MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis will visit the typhoon-ravaged Filipino region of Leyte Saturday to bring support to the survivors of a tropical storm that killed thousands and devastated the region.
The 2013 storm killed more than 6,000 people, left 4.1 million displaced, damaged or destroyed 1.1 million homes, and overall affected a staggering total of 16 million people.
The one-day visit is the principal motive for the pope’s Jan. 15-19 papal trip to the Philippines, the second leg of an Asian tour that also took him to Sri Lanka.
Upon arrival on the island, one of more than 7,000 that make up the Philippines, Francis will celebrate Mass at the Tacloban airport, considered ground zero for the Typhoon known locally as Yolanda and internationally as Haiyan.
He’ll also have lunch with group of survivors of the super-storm, and the equally destructive 7.2 magnitude Bohol earthquake.
In Tacloban, the pope will find a town that is trying to put on its best face to welcome him, with the citizens of the impoverished area putting up thousands of white ribbons symbolizing purity and simplicity.
One of the victims who will share a meal with the pontiff has been identified by the local press as Grace, a 16-year-old orphan who lost every member of her family during the storm. Sheltered in a local orphanage, she was able to finish school and is currently beginning university.
Talking to reporters, she said she considers the opportunity to meet the pope a “tremendous blessing.”
Grace also said that in the months that followed the storm, she questioned God about the hardship of her situation: “I reached the point of blaming God, but gradually my feelings changed,” she said.
“I began to go to church again, even though I still find it hard, up to now, to completely accept what happened,” she said.
According to observers, it will take five to 10 years for the region to completely recover, and work could be delayed as a result of local bureaucracy, the lack of a clear development plan, and insufficient funds.
Delia Tantuico, an academic born in Tacloban but living in Manila since before the tropical storm, lost two relatives in the disaster. She said the vast rehabilitation of the region must to be paid for by both the local and national governments.
“The fact that the mayor isn’t aligned with the national government could delay the reconstruction even more,” Tanituico told Crux.
For Maejoy Campo, a medical doctor from Manila who’s been providing assistance to the region with the help of other medical volunteers, there’s still too much to be done to bring peace to the region.
Campo told Crux he’s thankful for the effort made by many international and local organizations that have contributed to a faster delivery of relief goods, hastening the recovery process.
He also said he hopes the world will help accelerate the process even more by helping with the construction of concrete homes that would provide security and stability.
Like Tantuico, Campo says reconstruction has been slower than desired, which is why he wants to see this and other projects assigned “to non-governmental organizations (international or local) wherein transparency is also practiced.”
In the years since the storms, people have lived in temporary shelters with galvanized roofs and walls made of bamboo, leaves, wood, and other local materials that don’t stop heavy rains, like the one that’s expected to hit the region during the pope’s visit.
As a footnote, the altar where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass has been built with the same materials, and experts say it won’t survive the wind if tropical storm Among, which entered the Philippines region Thursday, intensifies into a typhoon.
Campo said Leyte also needs projects to help the locals earn a livelihood and gain access to healthcare.
Emotional support for traumatized individuals is also needed, especially for the thousands who saw relatives and friends die before their eyes due to the storm surge, or who underwent sleepless nights during the rainy season in fear of another super typhoon.
These are things that, Campo knows, Pope Francis can’t provide. But he believes the papal visit will bring a ray of hope.
“It’s like getting a big pat and a strong hug from a father to his child, who has gone through so much suffering and discomfort,” said Campo.