Typhoon Yolanda Relief in cebu city

Last weekend I got on a plane down to Cebu City, one of the Philippines’ largest metropolitan areas and the logistical hub for much of the typhoon relief operations. While the city itself wasn’t directly effected by the typhoon, remote areas in the north of Cebu island were some of the hardest hit. I worked with hundreds of volunteers all day Saturday and Sunday to help ship food aid up to these devastated areas.

In the morning and early afternoon sacks of rice were delivered in massive truckloads. All of the rice that we received at this particular volunteer center had been sent from Vietnam. A group of about thirty guys would unload the truck and bring the rice into the Capitol building to be sorted into family packs.

Unloading Sacks of Rice for Packaging

These bags weighed 125 pounds each! Over the two days that I was volunteering, we moved thousands of these things. Two volunteers would pick up one sack and put it on another guy’s back, as you can see above. This was hard work! After two days of this I had to mix in with the ladies who were sorting the rice (see below). My back is just now fully recovered.

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Once all of the rice had been portioned, it was repacked into the empty rice sacks (maybe not the most efficient way of delivering emergency food aid) and the guys carried them onto trucks. From there,they were shipped up north along with cans of sardines, coffee packets, and packages of noodles. Below, one of the three non filipino volunteers working at the Capitol over the weekend. A czech friend who happen to be sleeping in the bed next me at our hostel. As you can see by his two-toned shirt, this guy was a workhorse.

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On Sunday morning, after I bent down in a squat to carry my first sack of rice, I was over taken by a grunting speedster who didn’t look Filipino as he scooted past me. He sped ahead and beat me back to the truck to get his second sack. He enthusiastically pounded his shoulder, letting the Filipino rice sack picker-upper volunteers know that he wanted it loaded there, not on the back of his neck. Quickly, they obliged and with another grunt and a big smile he was out of sight. 125 lbs of rice supported by a maybe 150 lb frame. There was an obvious language gap between the Filipinos and our new hardest working volunteer, so I asked them where he was from. “Korea, Korea” they said, between lifting sacks. When he returned he told me that he was actually from Japan. I asked if he was traveling around the islands, as most foreigners do, and he replied that he flew all the way from Japan just to volunteer.

I was amazed, he took his week of vacation from work to come to Cebu to help victims of the super typhoon. I spread the word to all of the other volunteers, because I knew the Filipinos would really appreciate what he had done. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, as he had finally started to tire out, that he told me the real reason that brought him all the way from Japan. His best friend had been vacationing in Ormoc, one of the cities hit by the typhoon, and since the storm hit he hadn’t heard from him at all. It had been a week now, and he decided he had to go and look for him. He told me that the next day he was heading up to Ormoc to search through the destruction to find his friend. It was a heart-breaking story, but one that has been felt by so many as the death toll now rises over 5,000 people.

I haven’t heard from him since. While I hope that he was reunited with his best friend, I know that he helped a lot of others along the way. His energy in the face of a potentially devastating loss inspired everyone who was there that day. I didn’t get any pictures with him – he was moving too fast – but see below for a shot of some of our volunteer crew towards the end of a long day.

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