By Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — As thousands of Filipino families from the Gulf region start to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives following the devastation by Katrina, Philippine Consul General to Chicago Blesila Cabrera dispatched a team to Baton Rouge, capital of Louisiana, to help victims and coordinate relief operation.
In an exclusive interview, Vice Consul Roberto Bernardo said that Cabrera hast sent Consul Patrick Hilado, Finance Officer Jaime Bilar, and Consular Official Victor Sarmiento, “to monitor the developments on the ground.” The officials were directed to check evacuation centers for Filipino victims. Louisiana and Mississippi are under Cabrera’s jurisdiction.
“We are closely monitoring the situation, and we are doing whatever we can to assist Filipinos victimized by Katrina,” said Bernardo, designated consular spokesman on the Katrina effort.
According to Bernardo, there are 6,800 residents of Filipino ancestry in Louisiana and 3,845 in Mississippi. There were no Filipino casualties.
The consulate is not directly soliciting financial help, Bernardo said. To help their affected kababayans, he appealed to individuals and organizations to donate to the American Red Cross. “They can also course their donations through us, and we will deliver them to the Red Cross.”
Meanwhile, Bernardo promised full consular assistance to victims who may have lost their Philippine passports to Katrina. “We will look at any proof of identity and check it with our records. Secondary evidence such as state ID, driver’s license and immigration card are also acceptable. If you need to travel to the Philippines right away, we will also find solution to that.”
In the absence of documentary proof, an applicant can also sign an affidavit vouching his or her identity, the vice consul said. “You will be put under oath. However, if we find out that you gave false information, we can invalidate your passport.”
Due to heavy flooding, the Consulate General was unable to coordinate its effort from New Orleans, where Cielo Martinez, the Philippine’s honorary consul general to Louisiana holds office. The Martinez family was also displaced by the hurricane.
“I’m crushed,” Martinez said in an interview from her temporary residence in Las Vegas.
She recalled how her family escaped from the rising floodwaters that inundated “The Big Easy”. How she remembered it sounded anything but easy.
“We left on the night of August 29. There was no electricity, so it was pitch-dark. Then we drove our car for three days because we couldn’t find a place to stay. All hotels were full of evacuees. On the third day, the Martinezes finally found shelter at the residence of Dr. Rafael Castro, a family friend, from the Chicago suburb of Frankfort, 900 miles from New Orleans.
While other Gulf Coast residents have already returned to their locals and surveyed the devastation, New Orleans folks are still barred from their flooded city. For families like the Martinezes, it’s a long way to go before they return to the city they call home for 17 years.
“We had a lot of near misses before. During hurricanes, we had to evacuate but within two days we’re back,” said Martinez. “We thought it would be the same, so we only brought a few provisions.”
But they were wrong. Although the eye of the storm missed the center of New Orleans, it still packed enough punch to batter the city. “We were at the third floor of the Lakeside Hospital and it was vibrating,” Martinez said in a tired voice. “I was very scared.” Her husband, Dr. Roberto Martinez was on-duty, so the rest of the family had to join him at the medical facility.
The morning of August 29, things started to unravel: Power was down, communication was disrupted, and the flooding started. Patients were airlifted and the hospital started to ration food and water. Late afternoon, the Martinezes had to flee. They ended up in Chicago two days after. “My husband is taking it really hard. I have to be strong for him.”
As full-time honorary consul, Martinez is the Philippine Embassy and Chicago Consulate General’s point person in the Gulf region. But in a twist of fate, her family became a part of the statistics of victims.
Martinez’s office located at the 21st floor of the World Trade Center in New Orleans was generally spared by Katrina and documents are intact. However, electric power is still down and mandatory evacuation is still up, preventing the office from functioning.
Other Filipino families like that of Prof. Adlai De Pano of the University of New Orleans evacuated before the storm hit. They ended up in Texas where majority of the Filipino families fled.
Financial, medical help
As this developed, the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) Midwest Region, which includes Chicago, pledged to send a medical team through the Red Cross. It will be headed by Dr. Vicky Navarra, president of the Philippine American Medical Missions Foundation of Michigan. The team is now ready and only waiting for deployment.
In the national level, NaFFAA Chairman Loida Nicolas Lewis personally donated $10,000 to the relief effort. The Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. also donated another $10,000.
In Houston, Texas, NaFFAA southwest region chair, Atty. Arlene Machetta told PINOY Monthly that the Filipino community there rallied to help the more than 160 families.
“It’s been a huge challenge, but thank God for the outpouring of support from the vibrant Filipino community here in Texas,” Machetta said.
A Chicago-based Filipino non-profit organization, Heart Cross is also organizing a fund raising drive. Dr. Rufino Crisostomo, Jr., founder and president, said the money will go to the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the American Red Cross.
“Every penny collected will provide food and essential services to the thousands of displaced survivors in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, home of the first Filipino settlers in America,” Dr. Crisostomo said.
Elsewhere in Gulfport, Mississippi, home of the late Bataan Death March survivor Gregorio Melegrito and his wife Herminia Tabamo, the scene of devastation was also evident.
Mr. Jon Melegrito, son of the late World War II veteran, said that it took days before he could contact his step-mother. “She can only call out from a phone in Home Depot because her home and cell phones don’t work. Still no water and electricity in her area and her house was partly damaged so she’s trying to get it repaired, with the help of a neighbor, who is also Filipino,” he said in an email from his residence in Maryland.
“The church that she goes to, attended mostly by Filipino immigrants, was completely washed away. A church employee, a Filipino who lives in the parsonage, lost everything.”•