Church helps rebuild communications in Philippines

View photos by Andris Bjornson.

A United Methodist-led team has been providing communications relief in the Philippines this week, assessing needs and identifying ways to reconnect churches and communities after the recent typhoon.

Typhoon Yolanda, known outside the Philippines as Haiyan, destroyed much of the communications infrastructure across a wide swath of the central Philippines when it hit Nov. 8.

“The Philippine government issued a call to international organizations for assistance to urgently restore communications in the affected area,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. “This would help with everything from air traffic control to monitoring disease to informing people where clean water, food and medical assistance is available.”

The loss of communications capacity was “very serious,” he said. “It meant that people were not only unable to report on the extent of damage in the affected area, it meant that people in remote places were literally isolated and did not know of rescue and relief efforts.”

United Methodist Communications received inquiries from NetHope, a disaster communications organization, and the World Food Program Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, which also does emergency communications response, to consider partnering with them in helping to re-establish the severely damaged communications infrastructure, he said.

The communications agency worked with these and other partners in preparing to respond with a focus on assessing needs and restoring communications.

When Hollon contacted the Philippines bishops at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., with an offer of assistance, they accepted.

‘One year to restore power’

Bishop Ciriaco Francisco returned to the Philippines Nov. 22 and was preparing to meet with his staff for an update on the disaster, which struck the church’s Davao Episcopal Area. “According to my district superintendent, it will take one year to restore power to the area affected by the typhoon,” he said in a note to United Methodist News Service. “If that is the case, then the communications system which you will install will help a lot (for) the people of the area.”

The agency arranged for two engineers with Inveneo, a technology company specializing in communications for development, to go to the Philippines to assess church communications needs, do site assessments and recommend solutions. Inveneo responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by building a network that is used today by two telecommunications providers and covers nearly a third of the country, according to the company.

The Inveneo engineers were traveling with other United Methodist partners based in the Philippines, including April Grace G. Mercado, United Methodist Communications’ point person in the country. Ciony Ayo-Eduarte, the field coordinator for the United Methodist Committee on Relief in the Philippines, helped facilitate the team’s movement through the affected areas.

Through Internews, another partner, the team had access to an emergency radio station. Hollon noted that it “could be employed to broadcast information to people such as the location of food distribution points, health clinics and emergency room locations, sources of clean water and similar essential information during the recovery.”

The Inveneo engineers also provided four Android phones to UMCom/UMCOR and local staff for communicating in the disaster area. United Methodist Communications has been working with Inveneo to provide a satellite phone for partners in the country. (To view photos from Inveneo/Andris Bjornso click here)

“Most of the time access to communication is not given priority since our priority is to deliver help to people,” Ayo-Eduarte said in an email to United Methodist Communications. “We were able to have that access through the sat phone UMCom has provided, and the Inveneo engineers, Andris (Bjornson) and Clark (Ritchie), have opened up other access to the coordinating areas we visited.”

A communications lifeline

The team arrived in the hard-hit city of Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province, Nov. 18. Its visit included the distribution of food aid by UMCOR. From there, the team moved through the vicinity, visiting local churches and assessing needs. It finished the week in Manila, where team members met with staff in Francisco’s office to assess needs.

“For the people of Visayas, communication has become their lifeline,” Mercado wrote, referring to the Visayas islands that include Leyte. “It has become their shining beacon of hope that will connect them to the rest of the world. It is through communication that they were able to share their stories, catch up with surviving peers and family members. It is through communication that we can turn this tragedy into victory.”

Near the end of the week, Nov. 21, the team split up to cover more areas. One group met with pastors in the Tacloban area, including the Rev. Iris Picardal Terana. The pastor had been incommunicado after the storm and was feared lost, but, before the team’s arrival, she was finally able to get word out that she was alive after getting a new load on her mobile phone – another example of the power of communications in a crisis.

Members of the team mapped her church using one of the satellite phones provided by Inveneo. Using the phone’s mobile data collection tool, the team recorded the church’s coordinates for easy location, setting the stage for a possible connectivity project after the church is rebuilt. The team also provided relief to 25 families in the congregation, many of them now homeless, according to an email report by Mercado.

Other areas visited included Western Samar, where the team assessed cellular and FM radio conditions.

Team members also connected with Internews, Solar News TV and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on communications needs in the provinces of Leyte, Samar and neighboring areas, according to Mercado.

Internews, a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering local media worldwide, did a four-day assessment of information needs and communications access in the affected area. “Restoring the communication networks, including mobile phone and radio, must be a humanitarian priority as people are literally left in the dark in most areas,” said Jacobo Quintanilla, Internews’ director of Humanitarian Communication Programs, on the organization’s website.

Through communications with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, part of the team became aware of a need to connect the Save the Children office to the United Nations Internet network, according to Andris Bjornson, chief technology officer for Inveneo. He and United Methodist communicator Ernani Celzo assembled the wireless antennas and configured wireless equipment to connect the office.

Bjornson also spoke with a senior engineer with the Philippines Long Distance Telephone Company in Tacloban about restoring the network and cellular infrastructure in the area. Bjornson noted that the telephone/power poles were “in total disarray following the storm and will take time to restore.”

A clear message

United Methodist Communications was able to assist immediately in part because of the work done earlier in the month by a team visiting the Philippines. “Our constant communication and coordination has helped in quick response to the situation,” Ayo-Eduarte said in an email.

The United Methodist Communications team, led by the Rev. Neelley Hicks, visited the Philippines with partners from the denomination’s Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference and Inveneo. They listened to needs, did site assessments for information and communications technology centers, and trained United Methodist partners on the use of tools such as FrontlineSMS, which enables texting across large groups of users; the Ushahidi mapping tool;  Worldreader and biNu electronic reading tools; and MedicMobile, which enables health care providers to communicate easily with people in other areas.

“Our ability to communicate is not merely a matter of convenience or access to entertainment. And this is true around the world,” Hollon said. “It’s a matter of life and death in emergency situations such as a natural disaster.

“We say at United Methodist Communications that a clear message can save lives,” he said. “The Philippines disaster is an example of the critical role communications technologies have in our lives today.”

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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