March 18, 2018
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Maine families search for information about loved ones in the Philippines

By Nell Gluckman, BDN Staff

ORLAND, Maine — Robert and Victoria MacDonald moved to the Philippines on Oct. 9 of this year in an attempt to live a better life than the one they had in Orland.

Almost exactly a month later, one of the most powerful typhoons in history ripped through the center of the Philippines, leaving 4,460 reported dead and more than 900,000 displaced, according to numbers released by the United Nations on Thursday.

Robert MacDonald’s daughter, Kelly Frye, has not heard from them since the night before the storm hit on Nov. 8.

The couple was struggling financially and they knew that if they sold their house in Orland, their money could go a lot further in Victoria’s home country. Robert MacDonald has rheumatoid arthritis and he figured the tropical weather would be good for his condition.

“I kept saying to him, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’” said Kelly Frye in her Orland home on Friday. “And he said, ‘Yeah, it can’t be any worse than what we’re doing here.’

“And it is now,” she said.

The couple lived in Palo, which is about seven miles south of Tacloban, the city that has received the most media coverage since it was devastated by the typhoon.

The last time Frye spoke with her father was on the night before the storm when they were chatting on Facebook.

“He said, ‘We have a typhoon alert,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, hopefully it will just blow a little and rain some like when we get hurricane advisories here. And he said, ‘Oh, honey, I hope so.’ And that was the last line on the chat box.”

Maine families with relatives in the affected areas of the Philippines are desperately seeking news of missing loved ones since Typhoon Haiyan hit. They are also doing what they can to help relatives who they have been in contact with, though that task has proved difficult in a place where there is rarely cellphone reception or electricity and food is scarce.

Elsa Trenholm, 56, is Filipino but now lives in Otis with her husband, David, 58. The two lived in the Philippines for many years and still visit their house once a year in Tabango, which is on the same island as Tacloban.

The Trenholms heard from their family and friends regularly up until the storm hit, bringing with it 200 mph winds and a storm surge of 10 feet in some places.

“Then it completely goes dark,” said their son, Dan Trenholm, 34, who went to high school in the Philippines and has friends there. “All you have is what you see on the television. It’s completely unnerving.”

They have since learned that Elsa Trenholm’s parents and siblings are accounted for but a niece and her young daughter, who live in Tacloban, are missing. A cousin’s daughter and her family also were missing and later found dead.

One of Else Trenholm’s sisters had been missing for several days before her daughter, Porscha Robinson, and her husband traveled to Tacloban, found her alive, and brought her back to the Trenholms’ home in Tobango.

“It’s overwhelming,” Elsa Trenholm said through tears.

When she speaks to her brother, whose daughter and granddaughter are still missing, she said he doesn’t sound like himself.

“He answers questions completely off topic,” she said.

David and Dan Trenholm said the frustration of not being there to help is almost unbearable.

“You can’t get any further away from there [here in Maine],” David Trenholm said. “You just have to trust in the people that are on the ground. That little community is the focus.”

The Trenholms’ house is in a small, coastal village, about 33 miles from Ormoc, the nearest city. They said only four houses were left standing in their village, though their garage was destroyed. At the moment, there are six families living together in the house.

Helping their loved ones is a struggle. They schedule times to speak with Robinson, their niece, but she has to travel two and a half hours to Ormoc, where there is cellphone reception. They have wired her about $2,800, but now Ormoc is running out of cash to distribute to families receiving money from abroad, so Robinson has to take a four-hour ferry, then a three-hour bus to Cebu, a city that was less severely affected, to retrieve the money.

Robinson then buys rice, milk and sardines and distributes them to the families in their village.

The Trenholms said they have dealt with natural disasters in the area before and have learned not to wait for the Red Cross.

“It will be a couple months before they get [to Tobango],” said Dan Trenholm. The relief effort, he explained, will likely be focused on the densely populated, urban areas where the most lives were lost.

Dan Trenholm said that his focus has been on giving relatives and friends enough sustenance and support to make it from one day to the next.

“As of right now, the energy they have to go, to move on has been wiped out,” Dan Trenholm said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Just help them get up.”

David Trenholm’s sister Linda Trenholm has set up a website — to receive donations, which they will send to Robinson. The website had generated $550 as of Friday afternoon. The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office — where Else Trenholm and another Filipino woman, Virginia Hauger, work — also has contributed $500, for which the two women say they are extremely grateful.

On Thursday night, Robinson called from Ormoc. She said that two of Elsa Trenholm’s brothers were going to Tacloban by motorcycle in search of Elsa’s missing niece. The Trenholms gave them Victoria and Robert MacDonald’s address in nearby Palo and asked them to look for that couple as well.

Frye said she has contacted the Red Cross, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office, and the American Embassy in Manila asking for help.

She has sent a detailed description of her father to the embassy, but officials there have told her it could take time to locate him because the paper with his description has to be hand delivered to people on the ground in Palo, where there is no Internet service.

“I will find them,” said Elsa Trenholm of her friends.

The Trenholms were planning a trip to the Philippines in April, which they will now move up to sometime in January or February, they said.

“In fact, [the MacDonalds] had planned on coming and visiting us while we were there,” said David Trenholm.

“They still might,” he said to his wife. “They still might.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Elsa Trenholm as Else Trenholm.

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