Yesterday, I visited a tiny fishing village called Punta Santiago on the east end of Puerto Rico. While driving the last few miles along the shore, we ran over black power cables that looked like tangled spaghetti laying across the road. The power poles that had not snapped off leaned over the road at dangerous angles. We had to crowd to one side to drive under poles and drooping wires. It was clear that even though months had passed since Hurricane Maria, restoration of electricity to Punta Santiago hadn’t yet begun. I knew before we arrived that, besides the misery that occurs in any community suffering a prolonged power outage, a village depending on the sale of fresh fish is out of business without ice.
In the weeks preceding my trip, our OBI team visited the area several times. They installed a reverse osmosis water system, storage tank, and generator at a community center so that people from the entire area would have plenty of safe drinking water. Our team also provided new diving equipment and a chest freezer, and installed a gasoline generator at the fisherman’s co-op in Punta Santiago.
The reason for my visit was to meet with the president and members of the fisherman’s co-op to discuss a strategy to help get them back on the water earning a living. We met at the co-op compound near the water’s edge. The members were waiting for us on a concrete slab with a tin roof over it that the group uses for meetings. When we got out of the truck, the fishermen greeted us warmly with handshakes and hugs. The men looked like fishermen I’ve known all over the world, sunbaked skin like shoe leather and heavily muscled forearms. Hard men with kind eyes and quiet voices.
The fishermen sat on benches. My team and I sat on a bench facing them. We had to wait a few minutes for the co-op president who was at a church across the road leading a daily feeding program. When he arrived, I opened the meeting by explaining that I am a fisherman, that my father and my grandfather were also fishermen, and that I was born with the heart of a fisherman. I told them about my home in Grand Cayman, another island in the Caribbean, and how Hurricane Ivan came and destroyed my boat and damaged our house. I told them this to establish my bona fides. I wanted them to know that I was a brother with a kindred spirit. I then explained that OBI wanted to do more to help them get back to their life’s work of catching and selling fish.
I asked the president to prioritize the needs of the group. He looked me right in the eye and in a clear, confident voice said, “All we need is fish.”
He went on to say, “If we have fish, we can take care of everything else ourselves.” He explained that almost all of their boats and/or motors had been destroyed or crippled by the hurricane. He said that even though the storm had changed the sea bottom and covered parts of the reef with sand, there were still plenty of fish and lobsters waiting to be caught.
I asked about specific details like the ideal size of boats and motors. Fishermen the world over have unique needs and strong opinions on what works best. I wanted to hear their exact preferences. The group chimed in and agreed that fiberglass center-console boats from 18 to 21 feet long powered by a single 70 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor fit their needs perfectly.
I then surprised the group by promising that Operation Blessing would find and purchase ten boats and motors for donation to the co-op as long as the members agreed that the boats will be shared and the catch or net proceeds split among co-op member families. They all agreed with enthusiasm and without hesitation.
Using this same model, OBI has jump-started the recovery of ravaged fishing communities many times starting in 2005 following the Great Asian Tsunami. It’s worked in places such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. More recently, we employed this method in Japan, where following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 we supplied over 100 used boats and motors as well as shipping 30 new custom built boats from Maine and China. In every case, the communities we helped were immediately energized and revitalized. It even works better than “teaching a man to fish.” Fishermen already know how, they just need the tools the disaster stole from them.
Thank you beloved readers and supporters of Operation Blessing. Please know that YOU are making it possible for families like the ones in Punta Santiago to recover from natural disasters and rebuild their lives.