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to plan relief logistics and the distribution of food aid. The next day, relief was distributed in the town of Dagami, 33 kilometers outside of Tacloban. Dagami was without connectivity until Nov. 22. The United Methodist Communications team scouted connectivity in the towns of Palo and Tanauan, where mobile and data connections were low. Team member Ernani Celzo with The United Methodist Church recorded GPS coordinates on the Global Medic headquarters as part of his work in mapping and collecting data through a mobile survey tool. Global Medic is an UMCOR partner.

On Nov. 21, the United Methodist Communications team split into two groups to cover more areas of concern. The first team helped set up a wireless link at the Save The Children headquarters from a United Nations-Emergency Telecommunications Cluster satellite connectivity. The second team met with partners with InterNews and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and we connected them with local media in the Philippines, including radio and television stations, Solar News and the Philippine Information Agency.

We also assessed two towns in Western Samar for connectivity in both cellular and data services and radio frequency communications. Upon returning to Manila Nov. 22, we met with Darryl Osias, Bishop Ciriaco Francisco's assistant, to discuss communications needs in the episcopal area. The team made recommendations for improving communications not just in the Davao area but for churches and communities throughout the Philippines.

Following the assessment trip, the partners with United Methodist Communications, Inveneo and The United Methodist Church in the Philippines are planning next steps. Those could include formation of a communication response team that could set up communications systems in the affected areas, and establishing a center of communications for the church in the Philippines.

Further communications assessment is needed in Eastern Leyte and Western Samar, where connectivity is still low. The areas where our 12 directly affected local churches are located are a priority.

We are strategizing on providing additional training and equipment to partners in the Philippines. Two-way radio systems are particularly important for church leaders such as district superintendents as well people involved in relief. The United Methodist Communications team provided UMCOR staff with an offline mapping tool in an Android device for easier assessment of location and sites to be visited for relief distribution.

Among next steps, the partners also are discussing how radio - either ham radio or FM - can be used to support recovery. We have identified needs for training in radio, disaster preparedness and crisis management.

There are important points to consider as we move forward:

  • Relief operations are not limited to food, water and shelter. Communication provides a lifeline for the community and must be established after any disaster. During our team's Nov. 19-22 assessment, we found that communication was limited to cellular phone access (SMS texting and calls) in the hardest-hit towns of Leyte and Samar provinces. A stable communications system that will work even when all else fails is a real need in the church, especially during and after every disaster.

  • We can amplify the impact of the church in a community if communication facilities are set up. The church can serve as a staging ground in relief operations and other disaster-related response activities.

  • Rehabilitation efforts can be a ministry opportunity. We can reach out to more people in the community with socio-psychological counseling, focused ministries through radio, fundraising campaigns and evangelism, livelihood-generation programs and adoption of a household or an entire community until they can stand on their own feet.

For more information about this project, contact UMNS news media contact: Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or