Leo Lacanaria, centre, has received overwhelming support from his work colleagues at South Gippsland Water’s Wonthaggi depot. Several other community organisations have also pitched in to help raise money for rebuilding efforts in the Philippines after November’s devastating typhoon.
LEO Lacanaria may have been far from his childhood home when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines early last month, but its aftermath has left him just as devastated.
The 47 year-old Wonthaggi resident recently returned to Australia after spending close to a month assisting with the mammoth clean-up effort in Jagnaya, a small coastal village with a population of around 500.
Situated in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, Jagnaya was one of countless villages left decimated when the Category 5 super-storm unleashed its fury during the first week of November.
Of the eight regions in the Philippines affected by the natural disaster, Eastern Visayas was the hardest hit, with more than 5700 confirmed dead and over 26,000 injured.
As of last week, more than 1700 people were still missing and the majority of the population has been left homeless.
Leo, a maintenance worker for South Gippsland Water, has experienced typhoons first-hand before, but when early reports came through about the damage wrought by the latest storm near his village, he feared the worst.
There was no way to contact his family members, so he did the only thing a man desperately wanting to make sure his loved ones were safe would do – he booked a plane ticket to Manila.
For several agonising days, Leo did not know whether relatives residing in Jagnaya were part of the growing death toll, and confirmation would not come until after he arrived.
Meeting up with his brother at Manila’s airport, he received news that made his heart soar.
His mother, father, niece and cousin had all sheltered in Jagnaya’s quaint elementary school – a building which, unlike most in the village, withstood Haiyan’s fury.
It wasn’t all good news, though.
Leo had arrived in the country mid-November, four days after Haiyan had finally dissipated, and one his cousins remained missing.
Sadly, the 23 year-old’s body was found three days later, washed up on rocks in a desolate area inland.
Leo says his cousin died a hero after attempting to help other family members in distress when a torrent of water swept through the village.
“He had already been running away but he came back to try and save other kids in the family,” Leo explained.
“He helped them and then he was last seen being carried away by the water.”
Leo says his cousin’s passing only added to the profound feeling of loss he experienced when first laying eyes on the aftermath of the storm.
The village he knew and loved was unrecognisable.
“It was shocking,” he said.
“Nearly every house I saw was either badly damaged or completely destroyed.
“When I first arrived, I started taking pictures, but I had to stop after a while because it was just so sad.”
While grieving for his cousin, Leo started the long, arduous task of helping to clean up and rebuild Jagnaya, which he says was literally carpeted with uprooted coconut trees.
“They were everywhere you looked,” he said.
“Every day, everyone would just be chopping at tree trunks.”
Leo built a temporary shelter out of recycled material from his destroyed childhood home, then he travelled back to Manila to purchase a chainsaw for his community to share.
“The clean-up seemed never-ending,” he continued.
“I tried to work as much as I could but because of the heat, I started suffering from asthma.
“My Mum told me not to do as much because I would be no use to anyone if I got sick, so I started working very early in the morning, stopped when it got too hot and then started again when it cooled towards the evening.”
Foreign aid workers assisted by building a more robust structure to shelter the displaced community and Leo hopes to return in six months to assist once more.
Leo had another mission when he flew over in November – to bring back a photo to his three young children, aged 11 and under, proving his family was safe and well.
“We went over to Jagnaya as a family just last September for a holiday,” Leo explained.
“I feel happy that my kids were able to see the village as it was.”
He passes on heartfelt thanks to his workplace and others in Wonthaggi, who have gone out of their way to help raise money for the relief effort.
“Staff at work have given money and I have been allowed extra time off work to help,” Leo said.
“I was really surprised people have been so generous.”
Powlett River Primary School and St Joseph’s Wonthaggi have raised over $400 between them and Wonthaggi’s Bendigo Bank branch organised a drive for much-needed underwear and hygiene products.
Over 100 pairs of undies and assorted toiletries have now been sent to Jagnaya.
A fundraising committee has opened a relief fund for anyone wishing to donate.
The details are: BSB: 633000; Account: 150772176. For further details, please email email@example.com.