Living in Honduras and Guatemala is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Remembering Mitch

The road to Santa Rita

While the aftermath of super storm Sandy still rages over the northeast of the US, it is hard not to remember Hurricane Mitch that made landfall in Honduras, today fourteen years ago.

It had rained a lot that year, 1998, and I remember that the day dawned, much the same as today, gloomy and grey. It drizzled during the rest of that Friday, a day much like any others, me working as a kindergarten teacher at the local bilingual school. The only break in the routine that week was that we had been collecting clothes for victims at the already flooded north coast.
That night I walked down from my house on the hill and I noticed that for the first time, the water was flowing downhill in little streams, in stead of being absorbed by the mud on the pathway. But at the time I didn’t realise the importance of that small occurrence.

I went out for dinner with friends and ended up in a bar. It was then that the news broke, little by little. Excited passer-by’s would inform us about a flooded house here, a broken fence there, a collapsed road elsewhere. In the meantime, it started to rain harder, although we never had the winds I always associated with a hurricane.

As the water rose in the valley around Copán Ruinas, we made our way to the Central Park to see if we could help somehow. An emergency centre had been set up in the town hall where people who had lost their home could find shelter and a meal. I somehow ended up in the one and only Red Cross ambulance in town and we made several trips to the outskirts of town, picking up people from their already flooded homes.
There was one family I had befriended that I was particularly worried about, because they lived in small house on the edge of a normally tiny creek that had turn into a wild roaring river. So I made arrangements for me to stay in the centre of town with a friend while taking advantage of the ambulance to drop the family off at my place. But when we went by, the mother refused to go, because there was some recently harvested corn in the house that she wouldn’t leave behind. For all I argued, the woman refused to go. 

The house next to the mentioned family's home
Hours later I tried again. Still the same. It was already nearing midnight and the situation got worse and worse. All the family’s neighbours had already been evacuated and the ground was trembling. A big chunk of the road had been swallowed by the creek, and the creek was hungry for more. I was standing there, arguing with the mother who still didn’t want to go. That’s when I made one of the most difficult decisions in my life. I concluded that I was probably smarter than the woman and that I would not under any circumstance want to risk the lives of these kids, so in order to keep them safe, I would just have to take the kids whether the mom agreed or not. So that’s what I did. I loaded the kids into the ambulance, literally plucked the baby out of the mother’s arms and off we went to my place, leaving a baffled mother behind. At home, I had already prepared some makeshift beds and a big pot of soup. I left the kids in the care of their oldest sisters and continued roaming the streets in the ambulance to se if any help was needed.

It was way past midnight when we made it back to the Central Park after our last trip. When we parked the ambulance, the mother of the kids was there, waiting for me. I was exhausted after the eventful night and an emotional scolding was the last thing I needed, but what could I do… But the woman wasn’t there to yell at me. On the contrary, she said that her whole house was shaking now, that her husband was really sick, and could we please pick him up and drop them off at my place??? So that’s what we did, even though the father’s sickness was of the self-inflicted kind, with the help of a bottle of guarro.

The bridge over the Copán River

The days to come were surreal. Copán was completely isolated. The roads were collapsed in both directions, so there was no way in or out. We didn’t have any Honduran TV channels at the time, let alone (online) newspapers, so we were quite oblivious to the disaster that had befallen ons other parts of the country.

Tragedy unites people and Hurricane Mitch was no exception. Although we were lucky in Copán to have very little fatalities (only one that I know of), there was plenty of damage. The bridge that crosses the Copán River was fine by itself, but the shores had been washed away on both sides and huge trees were stuck under the bridge, blocking the still ferocious flow of water. The bigger part of the valley had been flooded. Not so much by the river, but by the creek that couldn’t flow into the river anymore. Houses that had been flooded were filled to the roof with a heavy and sticky mud. Copán was a mess.
But without a plan or a need to be asked, everybody helped out wherever help was needed. Men risked their lives cutting trees in pieces that blocked the river. Others filled hundreds of sacks with sand or encaged in emergency repairs. The women set up a community kitchen in the town hall and fed all the people who were at work.

My friends and I did what we could too. Being tough girls, we helped cleaning up debris and filled up sandbags, much to the hilarity of local men. I helped to put a group of Dutch tourists to work who had been stuck in Copán. After a few complaints about their ruined vacation, they actually had the time of their life and I stayed in touch with some of them for years to come.

At night there was curfew. Not that it was needed in Copán, but it was a national state of emergency and curfew was declared in order to prevent looting in the big cities. Unfortunately, the police stationed in Copán at the time did little else than arresting people who broke curfew (including yours truly- many times!). We spent our nights at one of the bigger hotels in town where a friend worked as manager. Although deprived of national or international news, here we would watch our own efforts on local TV (filmed by Carlitos Álvarez) and drink the wine that otherwise no one else would drink anyway. Then we would go home, dodging the police, with buckets filled with water from the pool, because we had no running water at home. Miraculously enough, the electricity never failed. Not once!

Anxious hours turned into action-packed days and then into interesting weeks as life turned slowly back to normal. Dry-law and curfew became our biggest problems, even weeks after the hurricane. Mitch was a humongous disaster and did enormous damage in Honduras where thousands of people lost their lives. So it is with mixed feelings that I admit that in Copán – we actually had the time of our lives!

Road Santa Rota to Copán, Hotel Posada Real /Clarion on the background

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