Native Mainer Joseph Ferris III was on the Trans Siberian Express with no connection to the outside world when Category 5 Typhoon Haiyan blasted through the Philippines a little more than a week ago.
When Ferris, 37, first learned of the disaster from a Russian passenger, he was shocked. Then the world traveler and sea captain was moved to take action. In connection with his China-based business, Young Pioneer Tours, he will lead a volunteer disaster response team to the Philippines that is set to get to the stricken island nation at the beginning of December. The team plans to bring medical supplies, tools, building equipment and hands-on assistance to the small fishing-village island of Hilantagan, which reports say was completely destroyed by the storm.
“It was hard to comprehend the destruction on first learning, but getting online and seeing news reports really drove home to me the terrible situation the Philippines is dealing with,” Ferris said via email last week from Belarus, where he was leading a tour group. “I was going to take a vacation there in December, with flights already purchased, but my business partner suggested we start a relief effort instead. I instantly agreed, realizing that through our tour company network, we could really make a difference.”
Ferris grew up in the small central Maine town of China and graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1998. Since then, he has been on voyages and expeditions all over the world, and now works seven months of the year as chief mate of the research vessel Melville, which is operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
During the other five months, he recently has been leading groups of tourists to countries including North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Myanmar, or Burma. The up-and-coming Young Pioneer Tours describes itself as the “budget tour operator to the places your mother wants you to stay away from!”
But in the Philippines, the group’s mission will be very different than the usual tourist fare. Typhoon Haiyan, also called Yolanda, killed at least 3,633 people, left nearly two million people homeless and leveled the coastal city of Tacloban. A German forensic disaster analysis has estimated that reconstruction will cost the country as much as $19 billion. And the storm hit close to home for Ferris, who said he has many close friends who live there. Some of those friends are still looking for family members missing in the area affected by the typhoon.
Young Pioneer Tours Travel Director Christopher White wrote in a fundraising plea Saturday that he and Ferris will lead the team of 12 “and counting” volunteers to the Philippines. The team includes professional emergency medical responders, construction workers, security and relief personnel. By early December, organizers figure that the primary life-saving effort will be complete and the team will focus on bringing building supplies and getting houses and shelters built.
“We expect our team will grow to over 30 volunteers in the coming weeks,” White wrote. “We are structured, functional and extremely dedicated. We just need your support.”
The company is neither a nonprofit charity nor a nongovernmental organization, which has its perks, he and Ferris said.
“All people in our network of volunteers are flying themselves out. We have no network of charity organization bureaucracy to fund, so all money collected will go directly to buying equipment to rebuild homes,” Ferris wrote. “We are just going and putting our boots on the ground because we love the Philippines and close friends are affected.”
For more information about donating or volunteering with Young Pioneer Tours, visit the website www.indiegogo.com/projects/typhoon-yolanda-relief.