PANAY ISLAND, Philippines — Renilda June watches her youngest son Kent play among the ribs of a ruined fishing boat with his young friends. She tousles his hair and smiles at his antics. Her equanimity amazes once you know this boat was their family’s main source of income before Typhoon Haiyan changed everything here in a matter of hours. Behind us lies a pile of tangled metal and wood: what is left of the family home. Torn nets and floats litter the ground, intermingled with sodden family photos, a stuffed teddy bear, and water-logged shoes.

“Two hours before Yolanda (as Haiyan is known locally), most of the family took shelter in the school,” she says. “My husband, Glenn, and my two eldest boys stayed here, but when they saw the giant waves coming, they ran very fast.” At this, she and Glenn burst into laughter. And this seems to be the Filipino way: good-natured in the face of adversity. I have seen it time and again as I have traveled along the battered northeastern coastline of Panay, a fishing island in the west of the Philippines, slightly smaller than Connecticut.

Coastal communities here base their livelihoods on fishing, particularly of anchovies, blue crab, herring and sardines. Most of the small boats on Panay have been destroyed or badly damaged, devastating the local economy. Concern Worldwide, known for being among the first responders to disasters for 45 years, also focuses on looking for means to support the self-reliance and dignity of local populations, and in the Philippines, Concern is concentrated on helping the fishermen and their families.

“I have seen many, many typhoons in my 51 years, but nothing like this,” says Johnny Franco, president of the Fisherman’s Association in the town of Concepcion, which lay directly in the path of Haiyan, experiencing gusts of up to 186 mph. Compare this to Hurricane Katrina, whose winds topped out at around 140 mph, or the devastating 1991 “Perfect Storm” nor’easter, which packed winds of 75 mph.

The violence of the accompanying storm surge is visible all along the seafront in Concepcion, where timber and bamboo homes were sucked into the Pacific Ocean and even concrete structures were torn apart. Some communities were simply leveled.

Signs of a decimated fishing industry are everywhere. Johnny leads me along a stretch of coastline where many of the fishing families live. Family after family are now surviving amid the wreckage of their homes, broken boats scattered like abandoned toys.

Even the amazing Filipino sense of resilience has been severely tested. Rolando Esporas sits on a piece of broken concrete and stares out to sea with a look that can only be described as desolate. When we try to talk, he nods distractedly and mutters an occasional reply.

“He is too upset to talk. This was his home,” Johnny says, gesturing to the litter of concrete. “It’s just gone, and so is his fishing boat.” Rolando is lean and weathered from a life on the sea. With a wife and eight children to support, he has been stripped not only of everything he has worked for, but also of his only means of making a living. We leave him gazing at the ocean that has been his life.

The sounds of hammering and sawing ring out across Concepcion, peals of optimism. It is against their nature for these island fishing families to give up, so they are fighting back, repairing homes and boats as best they can. The poorest will need extra help, but these proud families are loath to seek it. It reminds me of the New England spirit of self-reliance, or the bullish pride of the working class around my home in the west of Ireland.

“We have no money to rebuild our boat,” says Anchel Joy. “I’m not sure what we will do.” Then she smiles graciously and poses with husband, Rian, and her two sons beside the remains of their boat. “Thank you for coming to visit us,” she says.

This has to be the very definition of dignity and grace, and my own emotions well up. But for the survivors of Concepcion, there’s no time for crying. Life goes on.

— Special to the Press Herald

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