Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ship to shore: Why I was driven to help the victims of killer cyclone

Mother of two Audrey Hallahan dreamed up an outrageous plan to send containers of life-saving supplies to the storm-ravaged Philippines. Last week her ambition became a reality when the boat finally came in. Susan Gately reports

Family values: Audrey Hallahan with Eimear and Oisín. Photo: John Power
Family values: Audrey Hallahan with Eimear and Oisín. Photo: John Power
The long voyage: Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goods
Help: Leyte in the Philippines after November’s cyclone
Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goodies
A man cuts the seal of a container after it arrives in the Philippines

Susan Gately

The TV images were cataclysmic. What was believed to be the most powerful cyclone to ever make landfall, had hit the Philippines on Friday, November 8, and the devastation in Tacloban City in Eastern Samar was total. Aerial shots showed an apocalyptic landscape. Millions homeless, lives shattered, thousands dead.

At home in her bungalow, a stone's throw from Clonea beach on Ireland's south coast, Audrey Hallahan viewed the images with dismay. "I was horrified but I felt helpless."

Audrey likes to walk the beach with her children, Oisín (11) and Eimear (4). That weekend was a dreary mix of drizzle and weak sunshine. As Eimear searched for "treasure" washed up on the shore, Audrey could only imagine what it felt like to be terrorised by the elements. Commentators were saying millions had been affected by Haiyan, half of them children. Her eyes fell on Oisín and Eimear.

On Tuesday, she was back in work in the family pharmacy, Hallahans, in Dungarvan. The talk was all about the typhoon. "It'd be great to do a concert," suggested a customer. As she left, Audrey had an idea. "What about a container?" She Googled "Cost of container to the Philippines". The answer was €34,000. "Mother of God!"

But the idea had taken root. Christmas was just around the corner. Irish people were finding the going tough. Instead of asking them for money, why not ask for goods – things they had lying around that were no use to them, but could prove vital to the people of the Philippines.

Her mother, Clare, had links to a group called Focolare which helped the poor of the Philippines. A phone call later, Audrey had a contact in Cebu. First thing next day she wrote to Delia Dalisay, director of Bukas Palad Foundation. "What we have seen here in Ireland on TV on the typhoon has been so disturbing and heart-breaking that I am compelled into action and need your help," she wrote on November 14. "I, along with any other volunteers, want to organise to send a container of goods."

A man cuts the seal of a container after it arrives in the Philippines

A man cuts the seal of a container after it arrives in the Philippines

Delia's response was immediate. "Thank you. The support of the whole world is our strength and courage to stand up and rebuild from the rubble." The foundation would happily take delivery of the container she said, listing the top 10 items they needed: toiletries, non-perishable food, bed linen, summer clothes, toys, door locks and room handles.

Through pharmaceutical contacts, Audrey got in touch with a logistics company, Ceva Logistics, which, despite never having done anything like this, said it would ship the container for under €2,000.

Before the weekend, Audrey and her co-worker at the pharmacy, Helen O'Donovan, wrote letters to schools, local community associations, the County Council, local media. "We thought one or two schools might get back to us. Instead everyone took it up," Helen recalls.

Monday morning, November 18, Audrey took to the airwaves on morning radio WLRFM. (Waterford Local Radio). Her impassioned mail seeking help hit its mark and the Déise Philippine Appeal, complete with Facebook page, was born.

Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goodies

Conor Mulhall, Bernie Flynn, Viki Lynch Mulhall and Sheila Flynn of Ballinameela community group fill trailers with goodies

"The response was overwhelming," she recalls. The council and Men's Shed Initiative started doing pick-ups, dropping the goods off at a donated storage facility. In Dungarvan, Hallahans pharmacy filled with sacks. "My family would ring and say, 'Audrey, the whole front of the shop is full of black bags. People can't get to Christmas displays, will you for God's sake get the stuff moved?'"

Meanwhile, cash donations were flowing in. The Enterprise Bar ran a raffle; Megan Foley (9) donated €60 raised by giving up TV; an anonymous donor dropped money into the letterbox asking for nothing more than a small note be posted in the shop window acknowledging the gift.

By December 15 schools were involved. Every class volunteered to collect an item on the 'wanted list'. Ten community groups were collecting and a number of pharmaceutical supply companies were donating materials. "I was lucky I worked for my family because otherwise I would have been fired," says Audrey laughing.

By now the loaned storage facility was too small. The Christmas lights went up around Dungarvan and their storage facility was empty. With slight trepidation Town Clerk Joe O' Flaherty offered the place to Audrey "But you have to be out by January 6."

But early December a huge obstacle appeared when Audrey learned it was illegal to send used clothes to the Philippines. In emails to Filipino government departments, she begged for an exemption. "How can I turn around to the thousands of people here in Ireland who have emptied their hearts and homes and tell them that we were not allowed to send their perfectly good clothes to people who need them?"

No said customs, no said the Filipino Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the diplomats Audrey appealed to were silent. At night Audrey worked with a small number of volunteers sorting and packing the goods into clear plastic bags. There were so many clothes...

Help: Leyte in the Philippines after November’s cyclone

Help: Leyte in the Philippines after November’s cyclone

"I am not giving up," she wrote to Delia on December 17. That December 19 was the anniversary of a dear cousin's passing . The night before, she and her mum said a prayer for a solution. Early the next day, Audrey was awoken by the ping of an email from the DSWD – they had found a way around the requirement. "I cried with relief. I felt my heart exploding in my chest."

Meanwhile, goods were still coming in. A linen supplier heard of the project and donated 5,000 bed sheets.

The shipment was due to leave on January 6, 2014, but a vital legal document, the Deed of Donation, was delayed in the Filipino Embassy in London. On January 2, Audrey rang the embassy. Everyone was on holidays. An emergency number got her through to an official dealing with lost passports. "This is not my area," said the lady, but as Audrey explained her dilemma there was silence. The woman was crying. "I can't believe what you are doing for my people. Thank you," she said, "I will find the Deed of Donation." She did, and it was fast-tracked through the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. A courier collected the precious document from Dublin, no charge. The solicitor waived the legal fees. They were set.

Monday January 6 dawned. Audrey watched as volunteers arrived to pack the container. The reaction as each entered the huge facility was the same: "Oh My God!" Then volunteers from the Men's Shed, Macra and local schools began packing the container.

Fr Jack Crean arrived to bless the containers and for a moment they stopped working. Once, he said, wise men brought gifts from the East to the West. Now the gifts were going eastwards. Sprinkling holy water, he blessed the goods and the people who would have them. By 3.30pm, the second forty foot container was filled and pulling out of the industrial estate.

"It was an emotional moment," Audrey recalls. "A huge relief. I had a feeling of achievement, that no matter what life throws at you, you can overcome it. So many times I had wanted to say – forget it." Back home she wrote to Delia: "These containers are filled with love and hope for all of you from the people of Dungarvan, Waterford and beyond..."

The consignment would not arrive quickly. Bad weather added a month to its journey. It took another week to satisfy legal requirements at Cebu Port. Finally on March 21, 2014, the containers were released from the port. Working until 3.00am, and again the next morning, volunteers unloaded them.

"They were very excited even though they knew the goods were not for them," said Allessandra Emide, a volunteer with Bukas Palad. "They were stunned to think the containers were travelling for two months, and that the goods had come from people literally on the other side of the world. The super cyclone brought destruction, but it also brought a super cyclone of love."

In weeks ahead the goods will be distributed among communities at Tacloban and Palo on Leyte Island, Bantayan Island and Kalibo on Panay Island. Back in Ireland, Audrey looks at the pictures of Filipinos unloading the containers. "I experienced pure relief, considering the bureaucracy right to the end, and... utter joy."


THE MANIFEST: Inside the two 40ft containers

Besides trying to organise a million different aspects of this trojan project, creating a list of what to send was a huge job in itself. This is what eventually arrived in the Philippines:

* 120 boxes of non-perishable food

* 60 boxes of toiletries (shampoo, laundry soap, bath soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste)

* 30 boxes of hand sanitisers

* 22 boxes of antiseptic wipes

* 2 boxes of disposable gloves

* 43 boxes of sandals/shoes

* 90 boxes of toys and books

* 12 mattresses

* 5,000 wrapped bed sheets

* 66 boxes of towels, sheets

* 69 bags of towels and sheets

* 300 bags of clothing

* 35 boxes of clothing

* 12 boxes of water

* 12 large water bottles

* 12 boxes of sweets for children

* 5 boxes of cuddly toys

* 20 bags of cuddly toys

* 5 boxes of torches, batteries and door handles

* 44 boxes of new baby bottles/beakers

* 2 boxes of rosary beads and holy water.

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