Pittsburgh Filipinos rally for aid in wake of Typhoon Haiyan

Rush to organize fundraising events to help survivors

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Delfina Leihgeber has no tears left.

"I feel like I'm so helpless. I've been crying for five days," said Mrs. Leihgeber, a 61-year-old beverage company worker from Monroeville who has been anxiously awaiting word from about 15 relatives since Typhoon Haiyan smashed through the central Philippines 10 days ago.

Mrs. Leihgeber has lived in the Pittsburgh area for 35 years but was born in Palo, a small town on Leyte island a few miles south of Tacloban, the provincial capital leveled by the storm, where scores of unidentified bodies have been buried in mass graves in the past week.

The official nationwide death toll had risen to nearly 4,000 by Sunday evening, according to the Philippines' National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. The council's website says 18,175 people were reported injured and 1,590 are still missing, with nearly 4 million displaced and more than half a million homes damaged or destroyed. The storm, one of the strongest ever recorded, caused widespread damage to communications infrastructure, prompting the American Red Cross to launch a tracing service to help locate loved ones in the Philippines, said Lauren Ashley, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross Western Pennsylvania Region.

For Mrs. Leihgeber, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives on her mother's side are among the missing.

"I'm still hoping and I'm praying hard," said Mrs. Leihgeber, known by her nickname of "Edna" to her co-workers at American Beverage Corp. in Verona. "It's just like a nightmare. I'm trying to hold my head up."

The scale of destruction from the typhoon, called Yolanda in the Philippines, was stunning even for members of Pittsburgh's Filipino-American community, which is accustomed to raising money for storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

"It's just numbing," said Jaime Abola, 66, a retired scientist who grew up in the Philippines and came to Pittsburgh in 1971 for graduate school. "Right now we're feeling hopeless, we're trying to figure out what we can do."

Mr. Abola is president of the nearly 60-year-old Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh, which met Thursday night to plan a series of fundraising events for relief efforts.

"We've never had a disaster of the magnitude we have now," said Cora Bakth, chairwoman of the group's charity committee who hosted the meeting at her house in Squirrel Hill. "This is a big one. ... We are a small country. We are very poor. We don't have the means like we have here in the U.S."

The committee decided to immediately free up money from the group's $7,500 "calamity fund" to give to an organization that will provide food, water and shelter and also will work over the next several months to raise money for victims of the disaster who have ties to the Pittsburgh area, Mr. Abola said.

"There are all these big organizations doing lots of things," Mr. Abola said. "We want to be able to help people who we know."

Among the first is a Dec. 7 fundraising brunch and dinner at Homeville Christian Church in West Mifflin. Other events in the works include a multicultural night at Fox Chapel Area High School, a movie screening and other events organized by students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and fundraising at the Pittsburgh Folk Festival next year.

The Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh joins other local relief efforts, including special offerings this weekend by the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg and shipments of medication organized by the North Side-based Brother's Brother Foundation with the Philippine American Medical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh City Council is expected to consider a proclamation to declare Tuesday "Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh Day" and encourage locals to help out.

Paramount for the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh, however, is making sure the money raised goes to its intended purpose, said Mr. Abola, who participated in a conference call last week with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which warned groups to be careful about sending money.

Mr. Abola and several members of his group are planning trips to the Philippines over the next few months and added that members will likely help shepherd the money raised to its intended destination in person. He noted that clothing collected in response to Typhoon Sendong in 2011, for example, wound up for sale in local markets.

"We want to make sure there is a good accounting. ... It's a little money, but it's hard-earned money," Mr. Abola said. "We want to make sure we do make a difference, if it's only a few people."

To access the Restoring Family Links tracing services offered by the Red Cross for the typhoon in the Philippines, call 412-263-3100.

Donations may be made by check, payable to "FAAP Typhoon Yolanda," and sent to: FAAP Charity Committee, c/o Cora Bakth, 5460 Northumberland St., Pittsburgh 15217.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. The Associated Press contributed.

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