Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Mitch: Part I

I just came across a document I wrote about my experiences during hurricane Mitch in 1998. As hurricanes roll through the carribean, I thought I would post it here.

What follows is an account of my experiences in Nicaragua during and after Hurricane Mitch, which devastated parts of Central America in October 1998. I found this difficult to write. I can not find the words that will capture what I saw and experienced. The words I have seem clichéd and flat; empty descriptions of the disaster that swept through Nicaragua.

I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquillity is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to re-enter and be riven.

- Harold Brodkey, ‘Manipulations

The oncoming storm

I was about to leave the capital, Managua, for the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua when I was asked to wait. There was a tropical storm in the region and it seemed better to stay until it passed. The storm turned into Hurricane Mitch, swept north and then back south through Honduras and north-western Nicaragua.

I was frustrated and trapped. I couldn’t start working and it was raining – all day, every day. Then news reports started coming in: 7 dead, 100 dead, people trapped on their roofs waiting for rescue. My frustration changed. Its basis was still that I was doing nothing, but now I knew that terrible things were happening while I was sitting around.

Managua has become an island. Hurricane Mitch has flooded the rest of the pacific Coast. People are dying, people are hungry, people are cold and I am just sitting here.

- Personal Diary, October 31, 1998

The Nicaraguan Red Cross put out a desperate call for donations. I went to see if there was any way that I could help. I spent a day sorting clothes and the next day I returned to see if I could join a brigade to go help in an affected zone. Instead I was asked to work in the office of Public Relations. People were calling that only spoke English and there was no one to talk to them.

In the office of the Nicaraguan Red Cross

From doing nothing I was thrown into a whirlwind of activity. Reporters were coming in to find out what was going on outside of Managua. People were coming in to find out what had happened to their families. They were desperate but there were no answers for them. The phones were continually ringing. Suddenly I was giving information to reporters and organisations calling from around the world. I was giving interviews for papers, radio and television. I was in the office for ten to twelve hours a day and then would have an interview with BBC News at one in the morning, or an early appointment for a live shot with Good Morning America. When I was not on the phone, I was translating documents or listening to the most recent information that had come in.

Each day the news was more horrific. There were mud slides with thousands missing and most presumed to be dead. People were trapped in the mud alive. There were rivers filled with floating livestock. Large areas were inaccessible and out of communication. Some places could not even be reached by helicopter for fear of more mudslides. There were teams of relief workers sent out with midwives to help pregnant women. Reports came in from shelters that were overcrowded – 25 thousand people were staying in 60 shelters in the region of Chinandega. Many of these shelters were simply plastic tarps put up to keep people dry. There were shortages of food and medicine and there was a fear that diseases would be spread in the shelters which, despite efforts of those working there, had terrible hygienic and sanitary conditions.

Relief workers came back with their own stories. There were shortages for them too and they were working without masks or gloves. They were wading to rescue people, through mud which came up to their waists. They had to decide from afar if a person was dead or alive by the amount of the body that was buried.

Animals were eating the decaying bodies and people were eating the animals. There was fear that diseases would turn epidemic. There were people surrounded by water but with none of it safe to drink. Adding to people’s uncertainties, the volcanic chain appeared to be showing signs of increased activity. Land mines, 70 thousand of them, had moved with the rains and flooding and now no one knew where they were.

I was describing events and situations of which I had only heard, or perhaps glimpsed on television. I had horrific images in my mind, but nothing real with which to connect them. I felt disconnected in the air conditioned office where they brought us food as we worked.

We were told that the road to Chinandega (the zone where the mudslides had been) was about to open. The Nicaraguan Red Cross was going to send a brigade of relief workers, a truckload of aid and a mini-van of reporters. I was invited to go with the reporters.

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