Telephone lines are knocked out, cellphone service is unreliable and it will take time to restore Internet service in parts of the Philippines flattened by Typhoon Haiyan, but that has not stopped traumatized survivors and anxious members of the vast Filipino diaspora from trying to connect.
Cellphone towers were knocked down by 275-kilometre-an-hour gusts and coastal surges of more than seven metres when the typhoon hit landfall last Friday. With reports of service being slowly restored in Tacloban – one of the hardest-hit areas – cellphone connections remain patchy. A crowdsourcing project shows large parts of the country where service does not exist.
However, using ingenious methods – like handwritten notes – survivors are managing to get their message out to concerned family members. Meanwhile, anxious Filipino expatriates are turning to social media to reach loved ones in typhoon-affected areas.
Journalist Jiggy Manicad, who was reporting in the Leyte area, posted photographs of small pieces of paper on which survivors scribbled simple messages – that they were alive, that they were desperate for help and any news of neighbors and relations. "Don't worry we're all safe, except the wrecked house," read one note addressed to Enie Mueva Gonzales. "Ging-Ging & son was found dead," the survivor added in the same note.
The notes were posted on the GMA News Online site here.
Edmonton's Pauline Bedlock saw one of the pictures. "The only proof of life I have of my family and I'm hanging on to it. Thank you @jiggymanicad @gmanews @24OrasGMA7," she tweeted while posting the original picture.
Filipino expats also took to social media, using Twitter to search for loved ones by posting pictures, names and the last time they communicated with family members. The ages of the missing ranged from a year old to 80. Many expats tweeted under the hashtag #TracingPH.
On Facebook, a page set up for survivors of Typhoon Yolanda – the name given locally to Typhoon Haiyan – had more than 20,000 members on Tuesday morning and listed names of hundred of people who had survived or perished in the storm.
Members asked about missing loved ones and posted information about where they were staying when the storm hit. "Not sure exactly what the damage to the building is but my family stayed there when the storm hit and they survive. So most like your relative should be ok too!" replied one member to another in a Facebook posting.
Many expats took an "all of the above" approach – turning not only to social media, but also Google's Person Finder tool, which is currently tracking about 57,800 records. Concerned family members can search for missing loved ones while people in the typhoon-affected areas can provide information about survivors.
The Philippine Red Cross, like other aid groups, is trying to reach typhoon-affected areas and survivors. It has also set up welfare desks that are being used, in part, as a tracing service for people who cannot get through to family members.
The aid group is inviting expats to tweet the names of missing individuals to its Twitter handle @philredcross or e-mail SOS@redcross.org.ph – with the condition that they have received a large volume or requests and getting through each one "may take some time," it says.