LONG BEACH, California: The devastation from last week’s typhoon has been difficult for Filipino expatriates around the world to take in, but for 300,000 Filipino sailors working on the world’s high seas, getting news of their families’ fates has been an agonizing challenge.
Roughly 20 percent of all seafarers — the men who live and work on cargo lines for months at a time — are from the island nation and many may have lost friends or family in the storm.
Seafarer welfare organizations, shipping lines and seafarer unions are working to help these men get word to and from their families, often from thousands of miles away in the middle of the open ocean.
Some groups are providing free phone cards to sailors as they come into ports around the world, while others are providing free satellite phone calls from on-board the vessels and free online newspapers tailored to giving the men up-to-the-minute typhoon information. Sailor-specific social media sites with names like CrewToo and special Facebook pages are also filling in the information gap in an industry that relies on the island nation for a steady supply of personnel.
V. Ships, which provides merchant marines to vessels, has about 7,000 Filipinos working on ships around the world and about 2,600 of them are from the area affected by the typhoon, spokesman Patrick Adamson said.
The company has sent a team to the battered city of Tacloban to gather information about the families of the merchant marines on its rosters and is calling vessels directly with news for individual sailors.
The company has also assembled an emergency contact team in Manila to help coordinate communication between sailors and their families, Adamson said.
“A guy who’s on a ship miles away has no idea where his family is and he can do nothing about it. It’s not like he can jump on a plane and go,” he said. “He’s in desperate straits.”
Merchant sailors have been allowed to leave their ships for home and a few have done so but the company has been able to find replacements without disrupting business, Adamson said.
Filipino seafarers have turned to the North American Maritime Ministry Association, made up of port chaplains from various denominations around the US, Canada and the Caribbean.
The organization has members in every North America port and in some places Filipino seafarers are asking for special Roman Catholic Masses on board or in port, Executive Director Jason Zuidema said.
They also are frantic to connect with loved ones through satellite phone, Skype, or any way they can.
“In the last couple of days, they are desperately looking to have cheap, easy access to Internet or telephones or telephone cards,” he said. “We’ve had a number of instances, even if we provide free calling, they can’t get through, there’s no infrastructure.”
It’s hard for them being so far away, he said.
“Already they’re on the absolutely other side of the world, now the gulf is even greater,” he said.
The association planned to hold a board meeting by telephone Friday to discuss ways of helping the seafarers and their families.
“There’s not much we can do over there yet. But as the time comes for rebuilding, what can we do to help families? How can we collect funds and get them to appropriate places for helping seafarers’ families rebuild their lives,” said the Rev. John P. Vandercook, the association’s president.
The Seafarers’ House in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has reached out to cruise lines and was asked to perform Masses on board, Executive Director Lesley Warrick said.
That is unusual because time is money for the big ships, which usually try to get in and out of port as quickly as possible.
The organization reached out to the local archdiocese, which sent a priest who spoke Tagalog to say the Mass, she said.
Ministries also are reaching out at Port Newark, a major container terminal in the Port of New York and New Jersey.
At least half of the sailors coming into the port are Filipino, said the Rev. Marjorie Lindstrom, senior port chaplain for the Seaman’s Church Institute.
Many haven’t been affected by the disaster but a few have said their families lost their homes.
“With the heightened trauma in the Philippines, we have made sure we are going to visit those ships that had Filipino crew first,” she said.
“It’s more a listening and being with them in this time of pain,” Lindstrom said. “It’s been amazing the resiliency they have.”