November 14, 2013

Richmond couple’s family in Philippines lose homes in typhoon

Amalia and Mark McConnell say all 60 family members were safe, but Super Typhoon Haiyan destroyed their 20 homes.

By Amy Calder
Staff Writer

Amalia and Mark McConnell of Richmond had been awake for several days and nights, watching the news and checking Facebook for any word of their large family in the Philippines.

Amalia and Mark McConnell

Contributed photo

It came Tuesday night: All 60 family members were safe. But their 20 homes were destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the fierce storm that battered the Philippines and has swept away countless homes and killed hundreds.

“My family are OK, thank God,” Amalia McConnell, 49, said Wednesday night. “I know a lot of people whose families have died.”

While home for the McConnells is now Richmond, Maine, they travel to visit their family in Alingarong, a village in the city of Gawain, on the island of Samar, where Amalia grew up and lived until she was 18.

Her mother, 93, lived in the same house Amalia was raised in until several days ago when she had to evacuate.

“My house is totally gone,” Amalia McConnell said. “Everyone in my whole village, they’ve lost their homes. The whole town has evacuated and they all survived.”

She said all 60 relatives are now in a house about six miles from Alingarong, waiting for a relative who is making his way from Manila — a 24-hour journey by vehicle — to bring them water, food and supplies.

A power and energy broker, Amalia left the Philippines at age 18 after she met Mark McConnell, who at the time was a U.S. Marine stationed there.

They married in 1983 and moved all over the world as his service required, but lived briefly in Alingarong. They moved to Maine in 2001 and owned an automotive service center in Augusta for several years before the economic recession forced them to close it in 2010.

Mark McConnell, 53, retired from the U.S. Marines, describes his beloved Gawain as a combat zone. People there are scared and starving, he said, and disaster relief is desperately needed.

“My wife was on the phone several times right before the storm and you could hear the wind — 185-190 mph winds,” he said. “We have property over there and have been in those (devastated) areas. It’s absolutely crushing to say the least, for the economy. It’s a fishing village. It’s going to be hard to continue the coconut industry, which is huge over there. All the coconut trees — most of them are flattened. Palm trees were horizontal, flying through the wind.”

Much of the pineapples in the U.S. come from the Philippines as well, he said.

The stone church Amalia attended in her village as a youth is gone, as are other churches, according to Mark McConnell. He said he thinks his wife is the only person in this area of Maine that is from the Gawain area. Philippinos ( men) and Philippinas (women) represent the largest minority in Maine, he added.

He said the couple are grieving for their family and the other villagers.

“They’re very, very grounded, humble religious people,” he said.

Mark McConnell estimates the population of Gawain is 10,000 and Alingarong’s population, about 3,000.

“The relief effort to rebuild that town is going to be in the millions,” he said. “The effort to get these people back on their feet is monumental — that’s the best word I can come up with. I know there are very, very generous people out there who would do what they can to help. God bless them for what they can do.”

Some local groups have geared up to help the victims of the typhoon.

The Roman Catholic Dioceses of Portland on Wednesday said it would designate the weekend of Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 for a special collection in its parishes to benefit victims of the typhoon, the dioceses said in a statement. The larger charitable arm of the church, Catholic Relief Services, is expected to donate $20 million in goods and services.

Wednesday night, Mark McConnell’s voice became emotional as he spoke of the people who have been without water for days.

“I was in survival training as a U.S. Marine and three days was the limit and you were going to expire,” he said. “I feel for those people more than you know. Not being able to do something physically is just harrowing; it’s so stressful.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247 Twitter: @AmyCalder17


Portland Press Herald staff writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

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