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Asia

A good Christmas on 'Bad Christmas' Island

Bolstered by donations, European resort and dive operators are helping resilient islanders fix damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan on the idyllic Philippine island of Malapascua, or 'Bad Christmas,' in time for the holidays.

Disasters have followed German-born diver and resort owner Sven Zenker across Asia, and now he's at the forefront of efforts to rebuild the tourism industry in the Philippines.

He survived the 2004 tsunami that washed away his home in Khao Lak, Thailand and killed many of his friends and neighbors.

A few months later, he moved to the tiny island of Malapascua, about 30 minutes by boat from the northern tip of Cebu Island in the central Philippines. He and his Switzerland-born wife Fabienne Wyss opened the Ocean Vida resort in 2010, attracting divers in search of manta rays and thresher sharks more than 20 meters below the surface.

Sven Zenker from Germany is seen standing behind a group of small school children

Sven Zenker from Germany, seen here in the back, has helped coordinate aid efforts

This November, they feared the worst as Typhoon Haiyan - one of the most powerful storms ever - headed straight for the white-sand beaches of Malapascua, which has almost no high ground. Telling stories about thousands of tsunami deaths in Thailand, Zenker convinced his 43 guests to evacuate to Cebu city, about four hours south by bus or minivan.

He moved his 65 staff members, and their families, to the resort's most solid structures - garden-area rooms with windows fortified by mattresses and wood planks. Enduring sustained winds of more than 250 kph, they watched metal roofing sheets flying like razor blades, and heard ceramic roof tiles puncture holes in buildings like machine gun fire. "The eye of the storm passed 20 kilometers from here. It was exciting, though not exactly fun. All the fine sand really hurt on the skin," says Zenker, who grew up in Freiburg.

The storm ripped apart or damaged almost every tree, boat and building on Malapascua, and left more than 7,500 dead or missing and four million without proper homes across the central Philippines. Yet nobody was reported dead on Malapascua.

"It's like a miracle. We went around with medical aid kits, but we couldn't find anybody with a scratch on their body," says Zenker. "The day after the storm, eight doctors came here but went back the next day," he says, as he supervises reconstruction of roofing at the resort's dive shop. "We were well-prepared, and we are fortunate to survive. I'm done with natural disasters now. Been there, done that."

Miracle on Malapascua

A view of Ocean Vida and its new roof from the beach

With a new roof and clean beach, Ocean Vida has re-opened in time for the high season tourism rush

Zenker, who isn't sure if insurance will cover his losses, says the island spirit has been amazing. "The first day I was really down. The locals pushed all the Europeans up. Our resort was half-gone, but people were smiling. I lost my house, you lost your house also, but we are all smiling. The next day at 7 am, employees turned up and said, 'let's go, let's rebuild'."

Two weeks later, they had the roof fixed with new thatch.

More than a month after the storm, leaves are returning to trees that seemed dead, and Malapascua is rebuilding perhaps faster than any other area in the devastation zone stretching across five major island groups.

German and European resort and dive operators have used Facebook pages and online campaigns to raise donations from former guests to help resilient local islanders rebuild their lives on Malapascua, which means "Bad Christmas," in time for the Christmas and New Year tourism rush. Zenker says his resort is fully booked for Christmas, and over 80 percent after that. "Nobody has cancelled for February, March or April. Most of the resorts are open. Almost everybody will be done rebuilding by Christmas."

Traditional wisdom has also helped Malapascua, where residents were used to living without electricity until about four years ago. In some cases, intertwined thatch roofs bent and danced with the wind but didn't blow away. Simple little concrete barriers created speed bumps over the roof of the local school, giving the wind nowhere to grab metal sheets and blow them away, and mattresses and plywood saved windows from worse damage.

The home of Matt and Anna Reed survived intact, thanks to a clever design allowing winds to pass through spaces between the roof and the house's main structure.

Informal aid operations

The couple had met while volunteering on a previous disaster relief project, and they also joined navy searches for bodies after a ferry sunk earlier this year. "Fortunately our business partner was in Thailand during the typhoon," says Matt Reed, originally from England. "So he was able to raise funds online right away. We were amazed at how much people were giving. It went directly to us and Anna could administer it directly to the people, since we don't have any overhead costs."

A close-up picture of an old woman called Mama Nessing, whose house was destroyed by the typhoon

"Mama Nessing" (shown here) is receiving assistance to rebuild her home, which was destroyed by the typhoon

Anna, a Filipina educated in the US and Australia, has been feeding about 30 children every day and supplying locals with wood stored in the yard of their Evolution resort. "Some children are under-nourished. One girl lost both her parents before the storm and is living with relatives. They probably aren't feeding her enough, because she always asks for third helpings," she says. "Families can receive wood by agreeing to volunteer with rebuilding efforts. It's working well. They write their names and put smiley faces on the wood."

Five months pregnant, Reed looks forward to someday telling her child about her experience. "I lost my hearing for about five hours during the passing of the storm. It was like diving deep underwater. I should have equalized like I do when diving, but I didn't," she says. "Debris covered the island. You couldn't go anywhere. Many people have stepped on nails. I had a nail go through my foot on day three, and I didn't even notice it at first. My friend helped pull it out. I later got a tetanus shot for it."

We need tourists to help us

American construction Brent Hisgen poses with a local child

Visitors, such as American construction worker Brent Hisgen, shown here posing with a local child, are pitching in

Reed, Zenker and others have also been able to keep locals employed as construction workers who even work at night. "We were divers before, now we are construction workers and painters," said a local youth named "Edgar."

"We need tourists to come back and help us."

Many visitors are pitching in. Brent Hisgen, an American construction worker from Colorado, volunteered to help Zenker start a project to build 14 houses for families who lost their ramshackle homes. "They lived for generations on illegal land," says Zenker. "If we build nice houses, the original owner might come back and want the new houses. So we are building houses for them on our own property, to show our dedication to this island."

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