As Philippines rebuilds, family overseas will play a key role

A woman navigates a road filled with debris in Leyte, Philippines, an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.
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The typhoon that tore a devastating path through the Philippines also left a gaping hole in Maribel and Paul Barton's family.

The couple learned earlier this week that Maribel's two sisters, three nieces and two nephews were among the thousands who died when Typhoon Haiyan hit Maribel's hometown of Tacloban, destroying at least 70 percent of the structures in the area.

As the close-knit family grieves, they also are working desperately to figure out how to get money and help to the surviving members of their family, who they fear are stranded with thousands of other survivors struggling to find food, shelter and water.

"We want to do that when we can, but there's no place to send the money right now," said Paul, who lives with Maribel and their three children in Kapolei, Hawaii.

The Filipino economy is already heavily dependent on money that family members living abroad send home, and some experts expect those payments—called remittances—will play an even bigger role as the nation recovers from the typhoon.

"In times of natural disaster, remittances are one of the first forms of help that rushes in," said Dilip Ratha, manager of migration and remittances for the World Bank's development prospects group.

Even before the typhoon, the World Bank estimated that remittances would contribute about $26 billion to the Filipino economy in 2013, which Ratha said accounts for about 10 percent of the nation's total GDP.

"Remittances have a huge impact in the Philippines," said Murray Hiebert, deputy director in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(Read more: How you can help typhoon survivors)

Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations, said payments from family members abroad are a key part of the economy because the Philippines has a rapidly growing population of relatively educated people but few good job prospects. That means many Filipinos travel abroad to different countries—including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Canada and elsewhere—in search of work.

Once overseas, experts say it's common for devoted family members to send as much money as they can back home, for everything from basic needs such as food and shelter to help in starting a small business.

When disaster strikes, Ratha said, even domestic workers who earn little will often try to send more money as quickly as they can—even if that means borrowing from friends or employers, or selling possessions. When a 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, another country heavily dependent on remittances, the World Bank estimated that remittances would surge by 20 percent because of the disaster.

The cash those family members send can be a lifeline in a crisis. That's why Ratha thinks it's important to think not just about getting essentials to the region but also about ensuring that there is safe access to banking institutions.

(Read more: Typhoon was our 'Black Swan:' Philippine exchange COO)

"Remittances [are] almost the first form of help that arrives, and yet we don't think about providing remittance services—access to remittance services—as a component of our relief response," Ratha said.

Global aid to the Philippines

Maribel and Paul Barton were wrestling with that conundrum. The couple has long helped their Filipino relatives with everything from basic needs to larger expenses. They once paid for a nephew's ear surgery.

When news of the disaster struck, Paul said friends immediately offered to help with cash donations. But with widespread power outages and reports of looting, Paul said they are unsure how to get money securely to their family.

"There's no place to send money to," he said.

Meanwhile, Maribel and her parents, who also now live in the United States, were overcome with grief for their loved ones. Despite the thousands of miles separating them, they remain extremely close.

Maribel said she typically talks to her family in the Philippines almost every night. They sometimes put a place at the dinner table and set up an iPad so they can share a family meal virtually.

(Read more: Storm surge in Philippines: 'It was like a tsunami')

On the night of the typhoon, Maribel said, her family left their home because they were afraid the roof would collapse. They took shelter in a motel, taking pictures and posting them on Facebook.

Maribel was talking to one of her sisters on the phone as the raging storm grew worse.

"The very last thing her sister said was, 'Mana, I'm really scared,' " Paul said.

Then, the connection went dead.

Through news reports, Maribel and Paul watched as the landmarks they knew so well—including the hotel where they had spent their honeymoon, and a resort where they had stayed during a later visit—were devastated by the typhoon.

The good news was that Maribel's brother, two nephews and one niece had likely survived. But the family home was destroyed and details were murky. That's left the Bartons worried about whether they have access to food, water and medical help.

"We know they survived but we don't know where they are, and our focus right now is trying to get them out of there," Paul said.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct share of remittances in the total GDP of the Philippines.