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In submerged Manila, Filipinos form digital rescue squads

Hungry families in flood-hit Philippines trapped in their homes.

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Filipino elementary school students use chairs to cross a flooded yard inside their school grounds on October 20, 2009 in Taytay, Philippines (Rizal province east of Manila). (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Wet, weary and eight months pregnant, Joann Fernandez feared another night inside her submerged home in flooded outer Manila.

“After dark, I would just sit up with my two kids and cried,” Fernandez said. The 33-year-old is among the more than 800,000 displaced by torrential typhoon rains that, according to the Philippine government, have plunged more than half of the city and its environs underwater. As many as 50 people have died in the last two weeks of heavy rains, according to reports.

“Finally, I was so scared that I went to the window, jumped out and swam,” Fernandez said today over the phone. With the help of strangers, she and her kids reached higher ground in a nearby home where six other families were huddled. “I was just thinking that, yes, it is hard but me and my children have to survive.”

There is an added element of drama to Fernandez’s tale: she and many of her fellow evacuees may have been rescued with the aid of social media. As overwhelmed state agencies struggle to reach the hungry and stranded, web-savvy Filipinos have coalesced into an impromptu, online information-swapping brigade.

More from GlobalPost: Philippines crowd-sources rescue operations

Manila residents who still have power and web access are furiously circulating pleas for help on Twitter and Facebook. Google has set up a public clearinghouse site that sorts data on flood victims for rescue agencies.

The responses range from panicked (!WE’RE TRAPPED! INSIDE PROVIDENT VILLAGE! HELP!!) to chilling tallies of the marooned (75 yrs old bed ridden and blind lady, 4-month old baby, 4 adults, 3 teens). Each is accompanied by an address. Particularly desperate pleas are highlighted in fire-engine red.

This engine of online volunteerism is propelled in part by celebrities, who are deluged with pleas from thousands of Twitter “followers” and Facebook “friends.” Details of Fernandez’s plight were sent via Twitter to Divine Lee, a chic model and wealthy heiress who has arranged donation drives and helped run logistics for rescue operations.

“No one was coming to save us,” said Fernandez, who lives in Malabon, an industrialized zone considered the among the most crowded in Metro Manila. “I called rescue agencies from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. yesterday. They weren't coming,” It is unclear whether exposure from Divine Lee (whose offices later phoned Fernandez personally) hastened rescuers’ arrival to her neighborhood. “I’m just happy me and my baby are OK," Fernandez said.

More from GlobalPost: Philippines floods kill at least 50

In the worst-hit parts of Metro Manila, population 12 to 15 million, roads have become rushing canals, power lines droop beneath floodwaters and citizens are spotted floating along in makeshift rafts. Some zones are largely dry. But the low-lying districts that ring central Manila — in particular slums with poor drainage infrastructure — have suffered the most.

So far, according to Manila-based news outlets, the ongoing typhoon has left at least 19 dead. Fears of more casualties are compounded by families who refuse to leave their underwater homes, said Spencer Troy Ng, a 27-year-old living outside Manila proper in heavily flooded Quezon City.

“I’ve learned that people really don’t want to evacuate and leave their possessions,” said Ng, whose neighborhood remains flooded to waist level. “My parents are old and refuse to leave ... even though every single resource, including drinking water, is very limited. We’re taking refuge at a friend’s house nearby and supervising them as best as we can.”

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Ng first realized the destructive power of the typhoon when he attempted to drive home from work with his sister several days ago but couldn’t push through rising waters. “It was raining violently,” he said, “and we had to sleep in the car.”

Since then, he has joined the surge of Filipinos frantically collecting and circulating details of families trapped inside their homes along with details on makeshift shelters.

“We’ve been calling in volunteer firefighters, but many of them only have paddle boats that aren’t strong enough,” Ng said. “People are still in danger. The water here is sucking up everything in its path.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/philippines/120808/submerged-manila-filipinos-form-digital-rescue