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Typhoon recovery: Sleepless nights for those in search of help and giving help

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If you imagine everything that you’ve ever had is completely gone, I mean, that’s what they’re dealing with. – Craig Weston

EDITOR'S NOTE: Deseret News journalist Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call are in the Philippines reporting on the recovery efforts underway following Typhoon Haiyan.

CEBU CITY, Philippines — Ever since the storm, Benson E. Misalucha finds it hard to sleep.

There is too much to do.

Along the coast of the Philippines the wreckage from the storm festers under the sun — villages flattened, trees pulverized to splinters, the smell of decay and rot rising with the heat. Misalucha knows that far away from the attention of the world, in little villages most people don’t know exist, water is scarce and people are hungry. That’s where he wants to go.

Misalucha is the country director for Humanitarian Services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or to put it more bluntly: disaster relief coordinator for a country that regularly sees typhoons, not to mention the occasional earthquake and volcano eruption. It’s a wonder Misalucha ever sleeps at all.

In the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck landfall on Nov. 8, the attention of the LDS Church in the Philippines centered on the fate of 204 missionaries serving around Tacloban, a city of 236,000 that was hit hardest by the storm. But now, as the international recovery effort enters its second week, the attention of church leaders here has shifted fully to its members, continuing an effort that began as soon as the storm subsided to get them food, blankets, water and anything else they need to survive.

The missionaries Misalucha obsessively tracked, and then helped evacuate to Manila on a C-130 military transport last week, have been reassigned to other missions or sent home. But many members caught in the storm have nowhere else to go. Home, for some, no longer exists.

Looting and lawlessness in places like Tacloban have slowed recovery efforts, but Misalucha says things are getting better, and that relief supplies like rice and water, brought in by Osprey aircraft and cargo planes from the U.S. military, are beginning to make their way through the disaster zone. Still, an estimated 3 million people have been displaced, and while the official death toll is now at 3,681, nearly 2,000 are reported missing.

This week, Misalucha hopes to make contact with local LDS leaders throughout the Tecloban region to get an accurate count of fatalities and a reckoning of the damage done. But most importantly, he wants to know how the church in the Philippines, which is headquartered in Manila, can help, both church members and non-members.

Church officials are reaching out to local and international charities to work together. On this Sunday afternoon at a chapel in Cebu City, which has become a sort of staging ground for the international relief effort, Misalucha is meeting with representatives of CharityVision, a Salt Lake-based group that has come to the Philippines to distribute medicine, food and materials for shelters.

“If you imagine everything that you’ve ever had is completely gone, I mean, that’s what they’re dealing with,” says Craig Weston, who has traveled from Highland, Utah to oversee CharityVision's work. “These people have the clothes on their back and nothing else, so anything we can provide helps, but the challenges are just living. How do we get enough food?”

The church and CharityVision work together assessing needs. This helps CharityVision decide what would be the most effective use of their volunteers time and effort.

For CharityVision, to be able to parachute into a country and have the infrastructure of the LDS Church makes its work more effective, getting volunteers and goods to the areas that need it immediately.

While Misalucha and Weston talk about the logistical challenges of getting cargo trucks in to Tacloban, where the gunfire of looters still sporadically erupts, a group of boys from LDS congregations in Cebu load CharityVision trucks with tarps and other supplies for temporary shelters. Weston says he is worried about the sicknesses that living exposed in a storm zone for so long can bring. He hopes the tarps will help.

“We need to get them back on their feet, help them get some shelter, so they can live for the next couple weeks or months till the real system is back in place,” he said.

More supplies are on their way, Weston promises, including chainsaws to remove debris, and generators to provide needed electricity in the clean up effort. Weston says he planned to utilize LDS leaders in each area to figure out what members needed most.

As the sun sets behind the chapel, Misalucha finalizes his plans for the week, saying he wants to visit members in Ormoc, a city flattened by the typhoon, and then head to Tacloban. It will be an arduous journey by ferry and truck that will begin in the middle of the night and last for hours. Misalucha is most eager to reach a string of little fishing villages along the coast that have largely been forgotten by other aid groups.

“What we’re trying to accomplish with these people is to give them some tools, give them the ability to rebuild and that’s really what they’re asking for,” Weston says. “I mean everybody that I talk to, they’re not looking for a handout, they’re literally looking for a little bit of help so they can do it themselves, which is what they’re currently doing.”

Not far away, Misalucha and a group of Filipino church members huddle in a hallway of the chapel, heavy bags of rice at their feet, hashing out the particular duties of the coming days.

There is so much to do. Finding sleep will prove difficult.

Those who wish to donate to the LDS Church's humanitarian aid effort may contribute at give.lds.org/response.