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'Mom is a survivor': Families in US desperately seek loved ones missing in Philippines

Shirley Skrivseth poses with her 16-year-old son Eric. She is among those missing in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. Courtesy of Greg Skrivseth

Just two days before Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines, two teenage boys and their father sang “Happy Birthday” over the telephone to their mother, who was visiting the Pacific Island nation. They said their ‘I love you’s’ and she told them she'd see them at Christmas.

That was the last the Skrivseth family, of Bellevue, Iowa, heard from mother and wife, Shirley, 43, who they believe was staying in her hometown, a suburb of heavily-damaged Tacloban when the storm hit on Friday, said Greg Skrivseth, her husband.

Since then, Skrivseth has reached out to the Red Cross, posted about her disappearance online and waited for a call from his wife of 18 years.

But the passing days without word have taken a toll: The couple’s younger son, Ian, 14, broke down at a Boy Scouts’ meeting on Monday, while older son, Eric, 16, was having trouble with his school work, said Greg, who has had his own moments of sobbing.

“Looking at the pictures, they know what we’re all facing,” Skrivseth said of the possibility that Shirley, who had been back home for five months to sell land left to her by her deceased mother, did not survive.

The Skrivseths are one of many families in the U.S. desperately searching for their loved ones after Haiyan left nearly 2,400 people dead in its wake, with another 3,800 hurt, according to the Philippines' National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Two unnamed Americans have been confirmed dead by the US State Department.

'A broken heart': Americans search for missing relatives in Philippines

With cell phones down throughout the disaster zone, many families with loved ones in the region have taken to social media, pleading for information. Some say they’ve scoured every photo they could find of survivors to see if they can spot a recognizable face. Others have reached out to aid groups on the ground in hopes that they can keep an eye out for their beloved.

The Red Cross, which offers help through its “Restoring Family Links" program, said families can call their local chapter to initiate a tracing case. The file is sent to the Philippines Red Cross, whose volunteers will visit evacuation centers and use other information – such as last known address -- to try and find the missing person. The Red Cross didn’t have data Tuesday on how many such cases have been filed.

“It can be a slow process,” said Jana Sweeney, a Red Cross spokeswoman. “This is just the heart-wrenching part of this work, when people can’t find their loved ones.”

The U.S. State Department said consular officials were checking on Americans who had previously registered with the embassy or whose loved ones had contacted them.

Embassy officials will travel to Tacloban on Nov. 13 to assist U.S. citizens, and families can contact the department by email (acsinfomanila@state.gov) or phone (1-888-407-4747). The department could not say how many such inquiries it had received.

Some families, though, have finally received the news that their loved ones survived.

Geronica Higgins, a Filipina-American, had been searching the internet for signs of life of her niece, Shiena Marie Vista, the young woman’s husband, Mel Glenn Vista, and their six-month-old son, Kyle. The family has been living in Abuyog, about 50 miles south of the heavily-damaged provincial capital of Tacloban on the east coast.

Higgins helped to raise Shiena before she moved to the U.S. in 1994 and considers her like a daughter. She tried calling her many times to no avail and had hardly slept in days wracked with worry. Pictures of the area where they lived show “it’s all like ground zero. It’s wiped out,” said Higgins, 46, of Niceville, Fla.

Shiena’s mom headed to Abuyog by boat to search for them, and Higgins finally got the call that she had been waiting for overnight Tuesday: “They’re alive!” she said, sharing the news a relative in France told her (Higgins was having difficulty reaching Shiena’s mom in the disaster area).

“The little boy is not very healthy,” Higgins said. “They didn’t eat. They just survived drinking dirty water.”

The group will try to make it back to Negros, an island west of Cebu, where Shiena’s mom and other relatives live. Higgins hopes to Skype with her niece soon.

“This is heaven,” she said Wednesday. “Just all the questions and prayers have been answered.”

Greg Skrivseth is considering a trip to the disaster area to do the search himself for Shirley, so his family can get some answers.

Of the life they built together, he said: “We did the best we could. Sometimes it was trying situations. But it was a good life and I'm hoping for more."

And in the meantime, he maintains the search from the U.S. and tries to keep his boys spirits up, telling them that their “mom has proved over 18 years she is a survivor and that she cares for us,” he paused, “and that she’ll come home.”

Are you searching for a relative in the Philippines? Email reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com

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