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Marshall Islands Castaway Jose Alvarenga Sued for $1 Million

Jose Alvarenga is being sued by his lawyer and has lingering health problems but is "very grateful to be alive" a year after his oceanic odyssey.

It's been a year since a castaway fisherman washed up on a remote Pacific atoll with a mind-boggling tale of survival at sea, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing.

Jose Alvarenga is being sued by his former attorney, is at odds with the family of a companion who perished during the voyage, and relies on handouts from family in the United States.

"Jose has no money," his brother-in-law, Jorge Bonilla, told NBC News this week as the anniversary approached. "As a family, we try to help him by sending money for food and medicine."

Still, the man who spent 13 months in a 24-foot boat, living on raw fish, rainwater and his own urine, "is doing so much better compared to a year ago," Bonilla said.

Alavarenga, 38, has been reunited with family in El Salvador, has partially recovered from his ordeal and is collaborating on a book. He even wants to go fishing again.

"I am so happy to see him doing so well," the brother-in-law said.

Alvarenga left El Salvador to make a living hunting shark in Mexico and had not seen his family in over a decade when he was swept out to sea in a storm in November 2012.

"As a family, we assumed he was dead," Bonilla said. "We learned he was alive on the news. It was unbelievable."

"He's very, very grateful to be alive."

After his rescue, Alvarenga told officials that his fishing mate, Ezequiel Cordoba, 24, died of hunger and thirst within several weeks because he could not stomach the uncooked fish and birds they caught with their hands.

"I was going to commit suicide," Alvarenga later told NBC partner Telemundo. "I wanted to kill myself, but no. I asked God that he was going to save me."

On Jan. 30, 2014, he came ashore on Marshall Islands, about 5,500 miles from where he set off. He was shaggy-haired, dehydrated and confused.

The stunned islanders nursed him back to health and began piecing together his story as NBC News tracked down his relatives in the U.S. and helped connect him by phone.

Within two weeks, he was flown to his Salvadoran hometown of Garita Palerma, where his parents readied his childhood bedroom for his arrival.

"It's like my son was born again," said his mother, Maria Julia Alvarenga.

In March, Alvarenga was on the move again, this time making a trip to Mexico to see Cordoba's family and personally tell them the story of their son's death.

He traveled with his attorney, Benedicto Perlera, whom he had known as a child. But the two had a falling-out, and now Perlera represents the Cordoba family.

Perlera said the Cordobas believe they are entitled to a cut of any proceeds from the castaway's tale, and they have doubts about what he has told them. "They don't think their son died the way Jose says he did," Perlera said, declining to elaborate.

Three weeks ago, Perlera filed a $1 million breach of contract suit against his former client for ditching him for a U.S.-based law firm.

"We would have been very successful together," the attorney complained. "Jose's story is worth a lot of money."

His new lawyer, Jeffrey Masonek, agrees. A major publisher has bought Alvarenga's story, to be written by journalist Jonathan Franklin, author of a book about the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. There could also be a documentary, he said.

When the fisherman first appeared on the Marshall Islands, there was plenty of skepticism about his story. But oceanographers, doctors and survival experts said it was plausible, and lawyers said he passed a lie detector test in April.

The doctors who first treated him said Alvarenga had developed a phobia of the very ocean that had turned him into a global celebrity. A year later, that fear seems to have worn off.

"I know he has mentioned a desire to get back to the fishing life," Masonek said.

"I think he is doing fine," he added. "He's very, very grateful to be alive."

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Image: Castaway fisherman Alvarenga  waves next to a nurse and El Salvador's Health Minister Rodriguez while leaving the hospital in Santa Tecla
Castaway fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga (C) waves next to a nurse and El Salvador's Health Minister Maria Isabel Rodriguez (2nd R) while leaving the hospital in Santa Tecla on the outskirts of San Salvador February 18, 2014. Jose Salvador Alvarenga, who says he spent more than a year adrift in the Pacific Ocean, left the hospital after a week of undergoing medical and psychological tests.STRINGER / Reuters