By Philip Pullella and Manuel Mogato, Reuters
Posted at 01/17/2015 10:18 AM
TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – Storms greeted Pope Francis when he arrived in the central Philippines city of Tacloban on Saturday to pray for the dead and comfort survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the country’s worst natural disaster that killed 6,300 people barely a year ago.
Tens of thousands of people wearing yellow raincoats cheered when Francis emerged from his plane in the coastal city of Tacloban 650 km (400 miles) southeast of Manila in steady rain and strong winds.
Francis began a Mass near Tacloban airport wearing a transparent yellow poncho over his vestments as heavy rain and strong winds lashed a large crowd of worshippers, who stood amid puddles in a mud-soaked field.
The storm was an eerie reminder of Haiyan, which hit the same area with 250 kph (155 mph) winds and created a seven-metre high storm surge, wiping out almost everything in its path when it swept ashore on Nov. 8, 2013.
Francis’s day trip to Leyte province gives him another opportunity to speak about climate change ahead of a major document on the environment he is due to issue in June.
The Pope will celebrate Mass at the airport and then see for himself the devastation wrought by Haiyan, the strongest storm to make landfall on record, when he goes to the nearby town of Palo to have lunch with survivors.
Speaking at the presidential palace on Friday, the Pope admired the “heroic strength, faith and resilience” shown by the Philippines as well as the solidarity people demonstrated after the typhoon.
The storm destroyed around 90 percent of the city of Tacloban in Leyte province. More than 14.5 million people were affected in six regions and 44 provinces. About one million people remain homeless.
The government estimates it needs almost 170 billion pesos ($3.8 billion) to rebuild the affected communities, including the construction of a four-metre high dike along the 27-km (17 miles) coastline to prevent a repeat of the disaster.
Nearly 3,000 victims are buried in the city’s almost half-hectare mass grave site. Hundreds are still unaccounted for.
Germanwatch, a think tank partly funded by the German government, said in a report last year the Philippines was the country hardest hit by extreme weather in 2013.
Francis waded into the climate change debate on Thursday, telling reporters that he believed that man was primarily responsible for climate change and that he hoped this year’s U.N. climate meeting in Paris would take a courageous stand to protect the environment.
The Pope said his long-awaited encyclical on the environment was almost finished and that he hoped it would be published in June, ahead of the U.N. conference in November.
“I don’t know if it is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature,” he told reporters on the way to Manila.
Those words were his clearest to date on climate change, which has sparked worldwide debate and even divided conservative and liberal Catholics, particularly in the United States.
“I think man has gone too far,” he said. “Thank God that today there are voices that are speaking out about this,” he said.