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Philippine typhoon death toll passes 370; agencies respond in isolated areas

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MANILA, Philippines — Catholic bishops in the Philippines have declared Christmas Day and Dec. 26 as national days of prayer and mourning for victims of Super Typhoon Rai that ravaged southern and central parts of the country.

The bishops' conference Dec. 20 called on all dioceses to dedicate both days to those affected by the storm, which weather observers said was the most powerful to make landfall in the island nation this year, ucanews.com reported.

The Philippine National Police said Dec. 21 that the death toll had risen to 375 while 56 people remained missing. Hundreds of people were injured and more than 400,000 people were displaced by the intense storm, which made landfall several times Dec. 16-17.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines also encouraged dioceses to hold a second collection at all Masses during the days of prayer for the victims.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, conference president, appealed to Catholics to reconsider having extravagant parties and instead donate what they would have spent to the typhoon victims.

"Perhaps instead of spending on a lot of lavish Christmas parties and exchanging gifts, we can put together whatever we can and contribute to relief operations," he said in a Facebook post.

He also posted a text message from Bishop Antonieto Cabajog of Surigao, one of the worst-hit areas, describing the storm and appealing for aid.

"Blinding torrential rains and howling winds no man could take standing up hammered us for more than three hours. Not only were trees uprooted and rooftops ripped from homes battered like dollhouses, electric power and all forms of communication were cut off, literally isolating us from the rest of the world," Bishop Cabajog said.

Bishop David urged parishioners to donate to the Alay Kapwa Solidarity Fund, which is used by the Catholic Church in the Philippines in response to emergencies.

"We encourage everyone to remit all collections to Caritas Philippines that will then plan and implement our overall response," he said.

Meanwhile, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international humanitarian and development agency, was preparing to respond in the disaster zones with shelter kits, water purification kits and hygiene supplies.

"CRS staff and partners on the ground are assessing the damage caused by Typhoon Rai. We have prepositioned 10,000 emergency shelter kits, 2,000 water purification kits, 1,700 hygiene kits and 1,700 cooking kits for distribution in hardest-hit areas," Karen Janes Ungar, CRS country representative in the Philippines said in a press release.

"We are concerned for those in coastal areas, particularly the elderly, children and the disabled," Ungar added. "We are also concerned about the safety of families in evacuation centers especially since COVID-19 continues to be a threat."

The agency also said that the evacuation of thousands of people ahead of the storm likely saved lives.

A report from a CRS emergency program officer in southern Leyte province, where the typhoon made landfall twice, reviewed the devastation caused by gusting winds and heavy rain.

The officer, Aprilyn Villamar, said up to 90% of homes were destroyed and water distribution was disrupted in the region.

"People need ready-to-eat meals, water, thermal kits and emergency shelter, but delivery of humanitarian aid remains a challenge because many roads are not passable and not yet cleared of fallen trees and electric posts," Villamar said. "Many families also need livelihood support. Fishers lost their boats and farmers their crops."

CRS said that some families in the southern Philippines are traveling at least three hours to markets and banks in Butuan City. The islands of Siargao and Dinagat remain isolated because of damage in ports.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021