When Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines in early November 2013, it left in its path thousands of people dead or missing; countless homes, businesses and infrastructure destroyed; and a nation on its knees.
Considered one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and the deadliest on Philippine record, 6,300 were confirmed dead with some reports up to 10,000, 16 million people were affected and 4.1 million were displaced.
Nearly a year later, major cities across the country are only just starting to rebuild with the help of aid workers and charitable organizations.
Issaquah resident Ruth Lopez, 49, whose parents were born in the Philippines, recently returned from a two-week stay in Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines.
“Coming from such a wealthy area like Issaquah, I thought it would be a travesty if I didn’t try and help,” Lopez said.
An experienced volunteer whose work has taken her to places like New Zealand, Madagascar and Fiji, Lopez decided to return to her roots, where she helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity International from late May to early June in Manila, Philippines.
After finishing the project in Manila, though, Lopez had time to kill, and felt she could do more.
Picking up on a lead from a friend, she traveled more than 350 miles southeast to Tacloban City, where she was told a group of schoolteachers were living in tents and makeshift shacks.
“I had been looking around for work as a construction volunteer, so they thought I would be able to come down and help build houses,” Lopez said. “So, I bought a one-way ticket hoping I could find enough work to keep me busy.”
The devastation in Tacloban City was the worst in the country.
According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, out of the 6,300 confirmed dead and 1,061 missing, Tacloban City accounted for 5,900 deaths and 1,005 missing.
“I toured through that area where the teachers lived and interviewed them,” said Lopez, who learned that some teachers lost their families to the storm. “Because there were so many people that lost their lives, it was difficult to identify them, so they took the bodies and put them in mass graves."
“As soon as you get out of the airport and start driving toward the city, all you see are tents and people living in little boxes made out of scrap metal or plywood.”
After witnessing the living conditions of the teachers and their students up close, Lopez began working with aid organization Kids International Ministries, through which she helped feed impoverished Filipino children.
Jeff Long, an American and the founder of KIM, has been working in the Philippines for more than 20 years.
“We arrive on the scene with relief goods, building supplies and construction workers,” Long wrote in an email. “We help the poor, orphans, widows and storm-stricken families.
“Ruth has been to the site and has connected with real people,” he said of Lopez. “She has their stories and wants to make a difference in their lives by building homes for them to have shelter.”
Since returning to Issaquah, Lopez has been working on a new project that she calls Homes for Teachers, in conjunction with KIM and Long. An average house in the Philippines costs about 300,000 pesos, or $7,000, and Lopez hopes to raise enough money through donations to build new houses in Tacloban for teachers.
“When I told him about the teachers, he said, ‘Let me help you,’” Lopez said regarding Long. “He said, ‘If you’re here to help the people of the Philippines, then I will help get you the funding, so that it can get to the people who need it.’ So, I really lucked out with that.”
Donate to Kids International Ministries at www.kidsim.org.