The islands of the Philippines are regularly struck by destructive typhoons. In late May, Typhoon Ambo (known as “Vongfong” internationally) hit the island of Samar and left a trail of damage behind it. While these events quickly disappear from the headlines, they have long-term effects, as this story about Samar and Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in 2013 shows:
Have you ever wondered what happens to places hit by catastrophic disasters after they drop out of the headlines? We know that even after the initial buzz of intense media coverage that the aftermath of such ordeals is actually a long road of recovery. The island of Samar was one such place on the front page just over six years ago – the same place where Felmar and his family survived this calamity and continue to live today.
On November 8th 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda – ripped through the Philippines with wind speeds of more than 150 mph causing catastrophic damage to several central-region islands. As the first island of the country in the direct path of Yolanda, Samar bore the brunt of the storm’s rage as both human and non-human life alike on the island could not escape its power. Few marine ecosystems and coastal communities around Samar were left unscathed. To date, Yolanda is one of the most severe typhoons ever tracked in the history of the Philippines.
Even though this typhoon seemingly made an exit out of Samar as quick and dramatic as its entrance, the aftermath of it is still felt more than six years later. Yolanda resulted in a cascading socio-environmental effect beginning from the damage to coconut tree plantations and resulting in sudden changes in the livelihoods of local fishermen.
The specifics of this impact are revealed in the story of Pastor Felmar.
Pastor Felmar’s story
Felmar is a fisherman in Pinalangga, Marabut which is a small village located in southwestern Samar. He has been fishing since he was young boy. His father was also a fisherman who started in this trade in eastern Samar before moving his family to the other side of the island where Felmar grew up. Growing up beside the sea, the ocean was his playground, his source of food and his place for creating memories with his family.
Before Yolanda, fishing was Felmar’s primary livelihood. Even though typhoons frequented the region, the resilience of the land, sea and people did not drastically affect the regular cadence of fishing life in Pinalangga. Fish was abundant. Fishing was easy. People were fed. However, this comfortable rhythm of life was severely disrupted when Yolanda struck.
The fishing livelihood of Felmar and the rest of the Pinalangga community abruptly changed post-Yolanda; first due to coconuts and then fishing nets.
Coconuts and fish
In Samar, dried mature coconut is commonly used to make copra which is turned into oil for industrial use. When Yolanda hit, the winds wiped out most of the coconut trees in the area – an estimated 33 million trees were destroyed. As a result, coconut farmers lost their livelihood and soon turned to fishing as their alternative.
At the same time, the sheer magnitude and devastation of Yolanda drew international attention to the Philippines. Resources from around the world began pouring into the nation. One of the resources that trickled down to Pinalangga was the fishing net. Most fishermen in the area, including Felmar, traditionally use hook-and-line to catch fish. But with the donation of a net, Felmar was now able to catch more fish in one expedition. Consequently, the combination of coconut farmers-turned-fishermen as well as the introduction of the fishing net led to increased competition among fishermen and then a quickly depleting fish stock in the surrounding coastal waters.
Before Yolanda, it was common for Felmar to catch large fish like tuna and blue marlin, which are prize catches because they fetch higher prices per kilo in the market compared to smaller fish. However, catching small fish, like bisugo and danggit, was still generally enough to sustain the family and turn a profit. Post-Yolanda, the catch was still good for 1.5 months. But once the new boats and nets arrived and more people turned to fishing, Felmar noticed a significant drop in fish availability and quantity. Where he used to catch about 2-3 kilos of bisugo and 10 kilos of danggit, he only now catches between 1-2 kilos of bisguo and 4 kilos of danggit on average. He is also no longer catching any tuna or blue marlin. In other words, he catches less than half of what he used to six years ago.
Provision and faith
Nowadays, the fish Felmar catches in his net is usually just enough to feed himself, his wife and four children. Occasionally, he is able to bring a little extra fish to a middleman who pays him a small sum in exchange for his catch. The truth of the matter is that Felmar has needed to find an alternative means to supplement his income. More recently, he has begun experimenting with raising free-range chickens behind his house.
What is significant is that Felmar’s livelihood is not all that changed post-Yolanda. After his house and fishing boat was destroyed in that storm, a Christian initiative through OMF, called SAFE (Serving Affected Families Effectively), came to provide building materials so that Felmar and others in Pinalangga could re-build their own homes and bangkas. During the construction period, community members were invited to participate in discovery Bible studies where they soon encountered Jesus. While the new homes were being built, Felmar and his family opened up their temporary home for Bible study gatherings. Today, Felmar is not only a fisherman but also the pastor of their local community church in Pinalangga.
A new outlook
Felmar testifies that now that he follows Jesus (Lord of creation), his outlook on life and everyday encounters has changed drastically. When he’s out at sea, he doesn’t just see rock formations, a great big sea or the daily chore of providing for his family; he now views everything in relation to the Creator God who cares deeply for him and the rest of creation. Felmar used to fear the possibility of not returning safely from sea during days with dark skies; he also used to worry which days he might not catch any fish to feed his family. Although these risks are still present today – while the most recent typhoon did not directly hit Felmar’s community, they are still recovering from the previous one (Ursula/Phanfone) on Christmas Eve of 2019 that destroyed almost his entire flock of poultry – he is comforted knowing the Lord is with him in all circumstances. When he is out fishing, Felmar is reminded that this same God who cares for him, cares also for his natural creation in the way that He ordered it – for example, as rock formations were spoken into being – and in the way that He enables creation to flourish – as fish are nourished by an intricate food web in the marine ecosystem.
How fitting it is that the very meaning of his village, Pinalangga, in the local language of Waray Waray is beloved.
Creation Care Advocate, OMF Philippines
Jasmine is a creation care advocate. With a background in conservation biology and community development, she often explores the intersections between humanity and the natural world. Her biggest inspiration is the Creator of the universe who is teaching her to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder through his creation.