Local families send help, seek news from Philippines

As news from islands in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan trickles back to relatives in Western Washington, families have pieced together their loved ones’ stories of survival.

Some climbed trees to escape rising waters. Others are taking boats between islands to get supplies to relatives in need.

Pierce County residents hearing the accounts are sending any help they can to areas aid organizations cannot reach.

Luanne Cook of Lakewood said her family members in Cebu are OK and are working to help her uncle, who was seriously injured in Tanauan, on the island of Leyte. Tanauan is just south of Tacloban, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm that killed thousands since it made landfall Nov. 8.

Cook’s father and brother took a boat from Cebu to Baybay, and last she heard planned to make the rest of the trip (about 50 miles of road) either on foot or by finding a car there. They were bringing food and medicine, such as antibiotics for her uncle’s injuries.

Cook’s uncle and his 16-year-old son stayed at the family home during the storm to take care of their animals and fish-drying business. The rest of the family headed to an emergency center for safety.

“They’re used to the typhoon, but they did not expect that it was going to be a storm surge,” Cook said.

When the storm hit and the water rose, her uncle and cousin climbed a coconut tree by the house.

“The son got swiped with the water, but fortunately, and it was a blessing, he knows how to swim,” Cook said.

With her uncle hurt, it’s been his teenage children who have tried to find food. Some headed north to Tacloban and brought back supplies, she said. But it’s not enough.

“Four days without food or water, they don’t have the energy to walk,” Cook said.

Her family isn’t the only one that took relief efforts for relatives into their own hands.

When Carol Scearcy of Tacoma learned that no aid had reached her family’s village of Villaba, west of Tacloban, she found a way to help from abroad.

Her 38-year-old niece called Monday night to say she had taken some sort of ferry west from Leyte to Cebu to find any food and supplies she could. Communication has been almost nonexistent on Leyte, but from Cebu, Scearcy’s niece was able to call for help from a friend’s phone.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ll fly down there,’ but now there’s not even an airport,’ Scearcy said, referring to the Tacloban airport, of which only the runway remains.

Instead, she wired her niece $1,200 through Western Union.

“That’s the only way they can survive there now,” she said.

Scearcy has about 35 immediate family members in Villaba and hopes the money can support them for a few weeks. Last she heard, her niece was waiting for a ferry back to Leyte to bring the supplies.

“She said she got the monies, but there is no ferry to go back,” she said.

She told her niece to use some of the money for tarps to cover what’s left of the family’s home. The roof is gone.

“Our home there, it’s all tore up with the wind,” Scearcy said. “My immediate family, thank you Lord, they are OK. It’s just no home.”

Some of her family had headed north from Villaba to the town of Tabango, where they found some supplies being distributed by aid workers. But her niece said they were turned away because they’re not registered in that area.

Relief efforts have largely focused on cities such as Tacloban, Scearcy said, which has a population of more than 220,000 and appears to have suffered the most casualties from the storm.

“Whoever is sending help there, they should direct it also to the small towns,” Scearcy said.

And aid organizations say they’re trying.

“The need is just immense,” said Chris Palusky, who is overseeing U.S. humanitarian efforts in the area for Federal Way-based World Vision. “In a place where you have islands and the roads are devastated, it’s logistically challenging.”

In addition to the transportation infrastructure being destroyed, Palusky said, relief supply stores in the region have been largely depleted by a recent earthquake and cyclones.

“Over the past nine months, they’ve just been hit and hit and hit,” he said.

World Vision had started distributing food and sanitation kits outside Cebu, he said, but relief organizations were struggling to get aid even to bigger cities on Leyte, such as Tacloban, he said.

Jonalyn Tipton of Tacoma said her sister was one of those Tacloban residents in need.

Her sister lost her phone with its contacts in the storm but had memorized the number of her aunt in Texas. She managed to call her aunt and got word to Tipton’s mom on the nearby island of Daram. Her message: Please help her get food, and if at all possible, help her get out of the city.

The day before, her mom had taken the family’s small motorboat to search for her, but they hadn’t found each other.

“Trying to look, over dead people in the streets and all over the water,” Tipton said. “Oh my God, it’s scary.”

The family was able to relay the message to Tipton’s mom, but before she could return to find her daughter, they got another call.

Tipton’s sister had made it to Ormoc, another city on Leyte, and was trying to catch a boat to stay with relatives in Cebu.

“She can’t handle anymore the smells in Tacloban,” Tipton said. “There’s no more food you can buy, the people are panicking.”

Through the family’s brief communication, Tipton’s heard the story of how her sister weathered the typhoon.

“We had a miracle,” Tipton said. “My sister, the house was full of water until the ceiling. They broke the door until they made it to get out. They hung in the mango tree until the water subsided.”

The house was destroyed, but her sister and 6-year-old niece are OK. Or will be, Tipton said, when they’re able to get to relatives.

Their brother’s house remained intact, but that presents a different issue. He’s worried about looting as people get increasingly desperate for supplies, Tipton said.

Odette D’Aniello, owner of Tacoma’s Celebrity Cake Studio, has been working with her family in Cebu to start a grass-roots supply distribution, focusing on Leyte.

“There is no trust in the government,” she said. “People are going hungry; every family has lost someone. It’s totally a race against time with famine.”

She’s been raising money to send to her cousin, who owns a bakery in Cebu, to buy supplies for areas in need. A relative with a boat is helping them get sardines, corn grits and water to Leyte. They’re helping another cousin with a farm near Ormoc, who lost four workers in the storm.

Supplies also are going to an aunt who runs a convent north of Ormoc in Kananga and is trying to stabilize her community.

“It’s going to take 50 years to rebuild this,” D’Aniello said of the region. “These people have not eaten in five days. It’s insanity.”

Estrella Sung of Renton said her parents have been evacuated from the devastation on Leyte, where they retired to Tacloban from Tacoma in 2002. They got to Manila and are staying with relatives. Sung flew out Friday to Manila, where she’ll bring supplies, such as glasses for her mother, who lost hers in the storm.

“They battled waters that burst through the glass doors and filled their house,” Sung said. “And held on for dear life to keep their heads above 8 feet of pitch-black seawater.”

The hero of the day was their housekeeper, who helped get her family to safety, Sung said. He’s in Manila too, hospitalized with a deep gash from the storm. Her parents are helping him recover.

“How do we thank him?” Sung said. “What does one give to the man who saved our parents’ lives?”

A Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson jersey might be some sort of start, she said.

“Tragedies like this bring out the best in people,” Sung said. “My parents have a very strong sense of belonging in Tacloban City, and rebuilding their home there again.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268