Yolanda survivor Eduardo Zabala lost 11 family members but inspiring high hopes
PALO, Leyte—A day after Eduardo Zabala lost 11 of his family members to Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” an influential cousin working in Abu Dhabi chartered two private helicopters to whisk him out of harm’s way. He begged off to stay.
“I saw no compelling reason for me to leave. Almost all my family members died here. Why would I go?” the 48-year-old government agriculturist said then.
Almost five months after the disaster happened, Zabala realized he made the right decision.
The Yolanda tragic figure has transformed himself into one of this town’s emerging community leaders, organizing fishermen in his village by helping them heal and recover from the devastating effects of the massive storm that destroyed most of their fishing boats.
Zabala lost his daughter Grace Ann, 15; mother Remedios, 69; and sisters Lourdes Navarette, 37, and Karen Katherine Monserate, 33. He also lost three elderly aunts—Catalina, 88; Rosario, 76; and Cecilia Orejola, 66. Other victims in Zabala’s family include his uncle Fermin Orejola, 63; cousin Mariel Patrice Orejola, 18; and two nephews, Liam Monserate, 4, and Peter Ross Navarette, 11.
They all drowned on Nov. 8 when Yolanda’s 6-meter storm surges swept into Barangay Salvacion here, destroying this coastal fishing village facing the Pacific Ocean. Only Zabala, his 51-year-old wife Luchie, two grown children and two other nieces survived the catastrophe.
“I still can’t believe they are all gone,” Zabala said.
Slowly coming back from his dark days of despair, Zabala’s mind is now preoccupied with the color yellow, specifically yellow boats.
With the help of Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation (YBOH), a Manila-based nongovernment organization (NGO) engaged in disaster relief, Zabala and the group of 21 fishermen he leads are getting their livelihoods back by building one yellow boat at a time.
Like Zabala, most of the fishermen here have lost a wife, a son or a daughter, a mother or a father to Yolanda. In the aftermath of Yolanda, they have formed a brotherhood forged in grief and resilience.
Avenue of escape
“For me, working on these yellow boats is my escape. It clears my mind and helps me cope with my personal tragedy,” Zabala said.
With the help of its corporate sponsors and private funds, the YBOH plans to build thousands of new fishing boats in support of the group’s Adopt-a-Fisherman project, which came about in December 2012 after Typhoon “Pablo,” the strongest to hit Mindanao in two decades.
“This is the cheapest and easiest way for fishermen to get back on their feet,” said Dr. Anton Mari H. Lim, president of YBOH. Lim is a veterinary medicine graduate of the University of the Philippines who cofounded YBOH in 2011 with Jay Michael Jaboneta.
The group was born after Jaboneta’s Facebook post more than three years ago went viral. The post was about poor children in Layag-Layag, Zamboanga City, riding rickety boats to attend school every day.
The dangerous mode of transport involving Layag-Layag schoolchildren inspired Lim and Jaboneta to come up with safer yellow boats (yellow from the universal color of school buses, not from the yellow color of President Aquino’s political coalition as hurled by the program’s critics and naysayers).
Gov’t can’t do it alone
Lim claims that their organization has distributed 1,121 yellow boats in 30 yellow boat communities around the country, including the Yolanda-devastated coastal communities of Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan in Leyte province and Basey and Marabut towns in Western Samar province.
Fifteen of those yellow boats were built here at the Zabala boatyard in Salvacion village.
“Yolanda destroyed the livelihoods of at least 130,000 fishermen in the hard-hit areas. And the government cannot do it alone. That is where we come in to help,” Lim said.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) arm of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has a program called Ahon (Rise) intended to provide 10,000 replacement fishing boats for those fishermen in coastal communities destroyed by Yolanda in Regions 6, 7 and 8.
Red tape, delays
Zabala, a 19-year veteran at the DA in Tacloban City, originally had a similar idea to use the BFAR network to build his boats. But red tape and delays shot his project down.
Frustrated by his initial failure, Zabala reached out to Mandaue City Mayor Jonas Cortes, an old college buddy at Visayan State University (VSU) in Baybay, Leyte, who gave him the seed money to start the project.
Zabala finally met Lim on March 16 in the same place where Zabala’s relatives perished from the storm. Accompanied by Cocoy Torrevillas, YBOH chief implementer, Lim pledged to Zabala his organization’s support in terms of materials like plywood, paint, nails, epoxy and the boat’s Kenbo-brand 6.5-horsepower gas engine.
Anchored on a theme of shared responsibility, the recipient fishermen work on their boats using the materials provided by YBOH as sponsor. When they are done building their boats, the fishermen are given fishing nets so that they can start fishing anytime they want.
The program also provides much-needed job opportunities for local boat builders.
“This is the busiest I have ever been,” Felix Antor Jr. said, as he cuts a piece of plywood in half at the Zabala seashore boatyard.
The 46-year-old boat builder from Daram, Samar, is here with his 20-year-old son Giovanni. The father-son team of boat builders has already made five yellow boats for YBOH and Zabala’s group.
Yolanda’s fury almost killed Felix Sr., the younger Felix’s 86-year-old father who is also a retired boat builder. But the son said he was thankful that the killer typhoon had provided him and his family with jobs.
“At least we are working, and we have food on our table,” Felix Jr. said.
The Antors replaced another father-son boat-building tandem of Manuel and Michael Dingcong of Basey, Samar, who worked here for about a month making P400 to P600 per boat.
Providentially, Yolanda’s unprecedented wind strength that felled hundreds of the Antipolo trees (Artocarpus blancoi) endemic in the area also provided the fishermen here with ready material for their boat’s “unayan” (base).
Lim said their yellow boats were sailing high and inspiring hopes in Yolanda-devastated communities.
“By the way, last Thursday (March 27) we are officially three years old since we turned over our first boat in Layag-Layag, Zamboanga City,” Lim said in a text message.
Not bad for an NGO originally designed to help marginalized schoolchildren, some of whom had to swim along the way to get to their classrooms every day.
Superior in purpose
“It only shows that not one [organization] is superior in size but by purpose. If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way,” Lim said, reflecting their group’s philosophy.
On Friday morning, Leopoldo Regis Jr., one of the fishermen who received a new boat from YBOH at Salvacion village, returned ashore with an empty catch.
“It’s all right! I’ll get a big catch next time,” said the 41-year-old fisherman and village councilor, scratching his head, ruing his day’s misfortune.
“At least we are back at sea, doing the thing we love most,” Zabala said, as he welcomed Regis back to shore.
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