“There was no electricity, no fuel, no internet, or any other way to communicate. There was a severe shortage of all kinds of commodities.”
This was how the lawyer Byron Bocar, who was in Eastern Samar when Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) made first landfall in Guiuan in the early hours of Nov. 8, 2013, recalled what he saw in the aftermath.
He continued: “That afternoon, I went out to BayBay Boulevard in Borongan and saw that the kiosks that were right by the seashore had been blown across the road. A few days later, I rode a motorcycle to nearby Llorente and I passed many people on the road holding up signs asking for food, water, [any sort of] help. In Hernani, it was as if the asphalt road had been peeled off.
“Public transportation was not available; perhaps the drivers were preoccupied with looking after their families.”
Gonzalo and Diana Sy-Quia, who traveled to Panay Island to survey the devastation for themselves within a week after Yolanda hit, have their own memories: “The roads were covered in every kind of debris—felled tree trunks, utility poles, trash, stones and rocks. It was difficult to maneuver any kind of vehicle to get from one area to another.”
The Sy-Quias had been monitoring Yolanda’s effects of the tropical cyclone from their home in Metro Manila, sharing updates by phone with Diana’s brother, Sixto Carlos Jr., now deceased. They were so moved to extend help, but did not know where or how to begin.
Tuning in to a newscast, they watched a teary-eyed fisherman tell an interviewer: “If only our boats were intact, we wouldn’t need to line up for relief. We could feed our families, help ourselves and each other.”
It was a lightbulb moment for the Sy-Quias: “That’s where we can help: let’s provide boats!”
Gonzalo, an engineer by profession, started conducting research on fishing boats. Because of his familial ties to Panay, he and Diana traveled over land and sea to the island to find out more about the situation.
His research resulted in the big idea of providing at least 100 fiberglass boats to fishers who had lost a vital piece of their livelihood to the supertyphoon.
Why fiberglass? “Considering that Yolanda had felled many trees, it seemed inappropriate to cut more trees to produce the boats,” Gonzalo said. “In addition, fiberglass is lighter, so the fisherfolk can more easily move the boats out of harm’s way before any future typhoon, and it would be faster to produce boats from this material, too.”
Opportunities began opening up from there. The couple spoke with their relatives and agreed to contribute to have the boats produced, one for every member of their family over four generations—their parents, their siblings, their children, and their grandchildren. An online search led Gonzalo to a boat builder who used fiberglass and had a sizable workshop and warehouse in Taguig City. After lengthy discussions, the boat builder supported the idea and agreed to take on the task at a discounted rate.
Diana’s late brother, Jun—who had friends in grassroots organizations all over the country—told the Sy-Quias about the dire need in Samar. Attorney Bocar and his wife Rose, who both hail from Eastern Samar, are among the convenors of Tindog Samar, organized specifically for the purpose of better pushing recovery efforts.
Aside from the Sy-Quias’ relatives, their friends and associates who learned about their initiative expressed a desire to pitch in and sponsor boats themselves. They came from far and wide: not only from the Philippines, but also from Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, among others.
They christened the project “Star of Samar” or SoS, to serve as inspiration for the fishers of Samar. SoS was in charge of mobilizing resources and coordinating the transport of the boats from Metro Manila all the way to Samar on trucks that would ply the route over land and sea.
Tindog Samar facilitated donations, working on the ground with the Active Citizenship Foundation, Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Borongan City Agriculturist Office, the Roman Catholic Church’s Social Action Centers, and Mother Ignacia National Social Apostolate Center (Minsac), who helped identify the beneficiaries. Later, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources-Region VIII provided nets and motors for the boats.
Production and distribution occurred in the course of more than two years. In the final tally, close to 300 boats were distributed to fishers in Basey, Marabut, Daram, Divinubo and Ando Islands in Borongan, and Mina-Anod Island in Llorente. Each fisher provided the outrigger for his boat.
This writer spoke to some of those fishermen almost a decade after Yolanda upended their lives.
‘It has served me well’
Neil Borata of Divinubo, now 37 years old, used his boat to fish around the island and as far as Mina-Anod to collect sea cucumbers that he dried and then sold to a processor in Guiuan, who in turn sold the product to a company in Manila. From the money he saved, Borata has invested in a small piggery, built a modest house that he shares with his wife and son, and bought a bigger boat that can take him to fish in farther waters. He has also been reelected for a second term as a barangay kagawad (councilman).
The old boat is currently not serviceable: There is a big hole in the bottom, which Borata fully intends to fix. “I keep the boat because it has served me well,” he said. “After Yolanda struck, the future was bleak. But when I received this boat, I was able to provide for my family’s needs and expand our income-generating enterprises. That’s why I value this boat and intend to keep it forever, to remember the generosity shown to me by strangers, and how far I have come.”
Borata’s neighbor, Dario Busa, is thankful for the fiberglass boat that he continues to use today. He has made a few modifications on the boat, to ensure that water doesn’t get into it easily even when he encounters rough waves.
“I have been able to support my wife and seven children solely from what I earn by going out to catch fish once or twice a day,” said Busa. “Now, only two of my children are still in school: one in high school and another in elementary school. I am also able to buy my maintenance medicines because I have this motorized banca that makes the task of fishing more manageable. I take care of this boat because it is my only source of livelihood.”
The brothers Edgardo and Bernardo Amidao Jr. of Ando Island still use their boats, although they have had these extended by five meters to allow them to go out into the Pacific Ocean, where they catch more high-value fish, particularly tuna.
“Sobra-sobra ang naitulong sa amin (These boats have helped us so much)!” the brothers said. “Fishing is the only livelihood that we know. Having these boats, we have been able to provide for the needs of our families and to send our children to school.”
Gonzalo and Diana Sy-Quia never sought any kind of publicity when they were mobilizing resources for the boat project. But looking back, they expressed appreciation for the lessons they have learned from the experience, lessons that, they now acknowledge, many generations can use for other endeavors in the future.
For this reason, they are launching a commemorative book, titled “Star of Samar,” in February 2024 to mark the 10 years since they distributed the first batch of fiberglass boats to the stricken fishermen.
The book features stories not only of the Sy-Quias but also of some donors and beneficiaries, and pays tribute to the spirit of compassion, cooperation, and selfless giving that moved so many people around the world to come to the aid of the Samar fishermen and their families.