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Filipino community awaits word from home

Super Typhoon Haiyan that struck central Philippines may be strongest on record

Posted: November 10, 2013 - 12:11am
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Juneau residents Myrna Gonzales, left, and her son Joemer Gonzales look at an online map of their hometown in the Philippines. The Gonzales' home in the Aklan province was destroyed Friday when one of the strongest typhoons on record tore through the country  JENNIFER CANFIELD | JUNEAU EMPIRE
JENNIFER CANFIELD | JUNEAU EMPIRE
Juneau residents Myrna Gonzales, left, and her son Joemer Gonzales look at an online map of their hometown in the Philippines. The Gonzales' home in the Aklan province was destroyed Friday when one of the strongest typhoons on record tore through the country

Filipinos in Juneau monitored Facebook early Friday morning as one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded tore through their home islands.

More than 700,000 people were evacuated from their homes before Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. Cellular service and electricity has been cut off in many regions, but early reports from numerous news agencies say at least 100 are reported dead in Tacloban City on Leyte Island in the east Philippines, and that casualties overall could be as high as 1,200.

The typhoon went through the central Philippine islands, where many of Juneau’s Filipino families are from.

“There’s at least 70 percent of the Filipino community here from that area, near our hometown.” Joemer Gonzalez said. “At least 70 percent, maybe more.”

Joemer’s family is from the Aklan province, on the west side of the Philippines. His mother and father, Myrna and Joely Gonzales, own a small farm in Aklan. Myrna said she paid attention to Facebook as friends and family members in the Philippines posted what was happening.

The public storm warning system in the Philippines has four signals. If residents are told an incoming storm is a signal #1, they could expect tropical cyclone winds up to 37 mph. Myrna said she wasn’t too worried when she heard that signal #1 had been announced. Then came signals #2 and #3, which meant cyclone winds up to 115 mph. She still wasn’t too worried. About six to nine tropical cyclones make landfall each year in the Philippines. Then she saw on that the storm had gotten much worse.

“When they said signal number 4 we panicked,” Myrna said. “Last night we called the Philippines and they said, ‘Oh, its already here.’”

Myrna said she watched videos on Facebook of the storm. She saw the status updates of her friends and family.

“The older people were saying this was the worst one they’d ever observed,” Myrna said.

Myrna and Joemer said they’ve heard that all their relatives are safe, although some of their homes are badly damaged. Myrna said the Gonzales family home was destroyed and their farm is in ruins. Workers on the farm were able to save Joely’s chickens and pigs. Most of the fruit trees on their farm fell over in the storm and the roof and the walls of the home Joely built about 17 years ago are completely gone.

“There’s a lot of Filipinos that went home and they’ve built houses,” Joemer said. “We have a lot of relatives who’ve spent a lot of money and were looking forward to their retirement in the Philippines.”

At the E&M Oriental Store on Glacier Highway, Eduardo Wales awaits updated news reports from the Philippines. Wales is from the town of Silago on Leyte Island, about a hundred miles south of Tacloban City. He said his wife has been checking Facebook for updates from friends and family, but that he hasn’t heard from his sister’s family.

“Hopefully tomorrow or tonight I will make contact with them,” Wales said. “I keep checking Facebook for them.”

Wales said some of his customers who come in to buy international calling cards have told him that they’re also not able to contact some family members. He said he’s not worrying too much, that it’s more likely he can’t reach his sister because of downed power lines and cellular towers, but he is concerned about the difficulties his home region will face. Just two weeks ago a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook several of the central islands in the Philippines.

“It was really amazing because the government prepared for the incoming disaster and it went really fast,” Wales said. “Still, it’s really devastating for those people who live there.”

The Philippines government made evacuation announcements and plans before the storm landed. The storm also passed through the islands at about twice the speed of a typhoon that killed more than a thousand people last year.

“... We Filipinos are very resilient. We can handle everything,” Wales said. “That’s why they say (in the Philippines), ‘You are only a typhoon, we are Filipinos.’”

• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/canfieldjenn.

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