The images of the devastation caused to the Philippines by super typhoon Haiyan were shocking and upsetting.
More than 6,000 people were killed with the death toll rising, while an estimated four million were made homeless by the super typhoon, which made landfall in the Philippines on November 8.
Across the globe, millions have been moved to donate to the relief effort, with people in the UK alone giving in excess of £57 million.
But one local semi-retired couple went much further than that – and decided to go to the disaster zone themselves to help.
Bruce Pullman, a 56-year-old management and logistics consultant, and his wife Jo, 60, who runs a holiday lets business, live in Lymington and had little connection with the Philippines.
But they made the snap decision to fly out with a supply of enough water purification units to last 5,000 people a year and to see what else they could do once they arrived.
Around six months ago, they met a young couple who live in the Philippines. When the typhoon struck they got in contact to check if their new friends were OK. They said they were, as they lived in the north of the country, but added that they were heading south with some aid to the disaster zone and that if Bruce and Jo wanted to fly to Manila a few days later they could join them.
The couple had less than two days to decide if they were going to go and their flights were just four days after that conversation, which would see them arrive in the Philippines 11 days after the super typhoon hit.
Before they spoke to their friends in the Philippines they hadn’t given any thought to going there to help, but something clicked and they knew it was the right thing to do.
Bruce contacted the World Health Organisation to find out what aid was most needed and was told it was water cleansing units, so the couple bought as many as they could take on the plane – 144 units – packed their rucksacks and went.
Even though they had seen the images on the television, they were shocked by what they found.
“It was very sobering to be there,” says Bruce of their arrival in Tacloban after a 36- hour drive.
“It was as if one of our town centres had been devastated by a tidal wave. Nothing was working. There was no electricity, no buses, no shops open.”
They saw dead bodies, seafront areas where all the houses had been swept away and acres of twisted rubble, cars, boats and other debris heaped up as high as a two-storey building.
The couple’s past experience of aid work – Bruce, a part-time preacher, used to drive aid lorries to Romania – led them to a church in Palo in Leyte run by a pastor who had around 40 churches under him.
They were welcomed with open arms – it was the first aid from outside that they had received.
Bruce admits that before they arrived at the church he’d doubted his decision to go to the Philippines.
“I felt very scared and apprehensive when we went to Tacloban that first morning. I wondered if we were getting in the way of professional organisations,” says Bruce.
“But now I don’t feel we were in the way at all – especially once we had made contact with the church.”
Jo and Bruce paid for petrol to run the church’s electricity generator and money for food. After a couple of days, Bruce headed back to the north of the country to preach at a Christian conference and also to source supplies that the community in Palo desperately needed – including chainsaws so that fallen palm trees can be turned into planks to rebuild houses, electricity generators and tarpaulins for people to patch damaged buildings and build shelters under.
The couple initially paid for the items themselves, but have been largely refunded through around £5,000 private donations collected via the couple’s church in Southampton, although they paid the cost of their flights, own expenses and some donations while they were in the Philippines.
Jo stayed with the pastor’s wife to help manage a medical aid operation for 3,000 people.
“People have said I was brave, but I didn’t feel I was brave at all,” she says.
“I didn’t feel we’d done anything foolish in going.”
Although the couple say that they largely felt very safe in the Philippines, they admit that they bought Christmas presents for their three grown-up children before they left and let them know where they were in case anything happened to them.
And while they found it hugely rewarding being able to directly help people so desperately in need, from Bruce sourcing more than 100 tarpaulins to Jo comforting people who had lost loved ones, it was also distressing.
“One day I wept in the pastor’s arms,” says Bruce.
“It was very upsetting.”
“Sometimes I realised the magnitude of everything and it felt overwhelming,” adds Jo.
The couple spent three weeks in the Philippines and found it hard to return home. They are planning a return trip.
They both feel the experience has changed them and, for the time being at least, raising funds and awareness to help people in the Philippines is their priority.
“There is so much that needs to be done but we don’t let it overwhelm us,” says Jo.
“We feel that anything we can do is better than nothing.”
“We are a couple of semi-retired people,” says Bruce.
“We’ve shown that it’s possible for an ordinary couple like us to get up and go and make a real difference.”
Bruce and Jo are appealing for funds to pay for galvanised iron sheeting for roofing, nails and concrete, all for rebuilding homes and for basic stationery and cheerful posters for a wrecked junior school.
- To make a donation, visit justgiving.com/typhoon-reconstruction or text ASAP77 with a donation amount to 70070. E.g. to donate £5 text ASAP77 £5