Principal in storm-weary Guiuan faces immense task of rebuilding school

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Sister Amelia Sabada, a member of the Religious of the Virgin Mary and principal of St. Mary's Academy, poses for a photo Feb. 9 outside the convent where she began praying when Typhoon Haiyan first struck in Guiuan, Philippines. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

GUIUAN, Eastern Samar, Feb. 11, 2014 (CNS) — A mid-morning downpour left large pools of water on the second floor of St. Mary’s Academy where, until Nov. 8, students learned computer skills, wrote short stories and solved algebra equations.

Without a roof, the top floor of the school is open to the elements — baking sun and tropical rainstorms alike — courtesy of Typhoon Haiyan.

Yet, Sister Amelia Sabada, a member of the Religious of the Virgin Mary and St. Mary’s principal, is hardly alarmed as she guides visitors on a tour of the damaged school, tiptoeing in sandaled feet through an inch or so of water.

The repairs will come in due time, she said. Her immediate goal is to make sure that the school’s 593 students in grades seven through 12 complete the necessary classes for the current academic year. The school year has been extended until late April, an extra month.

Sister Amelia said the most important task is to help the seniors prepare for college entrance exams, and that means making sure that they finish the coursework they missed during the two months the academy was closed because of the typhoon.

Classes are conducted on the school’s first floor, which escaped with minimal damage, and in temporary classrooms under a canvas tent in the school courtyard. The classrooms are crowded, but the work of educating students is continuing, she said.

“I’m sure our students understand the situation that their classroom is not what it was before,” Sister Amelia said.

Nothing is what it was before in Guiuan, a city of 47,000 located on a peninsula of southernmost Samar Island. The peninsula was where Haiyan first made landfall, lashing the city and nearby rural communities. While Guiuan was not battered by the tsunami-like storm surge that inundated Tacloban and Palo on Leyte Island, farther west, Haiyan’s winds tore through buildings, toppled power lines and uprooted trees. Rescue teams struggled to reach the city, which was virtually cut off from the rest of the country.

To visitors, Guiuan looks as if it were bombed. Roof tresses on warehouses and office buildings are mangled. Tarps from various relief agencies cover homes where people decided to return; more severely damaged homes were abandoned. Hulks of vehicles remain under debris. Electrical and water service are nonexistent.

Philippine officials said 110 people died and another 3,625 were injured in the city. Rescuers during the days after the storm expressed surprise that the casualties were not higher given the extent of the damage. Here, residents heeded evacuation orders.

Once the school reopened Jan. 6, Sister Amelia and her staff spent the first day of classes listening to students describe their experiences of riding out the typhoon. Since then, she told Catholic News Service Feb. 9, the students talk about the storm less and seem to have adapted to new daily routines even if their surroundings are chaotic.

The same holds true for the city, she said.

“I believe the people are slowly picking up their lives. People are smiling,” Sister Amelia said.

Next door, a weary Msgr. Lope Robredillo, pastor of the historic 18th-century Immaculate Conception Church, discussed how the parish staff has responded to the needs of the community from what’s left of the parish rectory. The building’s second floor, with just a couple of walls remaining under a temporary roof, serves as a kind of command center-parish office-makeshift sleeping quarters for the three diocesan priests assigned to the church.

The parish totals about 20,000 members, nearly half the city’s population and, Msgr. Robredillo explained, parish staff and volunteers are doing as much as they can in the face of the huge need.

“They are zealous,” he said.

Food and building materials are distributed as soon as they are received from diocesan headquarters in Borongan, about 70 miles north. The priests visit what’s left of the neighborhoods to celebrate Mass, offering emotional and spiritual support to parishioners.

“We talk little about the typhoon,” Msgr. Robredillo said. “Most of what we talk about are the concerns for building their house.”

Mass is also celebrated under a steel-roofed shelter in a small courtyard outside of the rectory. Approximately 100 people can be seated on plastic chairs and a few wooden pews salvaged from the 300-year-old church. The altar cloth waves in the wind. A statue of Mary decorated with plastic flowers and ferns stands off to the side. When it rains, as it did after the morning Masses Feb. 9, puddles turn the ground into sticky mud.

Bishop Crispin Varquez of Borongan has visited the community to deliver emergency supplies. His presence and support has been welcome, Msgr. Robredillo said.

“The bishop has encouraged us to stay put in the parishes and continue to work on distribution of gift goods and rehab materials. He encourages by visiting the parishes, because the diocese cannot do many things. Its resources are limited. It’s also dependent on the donations coming from the (Philippine) Catholic bishops’ conference and private individuals.

“The task is so huge,” Msgr. Robredillo added.

Plans are underway for a new church just across the street from the destroyed landmark, Msgr. Robredillo explained, so that people have a decent place to worship. Because of the old church’s status in Philippine history, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines will oversee its restoration, but that is expected to take 10 to 15 years, he said.

The Religious of the Virgin Mary congregation have committed to rebuilding the school. Sister Amelia said engineers and architects have visited to begin mapping a reconstruction plan. They were expected to visit the school by the end of February once again to determine when construction can start, she said.

While the congregation is paying for the repairs, Sister Amelia and her staff must raise funds to buy new computer equipment, outfit science labs, acquire textbooks, restock the library and purchase desks, teaching supplies and the many necessities that make a school and school, she said.

Sister Amelia acknowledged the task is daunting. But she expects that God and Mother Ignacia, foundress of her congregation, will intervene to ensure success.

“I continue to pray all shall be well,” she told CNS. “We still have lots of things to do. It’s not easy to restore the school.” (Dennis Sadowski/Catholic News Service)

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