Filipinos worldwide mobilise to help typhoon victims

Filipinos abroad who have spent harrowing days trying to contact loved ones after a typhoon devastated their homeland are mobilising to send relief, despite misgivings about corrupt local officials pocketing aid on the ground.

With thousands feared dead and aid only trickling in after Super Typhoon Haiyan laid waste to entire coastal towns Friday, many among the ten-million-strong disaspora are still frantically trying to find out if their relatives are alive and their homes still standing.

And from Asian capitals to the United States and Europe, Filipino communities are taking to churches and social media sites to raise funds for communities left with nothing -- and growing increasingly desperate.

In Hong Kong, where some 150,000 Filipinos work as domestic helpers, the Red Cross said a hotline set up to trace the missing had been overwhelmed since the typhoon smashed into the nation's central islands, displacing an estimated 673,000.

"The maids were crying. They didn't know what to do," spokeswoman Denise Wong told AFP.

Liezel Miralles, a 40-year-old domestic worker from Batad, a coastal town of 20,000 people, had not been able to contact her husband and other relatives to find out if they had survived.

"I feel very, very, very sad, my whole family is there," Miralles said as she bought groceries for her employer at a street-side market. "There is no house, no phone, no connection."

On Sunday, when Hong Kong's downtown throngs with domestic helpers congregating on their day off, worker groups will hold an "information drive" on the crisis and gather donations.

But support group United Filipinos is one of many organisations and individuals around the world planning to direct aid only to non-government agencies.

"We are afraid that if we send to the government, it will just to go their pockets and will not reach the beneficiaries," secretary general Eman Villanueva told AFP.

"Politicians are using it for their own benefit even in the midst of this devastating situation. They are still thinking for themselves."

In Singapore, Filipina expatriate Dimples Larrazabal said the 24 hours it took for her to get in touch with her mother, her brother and his family in the town of Ormoc in devastated Leyte province seemed like an eternity.

"At first I was half-positive (that things would be OK) because our house is a good structure," said Larrazabal, a 35-year-old home-maker. But she began to panic after seeing photos showing the unimaginable devastation.

"That's when I cried 'Oh my God! Nothing was spared!" she said. "I knew that Ormoc was directly in the path of the typhoon."

Social media sites were inundated with posts from people searching for missing relatives, uploading pictures of individuals and families to Facebook and Twitter in posts tagged #tracingPH or simply #missing.

Google said it had updated its Person Finder site -- which helps people find loved ones after a disaster -- to include Philippines mobile numbers.

Krima Molina, a 26-year-old teacher from storm-struck Leyte now living in Tokyo, said she watched in horror as Facebook posts from friends at home turned into increasingly desperate pleas for help.

Homeless survivors were becoming ill from exposure, left with no shelter but makeshift shanties made of plastic tarps draped over plywood, she said. "They need medicine. They need volunteer doctors. A lot of people are injured."

Many of the homes destroyed have been built with the earnings of the staggering 10 percent of the population which works abroad.

Although many toil for low wages as construction workers, maids, sailors and janitors, they are collectively a major economic force and last year sent home $21.4 billion, almost 9 percent of the nation's economic output.

"Support from our kababayans (countrymen) abroad is overwhelming. Despite their dire circumstances, they are more than willing and ready to pitch in," said Garry Martinez, the chairman of Migrante International, a group supporting overseas Filipinos.

"The bigger tragedy is if corrupt officials in government exploit this calamity to further plunder and steal funds meant for victims and survivors, Martinez said.

Widespread abuses and personal enrichment by government officials followed previous disasters including Typhoon Bopha in December 2012, said Nicole Dumaguindin from US umbrella group, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns.

"The government is slow to distribute public funds and relief goods, making the devastation worse," she said adding that expat Filipinos would still give, but do so more carefully.

In southern California, home to 300,000 Filipinos -- the largest population outside the Philippines -- many were gathering funds even as they struggled to get news of their loved ones.

"Until the weak, vulnerable infrastructure in the Philippines changes, corruption will always be a problem," Dumaguindin said. "People living abroad are now more vigilant of the Philippine government's track record."

burs-dca/erf/sls