DALLAS – “God please help me, am I going to die?” cried Albert Saligumba as he desperately hanged on for dear life on the rooftop of his submerged home on Tiki Island, near Galveston, Texas. As the flood waters kept getting higher and darkness continued to descend on the second day of his being trapped on the roof of his house, wet and cold from the wind-swept rain, alone with no food and no means of communicating with other people, he prayed as he prepared to die. He only survived by staying awake and drinking rain water that fell in massive doses on the entire island. By dawn, the water stopped rising and he was rescued.
The year has not been kind to the 62-year old Filipino widow, who only last March lost his new bride, Dr. Marilie Evangelista-Saligumba in a freak vehicular accident on Interstate 45 which connects Houston to Dallas and Oklahoma. He was driving a truck full of balikbayan boxes when he lost control of the vehicle and swerved into the trees, killing his wife almost instantly.
Always thinking of others even if his own house was severely damaged and without flood insurance to fall back on, Saligumba evacuated to Dallas, about 250 miles north of Houston, met with his friends in the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce (PACC) Dallas Chapter and collected bags of relief goods which he later distributed to his neighbors in Galveston.
There were other Filipinos who survived the killer hurricane who had similar horrific stories to tell. Many were reported to have lost their homes, after the catastrophic flooding that came in the aftermath of the hurricane was accompanied by six tornadoes that destroyed everything in their paths. Approximately 7,000 homes owned by Filipino families were damaged, many of them without flood insurance.
About 70,000 Filipinos live in Houston and neighboring cities that were also hit. There were no reported casualties among them. There were also no reports of Filipinos being admitted at the major hospitals for serious injuries. The only reported cases of losses by Filipinos were damages to their homes, vehicles and properties, and loss of power for many days. They also now worry about contaminated water and chemical spills.
Concerned Filipino Texans to the Rescue
Filipino organizations in Texas showed that they cared deeply about the victims of Hurricane Harvey. PACC Texas with strong chapters in Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley was one of the first to provide rapid response to the calamity. The North Texas chapter of PACC Texas quickly offered the safety of their homes to Filipinos in south and central Texas even before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. Chapter Chairperson Myrna Carreon announced the collection of relief goods and plans for fund-raisers to assist with the rescue and rehabilitation of the hurricane victims.
The Dallas-based Honorary Consulate headed by Honorary Consul Ethel R. Mercado is monitoring the situation round-the-clock, reaching out to Filipinos in the devastated areas and regularly updating the Philippine government officials through the Consulate General in Los Angeles. The honorary consulate also fields dozens of phone calls every day inquiring about the hurricane and how it has affected Filipinos in the region. Some are trying to locate relatives and friends who may have been affected.
Filipino-owned Datalogix Texas Inc., a major AT&T telecommunications contractor, has fielded its San-Antonio based cell tower engineers to the affected cities, delivering generators to areas that had lost electricity and cell power, and fixing damaged tower sites, or replacing downed towers with Cellsites on Wheels (COWs).
Datalogix engineers, mostly Filipinos and Mexican cell site engineers, quickly responded to the disaster, long before the flood waters receded.
Their heroism is reminiscent of what they did to restore and rehabilitate Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast after the massive destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina in 2005. The heroic Filipino engineers volunteered to risk personal safety wading through waist-deep flood waters, with no food, gasoline or hotel rooms for hundreds of miles. Working on cell towers at the tail-end of a hurricane is a death-defying job.
PACC Rio Grande Valley led by Rev. Merpu Roa quickly volunteered to join the Mayor’s Emergency Rescue Task Force. Jennifer Cleveland and Leah Theys reported that the PACC RGV Chapter, working closely with Filipino business establishments and churches, mobilized their members and established relief goods collection centers at strategic locations in Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley. PACC officials are especially focused on helping Filipino victims in the very hard-hit cities of Rockport and Port Aransas.
The RGV Filipino volunteers brought hundreds of bags of relief goods to the First Community Church in Corpus Christi, a largely Filipino church, and along with the Filipino Association of Corpus Christi, attended a thanksgiving mass and distributed the relief goods to Filipino church members who were impacted by the hurricane.
PACC RGV board directors Randy Cleveland and Danny Theys hired 16-footer U-Haul trucks and delivered the relief goods containing canned goods and personal hygiene supplies to Filipinos in the affected cities. Lawyer Randy Cleveland also travelled to the affected areas, offering free legal services to expedite insurance claims and relief assistance from Federal agencies.
Filipino community leaders in Houston who are themselves victims of the worst calamity ever seen in this the fourth largest city in the U.S. and were virtual prisoners in their own homes for many days, did not take long to also mobilize and organize relief efforts.
After evacuating his family, PACC Houston Chapter Chairman Ricky Guinhawa joined the storm-chasing team of his company, Centerpoint, which is the biggest supplier of electricity in metropolitan Houston. Their job was to survey all the communities that lost power and to monitor power restoration efforts. PACC Texas president Gary Ilagan braved the elements and showed up at his law firm by himself as the entire downtown Houston was flooded. He also offered free legal services to Filipino victims of the deadly hurricane who may qualify for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Relief for Immigrants.
Young Filipinos volunteered at their schools, churches and civic groups to assist with distribution of relief goods at evacuation shelters. Anthony Guevara, Southern Region Chair of NaFFAA and the Filipino Young Professionals of Houston believes the spirit of community will carry the people of Houston through these challenging times.
“In Houston, the spirit of unity and collective action – bayanihan – can be seen in the selfless efforts of state and local officials, law enforcement and plain citizens as they begin to rebuild,” he said.
Pinoy Houston TV also monitored the calamity, issued public service announcements and posted the locations of evacuation centers and relief goods drop-off points. Fil-Am groups in Houston and other cities are pitching in.
The tragedy has united the Filipino community in Texas in a way that has never been seen before in this state of almost 200,000 Filipinos. The most active Filipino organization in the state, the PACC Texas, has made a clarion call for unity and collective action. Buoyed by overwhelming sympathy and tremendous enthusiasm for support generated by the disaster nationwide, leaders are brainstorming programs that will benefit the victims, both Filipinos and non-Filipinos.
Filipinos from Dallas, Tyler, San Antonio, McAllen, Brownsville and Austin are sponsoring benefit concerts featuring the Madrigal Singers to raise funds for Hurricane Harvey victims.
Philippine Government Commiserates
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano expressed solidarity with the Filipinos of Texas. In his message, he said: “Our hearts go out to the people of Houston, including the thousands of our kababayan, who have to go through this terrible ordeal.”
In a second message, Secretary Cayetano praised the many Filipinos who volunteered and provided assistance. “We salute and thank our kababayans in the U.S. for keeping the spirit of bayanihan alive,” he said. “We are touched by the gestures of members of the Filipino-American community who opened their homes to those who lost theirs and are helping in one way or another our other affected kababayans.”
Los Angeles Consul-General Adelio Angelito Cruz, who has jurisdiction over Texas, also sent a message of support. “The Philippine Consulate General would like to commend the various Filipino-American volunteers and associations in Texas who offered their time and resources, opened their homes, and donated relief goods to help those in need. In the spirit of bayanihan, Mabuhay po kayong lahat!”
Cruz also said that the Consulate General and the Honorary Consulate in Texas remain on alert as the storm, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Metro Houston and surrounding cities is expected to trigger catastrophic flooding in a matter of days.
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey reminded Houston Filipinos of a similar disaster in Louisiana 12 years ago, when tens of thousands of flood victims were rendered homeless by Hurricane Katrina and evacuated to the George R. Brown Center in Houston. The Houston Filipino leaders quickly searched for Filipino victims in the evacuation center and gave them private housing, food and clothes.
Worst ever natural disaster in Texas and most of the U.S.
With more than 60 known dead and tens of thousands injured, 195,149 homes damaged or destroyed, over 1 million people forced to evacuate their homes, and $125 billion in total damages according to Texas Governor Greg Abbot, there is no doubt about the place of Hurricane Harvey in the history of disasters in Texas and the rest of the country. The scope of the mega-storm’s destruction is unprecedented, which affected almost the entire southern half of Texas, whose geographical land area is bigger than California’s.
About the Author
Gus Mercado has been a Filipino community leader in Texas for 35 years. He is currently State Executive Director of PACC Texas, Chair Emeritus of NaFFAA Region VI, and Chairman-CEO of Datalogix Texas Inc. He is a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Banaag Award in 2014.