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Filipinos in Maryland racing to reach loved ones, respond with aid after typhoon

Leaders of various local nonprofits to meet this week to structure 'sustained' response

By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

6:45 PM EST, November 11, 2013

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Sonia Neumeier didn't know her family in the Philippines lost everything in Super Typhoon Haiyan until the retired Army nurse and Owings Mills resident received an email from her brother.

Her hometown of Sara, in Iloilo province, hasn't been in the news, which has focused on larger devastated cities like Tacloban to the east, but it was nonetheless wiped out when the monster storm tore through the Pacific nation's islands last week.

"My mother, my sister, brother, cousins, friends, neighbors — their homes are all gone. They are at the shelter," Neumeier said Monday. "The roads are all gone, the bridges, so there is no way of knowing what's going on."

Neumeier, 59, has spent the last couple of days seeking more information, receiving text messages with updates from helicopter surveys and making calls to see if anyone can tell her more about her mother's condition at the shelter. And, as the president of the Rotary Club of Pikesville-Owings Mills, she also launched a broader effort to raise relief aid, hoping to send as much assistance as possible.

Even as some wait to hear from loved ones still missing in regions devastated by Haiyan — one of the largest storms ever to make landfall — members of the Baltimore region's large Filipino community are racing to send aid to their native country, organizers say.

Some are collecting clothing and food. Others are looking to encourage cash donations. Still others are trying to ensure that the outpouring of support translates into a lasting commitment to help rebuild.

"We need to have a sustained effort in the long term. This is not just about giving them food right now," said Luis Florendo, president of the Katipunan Filipino-American Association of Maryland. "We have so many organizations here, but we want to do it all as one concerted effort, so that we have a bigger impact."

Florendo's organization is working with the Hunt Valley-based Foundation for Aid to the Philippines (FAPI) and other groups on the logistics of a group fund-raising effort. The groups' leaders, including Neumeier, are meeting in Towson on Thursday to brainstorm.

The typhoon, with winds reaching 150 mph, cut power and phone lines, leveled buildings, destroyed roads and flattened crops. As of Monday night, nearly 10,000 were reported dead in Tacloban city alone, with thousands more reported missing. The United Nations expects the death toll to rise sharply as more remote areas are accessed. Millions have been affected.

Food and water are scarce in some parts of the country. Millions of dollars in relief aid is beginning to pour in from the international community, including the United States and the world's largest relief agencies.

Many in Baltimore have expressed a desire to do what they can, too, even if they feel helpless in other ways, Florendo said.

"The hardest-hit areas were in the central region, and we have a lot of family in those areas," he said.

Dr. Marieta Caragay, president of FAPI and a Baltimore pediatrician who lives in Hunt Valley, said she has started collecting clothing and food items from the community.

The organization had already been planning to send a team of doctors, nurses and paramedics to the Philippines in February — it has made similar trips in the past — and has lots of connections in Tacloban, one of the worst-hit areas.

"We know the people who are in charge of distributing these things," Caragay said. "We just really want to collect as much as we can so we can help that area."

Dr. Evangeline Garcia, a psychiatrist on the Eastern Shore who grew up in Tacloban before coming to the United States in 1959 and starting a career with the Air Force, said she hardly recognizes her hometown in the images of devastation streaming over the news.

"That is my town, and it's so sad," she said.

Communication has been impossible with family in Tacloban, Garcia said, but she has been in touch with her niece, Victoria Noel, a member of the Philippine congress who has talked to the family.

Garcia, who now lives in Cambridge, said she has long shipped boxes of canned goods and other items to help build up a stockpile of emergency goods at her niece's An Waray party offices in Tacloban, but word from the town is that "all those [goods] we have stuck up in case of calamity were washed off" in flooding.

Once she gets more information back from her niece, Garcia said, she will begin sending food again.

"It is sad. I can't imagine how we can rehabilitate the whole town," Garcia said, "but I guess Filipinos are very resilient, so we will be OK, I hope."

Florendo, 52, who has extended family in the Philippines, said social media websites have been critical for getting in touch with family in recent days.

"Unfortunately, some of our friends and family have perished, but at least through these sites, it's a little bit more comforting to know at least there is an avenue" to try to communicate, he said.

Some parts of the country are so devastated that victims can't be reached from the outside, he said.

Florendo said his aunt has yet to reach her first cousin's family. In Filipino culture, he said, "our extended family is really very much like our immediate family," so almost everyone is feeling a personal toll from the storm.

"Sometimes with the enormity of something like this, you think, 'What can I do?'" he said.

Having so many Filipinos in the Baltimore area rallying together has given him and others hope, he said.

"We should not stop trying to help. Whatever we do now, we can still do more, because this is such a long-term impact," he said. "It's unfathomable to think something this horrible could happen, and so we just have to work hard on our empathy."

Neumeier is grateful her family is alive — though a cousin is still missing in Tacloban — but they are "not OK," she said. The family's farm was flooded and destroyed, and 80 percent of the town was flattened, she said.

"There's no market, no government, no schools," she said.

She said she hopes the relief support will be enough to help not only the larger cities, but also the smaller towns like Sara, where she was born, and its neighbors: Ajuy and Concepcion, Lemery and San Dionisio.

Every town deserves to be remembered as help arrives, she said.

"I'm trying to be the voice of the people who have no resources at all."

Tribune newspapers and Reuters contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Want to help?

Visit the Red Cross at RedCross.org and follow the link for the Philippines.

Local groups are organizing their aid efforts still but you can visit their websites:

•Katipunan Filipino-American Association of Maryland at katipunan.org

•Foundation for Aid to the Philippines at fapi.org