Tacked to a mirror at Ellen Gruspe’s hair salon in Fort Washington is a snapshot of a pretty yellow and pink house next to a palm tree. Until last week, the house in Tacloban, Philippines, was where Gruspe, 69, and her husband, Oscar, had planned to retire soon after three decades in the United States.
Today, the three-story structure is barely standing and is surrounded by debris, flattened huts and sprawled corpses. The palm tree is gone. When Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the couple’s homeland a little more than a week ago, Tacloban, a coastal city of 200,000, was directly in its path.
Ellen Gruspe’s brother Manuel, who lived in the house with his wife and children, saved family members by tying them with ropes to a third-floor stair railing. But everything below — including a refrigerator and four puppies — was swept away by a wall of water. Now, with food and other emergency aid delayed for nearly a week, Gruspe is worried they will starve.
Her greater fear, though, is for two of her sisters — Norma Javel and Josefina Bernardo. Both women live in smaller, storm-battered coastal towns, where all communication has been severed since the typhoon struck, and she has had no word of their fate.
Every night at home in Riverdale, Md., Gruspe has been repeatedly trying their cellphones but has never gotten anything but silence. Every day at the salon, where two TV sets are tuned to live news channels from Manila, she has been scrutinizing the names of survivors as they scroll across. But she has yet to spot her sisters’ names.
“It’s so hard. We still know nothing. I just hope they are alive,” Gruspe said Thursday afternoon, staring at the TV next to her jars of scissors and combs. The latest casualty figures flashed on the screen — 2,344 dead, 3,804 wounded. Then came more scenes of devastated villages, bloated corpses, chaotic relief efforts. Some were from Tacloban. None were from Tanauan or Guiuan, the towns where Norma and Josefina live.
Gruspe sighed and went back to cutting hair.
The Fil-Am Hair Design salon in Prince George’s County, which Gruspe and her partner Mirna de la Rosa opened 23 years ago, is a cozy gathering place for members of Fort Washington’s tight-knit Filipino community, home to many retired professionals and U.S. government and military workers. More than 75,000 Filipino immigrants live in the Washington area, and tens of thousands more live in other regional pockets including Baltimore and Virginia Beach.
Many of Fil-Am’s regular customers are from northern islands in the Philippine archipelago that were not damaged by the typhoon, but all of them know that Gruspe is from one of the worst-hit regions. Many stopped by this week to express concern, and some dropped off shopping bags of donations — canned soup and corn, chocolate bars, blankets and shirts — to send to her family and other typhoon victims.
De la Rosa has been helping Gruspe follow the survivor lists on TV, and she keeps a piece of paper with the sisters’ names handy. When the hours grew heavy with depressing news during the week, she and Gruspe switched to their favorite soap opera from Manila. “We were so focused on the typhoon, we lost track of the plot,” de la Rosa said.
Next door, the Balikbayan package service has a sign in the window offering to ship any box to the Philippines for $70. Gruspe is grateful that people want to help, but she knows the supplies will take many weeks to reach her brother and that they may already be too late to save her missing sisters.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the phone next to her hairdressing chair rang constantly. Each time, it was another friend or member of her large, extended family, calling to ask whether she had heard anything. Each time, Gruspe sighed and said, “No, not yet.” Then she switched into rapid Tagalog to commiserate with the callers.
Amid the flood of information pouring in from the Philippines via TV, cellphone and Internet, Gruspe has received only one solid and mildly comforting piece of family news the entire week. It came late Monday night — early Tuesday morning in the Philippines — in a brief call from a distraught niece, who was standing on the roof of the family’s ruined home in Tacloban.
“She only had the signal for a couple of minutes. She told me, ‘Auntie, we are okay, but everything else has disappeared in the water,’ ” Gruspe recounted, repeating the story for customers and visitors throughout the week.
The niece described how her father had tied everyone to the stair railing to withstand the powerful storm surge and how the next day he had walked for nine hours, passing villages full of corpses, to make sure his son was safe. She also said they had no food, water or medicine. The family owns a small general store on the ground floor, but everything in it was washed away.
Gruspe has heard nothing from Tacloban since that call, only news reports describing relief supplies being delayed, rice warehouses being looted, and desperate residents fleeing the city or swarming the airport.
“I keep calling, but there’s no signal. My brother has diabetes, and he walked all those hours,” she fretted, taking off her glasses and wiping her eyes. “I want to help them, but what can I do? I can get him medicine, but how will he get it? I can send them food, but how will they cook it? What if they survive the typhoon and then starve?”
During lulls between customers, Gruspe kept picking up the snapshot of the pink and yellow house and staring at it. “We were going to retire there and have barbecues on the roof. So nice, right on the ocean,” she said. “That was our dream. Now it’s a skeleton.”
Her husband, 70, a retired accountant, plans to visit Tacloban in December and see whether the house is salvageable. “Maybe we can rebuild it, but there might be no people there now, no city,” she said.
Desperate for news of her missing sisters, Gruspe said she had been trying every network she could find at night, including Skype and Sprint hotline services in the Philippines. Once she reached a man with a similar last name who was looking for his brother. Once she reached the cousin of a niece’s husband in Manila, who said their immediate relatives were okay, but that was all.
By Friday, with the official typhoon death toll climbing above 4,000, a trickle of news reports began emanating from Tanauan, down the coast from Tacloban, and from Guiuan in Samar province. TV videos showed massive destruction and the start of government evacuations in both of her sisters’ communities.
But still there was no word whether Norma, an invalid in her 50s, or Josefina, a mother of seven in her 40s, had survived.
“I haven’t talked with them in a long time. We are all so busy,” Gruspe said with chagrin. She said she had seen the sisters only a few times since she immigrated many years ago to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. They last met briefly when she visited the Philippines in 2010. Now, she does not even have a photograph of them.
“We sent our albums to the Philippines for our retirement,” she said.
The phone in the salon rang again, and Gruspe’s voice dropped. She spelled out both sisters’ names slowly, thanked the caller and hung up. It was a church group, calling to offer prayers for the missing. Gruspe sank into a shampooing chair, took off her glasses and sighed.