For Sacramento’s Filipinos, a time of waiting, worry

Bernadette Abucayan was so desperate in the three days before she got word about her mother and aunt, who live in a beachside town south of the hard-hit city of Tacloban, that she contacted helicopter services in the Philippines. Maybe, Abucayan thought, she could hire someone to fly into a less populated area such as Dulag, her mother’s small town, and help with the search.

“I wanted to get a helicopter to rescue them,” said Abucayan, 50, who lives in Roseville and works at UC Davis Medical School. “There was no other way.”

After the powerful Typhoon Haiyan roared across the islands of the central Philippines on Friday, leaving destruction and death in its path, countless Filipino American families in the Sacramento region have spent anxious days waiting to hear if their relatives survived. Power on the islands of Leyte and Cebu, hardest hit by the storm, was out. Cellular service even now is spotty, at best.

Reports indicate a death toll estimated at more than 10,000. And images on the news of flooded streets and shattered buildings convey a devastation both unimaginable and utterly horrifying to families waiting half a world away for any word of their relatives’ whereabouts.

At 41,500, Filipinos are now Sacramento County’s largest Asian ethnic group, according to the 2010 census. Drawn by the region’s burgeoning health care industry and relatively affordable housing, they have arrived by the thousands over the last decade, eclipsing the region’s 39,000 Chinese. Another 15,000 mixed-race residents identify as part-Filipino.

The number of Filipinos in Sacramento County grew by almost 70 percent from 2000 to 2010, census figures show.

They are safe at home here – in new developments in Elk Grove and North Natomas, Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento – while thousands of miles away, many of their relatives go without food and water after the typhoon.

“For the first couple of days, we didn’t hear anything,” said Alicia Baron, whose husband, Filipino martial arts master instructor Leonilo Baron, is from Cebu. “We checked Facebook, but without power over there, that’s been difficult for them.”

But by Monday, the messages from the Philippines slowly began filtering through on social media.

“I’ve heard the family is OK,” Baron said. “They sustained quite a bit of structural damage, but we haven’t heard that we’ve lost anybody.

“We were there in 2008, right after another typhoon blew through. Cebu was devastated then, too, and that typhoon wasn’t as bad.”

The Category 5 typhoon touched the lives of 4.3 million people across the Visayas, a cluster of islands in the central Philippines. The Red Cross estimates that 330,000 people in 36 provinces have been left homeless.

Peace Corps volunteer Karla Piacentini, a 25-year-old from Sacramento, is assigned to a school in Cadiz, two islands west of Leyte.

“We’re still without power, and they’re saying that might last for three months,” she said from her home there. “The sugar cane fields are flattened. The houses, I can’t tell you how horrible. None of these people have seen anything as bad as this in their life. And the damage in Cadiz is not as bad as Tacloban, because we have food and water.

“We’d been texting back and forth with our volunteers on Leyte, and then we didn’t hear from them for three days after the typhoon. It’s a horrific thing to think you might never hear from them again.”

The Rev. Joel Genabia, who immigrated from the Philippines 13 years ago, understands that fear. His parents and siblings remain in the Philippines, in the tiny town of Tubigon on Bohol Island. On Oct. 15, Bohol Island bore the brunt of a massive earthquake, which left 222 dead and towns devastated. Then the typhoon brushed by the island, which is nestled between Leyte and Cebu.

Genabia, a priest at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Roseville, knows the anxiety of the long wait that other Filipino American families endure now: It was 10 days after the earthquake that he finally learned his relatives had survived, though the family home was destroyed.

“The feelings you have, I cannot describe,” he said. “I trust in God, but I worried something had happened. As a normal human being, you feel that.”

Abucayan and her sister last visited their mother in Leyte a month ago, spending eight days helping her build her retirement home on the beach. Florida Esguerra, 71, retired several years ago from the San Jose school district’s accounting department: This was her retirement dream, to return with her sister to the tiny town where they’d spent their childhood.

Mother and daughter last spoke the day before the typhoon hit.

“They’d decided to stay where they were and not go to other shelter, because everyone would be affected anyway,” said Abucayan. “But they were preparing. They stocked up on food and water and flashlights, and they were boarding up windows. My thought was, if the water got too high, at least they’d be safe on the second floor.”

She doesn’t know their story of survival. She only knows what she learned Monday morning from other relatives on Facebook: They are safe.

“There’s not many details, but they’re safe,” she said. “They can’t be reached yet by relief efforts, so they’re low on water and food. We’re trying to find ways to help them.

“We will go and help.”