Wed | Jan 16, 2019

Pope braves storm to comfort typhoon victims

Published:Sunday | January 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Wearing a yellow raincoat, Pope Francis waves to the faithful after delivering a mass in Tacloban, Philippines, yesterday.

Pope Francis braved an approaching tropical storm yesterday to travel to the far eastern Philippines to comfort survivors of the deadly Typhoon Haiyan.

He was so emotionally undone by their loss that he barely found the words to offer solace, and then had to cut the trip short because of the dangerous weather.

Before he left the typhoon-wracked city of Tacloban, though, a soaking wet Francis brought many in the crowd to tears as he ached at their suffering and recounted how in the days after the November 3, 2013, storm he decided that he simply had to come in person to offer his comfort.

"I wanted to come to be with you," he told a rain-soaked crowd during Mass on a muddy airport field. "It's a bit late, I have to say, but I am here."

Haiyan slammed the areas around Tacloban with a storm surge two storeys high and some of the strongest winds ever measured in a tropical cyclone: 235 kilometres (147 miles) per hour, as clocked by United States satellites. It levelled entire villages, left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, and displaced more than four million people in one of the country's poorest regions.

Francis joined Haiyan's victims in solidarity, donning the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho over his vestments that Mass-goers were given to guard them against the latest storm to batter their island.

Thought it didn't offer much protection, Francis insisted on travelling around Tacloban in his exposed, open-sided popemobile. He and his aides were so drenched by the time they boarded the earlier-than-expected flight back to Manila that trip organisers begged the flight crew to cut the air conditioning lest they catch cold.

The Pope cut his visit to Tacloban short because of Tropical Storm Mekkhala, which made landfall on nearby Samar Island two hours after he left, with winds of 100-130 kilometres (60-80 miles) per hour, the weather bureau said. The same weather system threatened to drown out Francis' closing Mass today in Manila that had been expected to draw record crowds.

Wind gusts in Tacloban were so strong that they knocked one of the large loudspeakers mounted for the Mass off its platform, hitting and killing a church volunteer, local media reports said. Police confirmed the 27-year-old woman's death, but didn't say how the loudspeaker fell.

Francis was informed of the death and asked his aides to investigate how he might share in the family's grief, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

While Francis' jam-packed, eight-hour Tacloban itinerary was cut in half, he refused to cut anything out. So, after an abbreviated emotional Mass, he went to have a 15-minute lunch with 30 survivors of the typhoon and hear firsthand of their losses.