Red Cross scrambles to trace kin missing in typhoon

Ernesto Mateo Gange, head of the International Network of Filipinos Overseas, points out the location where the typhoon recentely hit the Phillipines. Gange's group is currently raising money for disaster relief. ( KELSEY ANNE DUBINSKY/ Staff Photographer )
Ernesto Mateo Gange, head of the International Network of Filipinos Overseas, points out the location where the typhoon recentely hit the Phillipines. Gange's group is currently raising money for disaster relief. ( KELSEY ANNE DUBINSKY/ Staff Photographer )
Posted: November 13, 2013

Within hours of the typhoon that decimated central islands of the Philippines, the International Family Tracing center at the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania exploded with calls.

Working atop a raised command deck in the Philadelphia office, about a half-dozen operators trained in disaster support fielded scores of queries from people trying to reach relatives in the islands.

Operators listened. And they offered hope against the helplessness that many Filipino Americans, and others with loved ones in the Philippines, are feeling.

Chea Zillanueva, 61, a phlebotomist living in Germantown, desperately sought word about a half-dozen of her second cousins, all Filipinos, whose home in Albay province was in the storm's path.

Ed Rogers, 60, of Kennett Square, was deeply concerned that he had not heard from his brother Leroy, 67, a former employee of Bell Telephone who retired to the islands 20 years ago.

"I didn't know where he lived. I just knew he was there," said Rogers, who works on a Chester County mushroom farm.

Rogers called the Red Cross this weekend. On Monday, Leroy Rogers finally sent his family a text message, halting the need for a search.

Still, Red Cross tracing efforts were busy Monday as operators logged 85 new requests from people seeking help finding their relatives in the Philippines. That brought the total since Saturday to about 300, including two dozen or so with families living locally, said Red Cross spokesman Dave Schrader.

Because Philadelphia's tracking got off to a quick start and is staffed round the clock, it became "the national call center" for all U.S.-initiated Red Cross traces related to the typhoon, Schrader said. Only immediate family members are eligible to request a trace.

Typhoon Haiyan crashed ashore Friday with winds near 200 m.p.h. About 10,000 people are believed dead, and untold numbers displaced or missing.

An estimated 21,000 people born in the Philippines live in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, according to the 2010 census.

In Pennsylvania, the largest concentrations are around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. In New Jersey, they are in and around Cherry Hill, and along the Route 55 corridor in Camden and Gloucester Counties.

Estimates put the U.S. population of Filipinos at four million.

Families with relatives in the hardest-hit central islands of Leyte province were most concerned.

Most of the area "was leveled. Nothing left standing," said Ernesto Mateo Gange, 73, of Bensalem, president of the International Network of Filipinos Overseas, a nonprofit organization.

Gange, who came to America in 1972, does not have family in the affected province. But he was born on a nearby island and knows the consequences when typhoons wipe out food, water, and sanitation.

"We are running against time. People back home need all the help they can get," said Gange, who is leading an effort among Filipinos in Bucks County to raise funds.

The Bucks drive began with a $2,000 donation Saturday. Gange, a former board member of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, said he would make a plea for donations Wednesday at a previously scheduled reception for the foundation's major donors.

In an e-mail sent Monday, the Consulate General of the Philippines in New York said, "Cash donations are still the preferred type of assistance," to give the government flexibility in purchasing supplies.

Since the start of the disaster, reports about missing persons have been transmitted to the Washington headquarters of the Red Cross, which contacts shelters in the Philippines to see if the person has checked in.

"They triage as best they can" by tackling the ones that seem most confirmable, Schrader said. If investigators get no hits at Red Cross shelters, they move on to area police departments and other relief agencies.

"They keep going down the list until they exhaust all possibilities," Schrader said, "and move on to the next case."

If investigators can confirm a person's well-being, they pass that information back through channels.

"We don't necessarily put [the person in the U.S.] on the phone with the person" in the Philippines, Schrader said. "They are safe, and in such-and-such a town, might be the most we can provide at this point."

Without going into detail, he said the Red Cross "goes to great lengths" to confirm that its information is reliable. If it appears that a person has died, formal notification to next of kin comes from Philippine authorities, not the Red Cross.

Schrader there was no immediate data on how many traces have produced happy outcomes.


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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