Chinese communities around the country are mobilizing to help victims of a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed countless buildings and killed thousands of people in China's Sichuan province, where many immigrants have roots.

After the magnitude-7.9 quake struck Monday, U.S. residents with ties to the region anxiously sought news about China's worst earthquake in three decades and tried to contact friends and relatives through jammed phone lines and e-mail.

It took Tong Zhu, an international relations director for the Port of Tacoma in Washington state, more than three hours to contact her family in Chengdu, about 50 miles from the quake's epicenter.

"When I got a busy signal for three hours, I knew something was definitely not right," Zhu said. "We were all in panic mode."

All family members are now camping outside their home because of the fear of aftershocks, she said.

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David Lee, whose wife's family lives in the same city as Zhu's, finally reached family members by cell phone after many attempts. He described relatives sleeping in their cars, with no access to electricity or running water.

"They're worried about the aftershocks. They're worried that something might happen to cause the house to collapse," said Lee, who heads the Chinese American Voter Education Committee in San Francisco.

China's official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday that the death toll had exceeded 12,000, and the number was expected to rise as rescue workers searched for the thousands missing.

Soon after news of the earthquake broke, Chinese organizations nationwide began setting up ways for people to donate money the Red Cross and other agencies providing disaster relief.

"It's very real for many people here," Lee said.

Sing Tao Daily, one of the largest Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S., published eight pages of quake coverage Tuesday and set up a disaster relief fund that will collect donations from its readers around the world, said Tim Lau, CEO of the paper's West Coast operations.

"Starting yesterday morning, we got calls asking what Sing Tao will do," Lau said, adding that the paper raised more than $1 million from Bay Area residents to help victims of the Asian tsunami in 2004. "The whole community is responding pretty rapidly."

In New York City, Chinese-Americans already have donated thousands of dollars to help quake victims, community leaders said Tuesday.

Justin Yu, president of the New York Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, said the association put out a fundraising appeal to more than 60 member groups Tuesday. It had raised $9,500 on Monday but hopes to raise $50,000 to $100,000, he said.

City Councilman John Liu, who represents a Queens district with a large Chinese population, held a news conference Monday to urge New Yorkers to donate to the American Red Cross International Response Fund.

"Communications are not yet fully up in the heaviest hit areas in Sichuan, but it's heartening to know that New Yorkers are stepping up with expressions of sympathy and offers of aid relief," Liu said.

Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation in Queens put out a call for donations Monday, and people came by Tuesday to drop off checks.

"We're asking people to pray for these victims," said chapter secretary Yuru Chou. "Our philosophy is, whatever you do will help. ... To us, $5 is the same as $5,000."

The Seattle-Chongqing Sister City Association has begun efforts to raise funds in collaboration with local businesses and other organizations, said Hong Qi, who heads the partnership with Chongqing, a major city just outside Sichuan.

"Right now, we're trying to collect some of the badly needed equipment," Qi said.

Miao Li, who heads the Silicon Valley alumni association of the Chengdu-based University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, said members have had trouble reaching relatives back home because so many cell phone towers are damaged or lack power.

Li was relieved when he received an e-mail from relatives in the industrial city of Deyang, within 100 miles of the quake's epicenter. Their home was damaged and they have been ordered to sleep outdoors, but no one was hurt, he said.

"My family might lose money or they might lose their house, but they're safe and healthy," Li said. "That's good enough."