We knew that Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) was coming – we were in the Baguio City area of the Philippines when we saw the first newspaper headlines. Although we would later head in the storm’s direction, reports showed that it would hit about 500 miles from us. The objective of the team – United Methodist Communications (General Commission on Communications member Marshall Bailey and myself), Pacific Northwest Annual Conference (Rev. David Valera and Kristin Joyner) and Inveneo (Bruce Baikie) – was to assess communication needs of the three Episcopal Areas in the Philippines through in-country listening and workshops. UMCOR Field Representative Ciony Eduarte shepherded the team from one location to the next – keeping up to date on the storm’s path through her iPad’s wireless access.
We traveled there, thinking that some of the new information and communications technology (ICT) developed for low-resource settings could benefit the church and its communities. In four workshops, we presented FrontlineSMS, and how conferences and districts could use it to stay in touch with pastors; Ushahidi, and how UMCom’s mapping program had successfully geo-located churches in the Baguio City Episcopal Area; Worldreader and biNu – that provide electronic books to people who lack access to printed ones; MedicMobile – which is changing the way healthcare professionals respond to patients; extending Wi-Fi signals, and increasing Internet access.
We headed towards Manila on Thursday in a van, noticing along the way how billboards had been rolled-up in preparation for the storm. When we went to bed that night, the news was projecting the storm’s landfall by morning. Dawn broke and there was heavy rain and wind in Manila. We traveled to the UMCOR office, where staff was following the online storm tracker projected onto a wall. Everyone was waiting – until it hit, it would be impossible to tell what was needed where, and how to best deliver needed supplies. First responders were deployed, and UMCOR waited for their assessment – ready to act with volunteers from Union Theological Seminary who speak the local dialects of the Visayas.
The eerie silence of Saturday morning came, as friends and colleagues in the affected areas did not answer calls. Communication systems to Tacloban and other parts of the country were broken.
As the traditional relief of food, clean water, shelter and medical care started pouring in, so have ICTs that power communications relief in connecting resources with needs and those who are hurting. United Methodist Communications is working with experienced relief groups who’ve responded in this way – NetHope, World Food Programme/Emergency Telecommunications Cluster – so the church can respond effectively to its communities – both in relief and recovery.
On Friday, November 8, United Methodist Communications deployed a communications relief team to begin local assessment and direct collaborations with these and other groups. Local church laity April Gonzaga-Mercado (Manila, Philippines) and Ernani “Nhots” Celzo (Baguio City, Philippines) received two Inveneo communication engineers from San Francisco, California – Andris Bjornson and Clark Ritchie to provide leadership and training in using the ICTs in this context. Bjornson – Chief Technology Officer at Inveneo was a lead on the Haiti communications relief strategy following the 2010 earthquake. Ritchie is Inveneo’s Senior Systems Architect, considered “Jack of All Trades” in networking and communications technology for low-resource areas. Together, this team will work with United Methodist Church leaders (including UMCOR) to help meet immediate needs, and plan longer-term communications relief.
As I think back over our time in the Philippines, I see how communications played a role in our safety – from the first newspaper headlines to the SMS and wireless transmissions received. I also see how the technologies we explored in workshops can provide immediate relief and long-term aid in coordinating rebuilding efforts. Communications can be both lifesaving and transformative. My prayer is that the power of communications is used for transformation in the days, weeks, and years ahead – and that the Word of God is a very near presence for the many hurting and broken hearts.
11.19.13 The Communications Relief Team is currently responding to needs as possible. United Methodist Communications will work with church leaders and relief organizations to develop a plan for ongoing communication operations. If you are interested in learning how you can be involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.