British widower helps in post-typhoon rebuilding

Kyodo News

Posted at Mar 10 2014 10:53 PM | Updated as of Mar 11 2014 06:53 AM

LEYTE - For recently bereaved British widower James Thompson, working as a volunteer in the Philippines to help it recover from a devastating typhoon is his way of honoring his dead wife's memory.

On a recent Saturday, Thompson, a 28-year-old bricklayer, was carrying concrete blocks to a housing construction site in Tanauan, a town in Leyte, the central Philippine province that bore the brunt of last November's Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

"I'm here personally because of my wife," said Thompson, a native of Long Wittenham in England's Oxfordshire, who is taking part in activities under the International Disaster Volunteers umbrella.

"Before she died in December, she was trying to raise money, about 200 pounds, for the IDV to help the victims in the Philippines," Thompson told Kyodo News, speaking less than three months since his wife, Helen, a teacher, passed away from a stroke. They had only been married for four months.

"It was sad," an emotional Thompson said. "But after she died, she actually managed to raise about 30,000 pounds as of now. So, that's why I'm here now, to work in her memory."

Thompson arrived in Leyte in the third week of February and intends to stay for six months.

He and his wife were no strangers to responding to calamities abroad. According to their website, they travelled to Thailand in November 2005 to help rebuild houses and inspire children following the massive Indian Ocean tsunami that hit southern Thailand and elsewhere on Dec. 24 the previous year.

When Haiyan, the world's strongest typhoon to ever hit land, struck the Philippines and left massive devastation, Helen Thompson immediately set up the "JustGiving" page online to raise funds for the IDV's aid activities in the Philippines.

"Hopefully, the money can go towards helping schools, education and children because my wife was a teacher before she passed away," Thompson said.

Thompson said the IDV, which has set up a base in Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte, is involved in a number of rehabilitation activities in the island province, ranging from house construction to nutrition and even gardening.

Thompson is participating in the construction of 360 houses in the village of Pago in Tanauan town as permanent relocation shelters for families that are no longer allowed to live in no-build zones near the sea.

He and a few IDV colleagues spend around six hours daily at the site, working with local construction workers contracted by the government and private donors.

On Feb. 25, the first house was completed and President Benigno Aquino visited the site.

"It's nice working with the local workers. It's a lot of different people with good skills on construction. And everyone is very happy to see us. It makes you feel proud to be here. Everyone is happy to help," Thompson said.

Tanauan, which experienced up to 6-meter-high storm surges at the height of Haiyan's onslaught, needs to relocate around 1,200 families that used to live near the shore.

Haiyan left 1,375 people dead and 57 missing in Tanauan. It also caused 500 million pesos ($11.6 million) worth of damage to infrastructure.

Across the country, the death toll reached more than 6,200 while over 1,000 went missing. The total damage to infrastructure and agriculture was estimated at more than $905 million.

Thompson said he is impressed with the local people's optimism and welcoming attitude and the strength they have displayed despite their misfortune.

"I lost my wife, who was the most important thing in the world to me. But these people lost their families and homes. But they are still very positive. And they're very happy for us to be here, and very welcoming. It's just beautiful," he said.

Expressing appreciation to Thompson and other IDV members, Tanauan Mayor Pel Tecson said their volunteer work is a "great indication of the spirit of collaboration and helping each other," particularly on providing vital housing for Haiyan victims.

With IDV intending to launch long-term projects for Haiyan-affected communities, Thompson plans to spend a full year in the country after he completes his initial six-month stay.