Typhoon Haiyan: Families Struggle To Connect Amid Devastation

Wrecked infrastructure is making it hard for Filipino Americans to find out the status of family members affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jessica Petilla, a Filipino doctor in New York who has immediate family in the hard hit province of Leyte.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You've no doubt heard that aid workers are trying to make their way into the Philippines after the devastating typhoon there. But if you've ever wondered just who those people are or how they decide to go into this kind of work, in a few minutes, we'll speak with a woman who has made international relief her life's work. And she just wrote a book about what it's really like. We'll hear from her in just a few minutes.

But first, though, we want to hear more about conditions in the central Philippines where typhoon winds that are being described as the strongest in a century wreaked havoc almost a week ago. Jessica Petilla is a doctor who lives in New York, but her family members are on the frontlines in dealing with the disaster. Her brother is governor of Leyte province, which was one of the hardest hit areas in the Philippines. And she has other immediate family members in the area. And we wanted to hear more about what she's hearing from them, so she's with us now from New York. Dr. Petilla, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JESSICA PETILLA: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, I understand that you've been able to make contact with some family members. Do you mind if we ask how they are?

PETILLA: My immediate family members are safe, and they survived the storm. And they're actually working on the ground over in the island. I have some other relatives that it took us a while to locate them. But yesterday, we heard back from one particular person that we were looking for. So it is a relief.

MARTIN: What kinds of warnings did they get before the storm? Were you able to speak to any of them before the storm, and what were they hearing then?

PETILLA: I did not have a chance to speak much to them before the storm, but I knew that there was a storm coming. And I actually was talking to my mother who is - my mother is the mayor of Palo, which is about 12 kilometers from Tacloben. And Palo is just as devastated as Tacloben. And when I was talking to her, she was describing to me that there was a storm coming. And I actually texted her at one point the night before, and I said, can you just go to Manila? Fly to Manila until the storm passes. And she said, no, I'm here. I will stay here because I will be staying with the people and manning the disaster center.

MARTIN: That has to be very nerve-racking for you.

PETILLA: Absolutely. I couldn't - understandably, they can't leave. And they don't want to leave. They did not want to leave. And I knew that. It was a question that I knew the answer before I even asked the question.

MARTIN: Were you able to talk to her when the storm commenced at all? Did you get any sense of what the conditions were like?

PETILLA: No. After that last telephone call, early - I was very nervous that night. And then the next morning, I received a text from my mother saying that it's starting now. The winds are howling, and roofs and trees are flying. And then I just texted her back and - just be safe. I love you. And then I never heard back from them.

MARTIN: What was your sense of - just from what you've been able to hear from family members to this point, what's the biggest need right now?

PETILLA: I think definitely medical supplies. Food, water, all the basic stuff will definitely be needed. Clothes, undergarments, pants, blankets - all the basic stuff. They all need that - medication, tetanus shots. And from what my understanding is, there's a lot of relief goods - are there are on standby, but they're still in the process of clearing certain areas. For instance, I think most the main roads are passable. The bridge that connects Samar Island to Leyte is already passable. It's called the San Juanico Bridge. So that's already passable. And then the airports, I believe, are able to take certain commercial flights. So it's better now. So there's - I think there's more movement now. But the first 24 to 48 hours after the storm passed was the hardest.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jessica Petilla. She is a doctor in New York, but she has family members who are in the hard-hit province of Leyte, which was devastated by the typhoon that landed in the central Philippines last Friday. We're talking about the conditions here and what she's been hearing from family members. Now, as you mentioned earlier, your mother is a mayor there. Your brother is the governor of one of the very hard-hit areas. You can understand why they felt that they couldn't leave, or they didn't want to leave because they had responsibilities. And they needed to be with their constituents and, you know, with their neighbors. But what about other people? Did anybody leave in advance of the storm, or did most people take the attitude that that's their home and they were going to just stay there?

PETILLA: I don't have information on that. I do think that there are certain people who would just not leave and refuse to leave. I think, as an example, my father ended up staying there. And I have uncles, I have elderly relatives who ended up staying there. They just refused to leave. And I can't speak for them, but I think it's the culture. It's being connected to your home. It's staying where you are. And it's - I can't explain it. But I think that they're not the only ones. There's a lot of people who actually ended up staying. In terms of - did anybody leave before to avoid the storm? I'm sure that there are some people who did that. I have no other information on that.

MARTIN: You know, I think you are a part of - I'm sure you know this - a very large Filipino diaspora in the United States. There are, according to the census, at least 3 million people of Filipino heritage in the U.S. Are people in this community kind of mobilizing? I mean, clearly people must be kind of calling and trying to figure out what can be done at this point. What are you hearing on that score?

PETILLA: Well, I think in the beginning we had a lot of people looking for relatives. And it's - unfortunately, during the first 24 - 40 hours there was no connection at all. No connection on the island. And so it was very difficult. We had all these people looking for other relatives. And so that was what was going on in the beginning. But now I think that there are several Filipino communities all over, you know the East Coast, the West Coast, Chicago, that are actually starting to mobilize and doing a fund drive, collecting donations and trying to get as much help as they can so that we could transport them over to the island or to the areas that were afflicted.

MARTIN: Where are people in your family staying right now, for example? I mean, are there...

PETILLA: I don't know, Michel. That's a question that I've had. Like, for me, I don't have regular contact with my brothers. My other brother who is the department of energy secretary, he actually goes in there every day and goes back to the island and does his planning on the island. But basically what they did on the first day, they set up a command post right in Palo, which they - right now it's equipped with I think some form of communication device, I believe it's a satellite phone. It's like Grand Central. It's like - compare it to that here in New York. It's the central station right now for at least for that area where my mother and my brother, the governor, are located. And that's in Palo. So...

MARTIN: It just isn't clear. They know - you know they're working but you don't know where or how they're living.

PETILLA: So I can't talk to them on a regular basis. I spoke to them once or twice. I haven't spoken to my mother. I haven't spoken to my brother who's there. I can only speak to my other brother who goes in and out. And only - they're all working very hard right now to try to get certain things up and running - the phones, the water system, electricity. So do I know where - I was just thinking about it. I said - my mother's house is completely gone. So I don't even know where she's sleeping.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. That has to be hard. Do you know - well, I mean, at a time like this I think a lot of people want to help. Not just people who are part of the diaspora who have family members who are directly affected. I think the instinct that a lot of people have is to get stuff. You know, go out and buy sleeping bags or buy underwear. Pack everything up and put it in a suitcase. Is that what you're hearing? Is that a good thing to do or are there other things...

PETILLA: I think right now...

MARTIN: ...You think are more effective?

PETILLA: The best thing to do right now is to - it would be better to do cash donations because from here to there - it depends, if certain communities have a connection where they can carry all these supplies over than that's good. But I think that cash donation might be a better way so that it can be sent over there, diverted there and used there for whatever they need.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, the pictures coming out of the area are really kind of tough to...

PETILLA: Very depressing.

MARTIN: They're tough to watch.

PETILLA: Heartbreaking.

MARTIN: Yes.

PETILLA: Devastating.

MARTIN: Are you - how are you doing? If you don't mind my asking. How are you doing with all this?

PETILLA: I think that in the - when I did not hear from my family for about 24 hours, it was very, very difficult. And then once I heard back it was better. But then you hear back of all these other families that have not been able to locate their family members. And, you know, my heart goes out to them, to these people. And right now I think that we are on the - we're kind of on the mode now that we want to do something. And, you know, right now I'm trying to set up a fund drive. I'm trying to see how things can be more organized here so that we can be organized as we send help over there.

And in terms of my family, personally, I'm very worried about them in the sense that, you know, I don't know where they sleep. I don't know if they've rested and all that, but things have to be done. Somebody has to do it. And they're out there, they're on the ground. They're doing it and they're doing the work. And so we just have to plug along till we get beyond this acute phase, beyond this phase of relief operations and rescue, and then moving forward, you know, the bigger challenge of - there is the bigger challenge of rebuilding.

MARTIN: Well, hang in there. Our best wishes to your family, if you don't mind my conveying those.

PETILLA: Thank you.

MARTIN: My best wishes to you.

PETILLA: Thank you. I appreciate that.

MARTIN: And hopefully, you'll keep us posted about what you're hearing, and about how you are doing and how they are doing. So thank you so much for speaking with us. I know it isn't easy.

PETILLA: You're welcome. And thank you.

MARTIN: Jessica Petilla is associate chief of geriatrics at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. She has family members in the hard-hit Tacloben area that was hit by the typhoon. Her brother, in fact, is governor of Leyte province in the Philippines, and has other family numbers in positions of leadership there and who are dealing with the disaster relief. And she was with us from New York. Dr. Petilla, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PETILLA: Thank you.

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