WASHINGTON — District of Columbia resident Marlon Agbuya is haunted by the thought of his mother, who has breast cancer, ill and stuck in a typhoon-ravaged landscape, unable to get chemotherapy at a hospital that is no longer functioning.
Emerson Duga of Fairfax, Va. knows his 103-year-old mother’s house in a remote storm-hit area has been destroyed and fears that there is no way to get food to her.
And though Griselda Gruspe, a hairdresser in Fort Washington, Md., has heard that her brother is all right, she has no idea whether two of her sisters are still alive.
As Typhoon Haiyan ravaged a swath of the Philippines five days ago, an estimated 3.4 million Filipinos across the United States — including 113,500 in the Washington metro area — braced for a period of uncertainty and anguish, much as they do each time a catastrophic flood, storm or earthquake hits their native land.
Many Filipinos, predominantly Catholic, moved to the United States decades ago but maintain ties to the homeland. They are the main source of remittances to the Philippines, sending about 53 percent of the $20 billion or so remitted to the country annually by expatriates, according to the Philippine Embassy here.
And when natural disasters strike, this community tends to go into overdrive.
Annual charity fundraisers that take place around this time of year have redirected their efforts toward helping typhoon victims, said Maurese Owens, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Philippine-American Foundation for Charities.
Organizations normally use the events to raise funds for their own causes, she said. “But this year, everyone seems to be giving money over to the pot for the victims of the typhoon. . . . In every city in the country, the same thing is going on.”
Bing Branigin, a D.C. area organizer for aid to her native Philippines, said people there don’t always evacuate — partly because they worry about leaving their homes and animals and because the government doesn’t sufficiently emphasize it.
“On the Filipino channels beforehand, there is a warning on the bottom of the screen. But the shows were still on; it wasn’t urgent,” said Branigin, who is on the board of the nonprofit Asia America Initiative.
“Being a religious country, many people think God will protect them,” she said. “Also, they think, ‘We have had typhoons before; we can ride this out.’ “
Natural disasters are so common in the Philippines that at the close of each year, her group raises funds to deal with damage that occurred in the previous months. The group was putting together a pallet of food and medicine to help after flooding in September when an earthquake hit about three weeks ago. The group added three more pallets. While those supplies were being approved, Haiyan hit. Eight pallets worth $600,000 arrived in the Philippines on Monday, she said.
But although disaster hits the Philippines frequently, it’s different when it strikes one’s relatives, said Pinky Tabelon, 62, a network engineer in Manassas, Va.
“You feel sorry for the people, but now, when it’s in Tacloban, when it’s in the place where I’m originally from, you can picture the place, you know what it looks like, you feel helpless,” she said.
Of the 400 people estimated to live on the island where her grandparents and cousins had houses, she had heard that only 27 had survived.
“This morning, my husband and I just started crying because we felt so guilty that we could eat, that we could have water to drink, when all these people are suffering so much,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “But what can you do? You just go on with things on this end.”
That is what Gruspe, the hairdresser, did Tuesday as she stood in her Fort Washington, Md. shop, Fil-Am Hair Design, with scissors in one hand and one eye on the nonstop live TV broadcast in the Tagalog language.
Gruspe, 69, had been elated to hear a dramatic story from her brother, whose family and a group of orphans survived by tying themselves to a roof. But as of Tuesday afternoon, she had not heard from two of her sisters.
“I keep watching the TV especially closely, to see if I can see my sisters,” the Riverdale, Md. resident said as she cut another Filipino American’s hair and they chatted in Tagalog.
She said her brother, who is 62, described a post-storm wasteland — no cars, not even a bike. Trying to get news of some of their relatives, he walked nine hours through villages scattered with bodies.
For U.S.-based relatives, the inability to do more to help is agonizing.
In the District of Columbia, Agbuya, 57, fretted over his elderly parents. They called his brother briefly in the Philippines on Friday to say that they were alive, but then the phone went out. His mother is in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but Agbuya has seen TV reports showing the decimated hospital where his parents live in Ormoc city.
“I saw it on TV — there is no functional hospital,” said Agbuya, a US Airways customer service representative. “I’m terrible. My mother has chemo every Wednesday. She already missed one last week, and she will miss it tomorrow. I’d like to pull them out of there and send them to Manila so she can get treatment. But I don’t know where they are.”
A common concern in the aid community is that the country has never had a chance to recover from previous disasters, Branigin said.
“There are still tent cities from previous earthquakes, flooding. The infrastructure is still not up. My fear is there are a lot of orphans; they need psychological help.”
Duga, 64, just hopes that neighbors will look after his 103-year-old mother. “She walks, but step by step,” he said. “That’s the oldest lady in that place.”
Thinking of the people in his mother’s town, Duga was comforted by one thought. “They will not leave each other alone,” he said. “They must be helping each other now.”