Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Mitch: Part III

Returning to the zone with relief workers

I went back to Chinandega with the next group of relief workers leaving Managua. It was a mixed group from the Mexican, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan Red Cross organisations. By this time international aid was coming to Nicaragua from many countries in forms of personnel, and monetary and material aid.

The road was in slightly better condition this time and people were busy building larger bridges and repairing the worst damaged sections of pavement. There were still large line ups and again we passed them by with people calling out in solidarity. This time I noticed dead animals off to the side and in some places, a horrible smell of decay.

After unloading we spent the night sleeping on tables in the garage of the Chinandega Red Cross. The next day we travelled out to bring aid to the communities located along the volcano that had been isolated by the mudslides. We drove through canyons, at times 10 meters deep, which had not existed weeks beforehand. They had been carved out by the force of water crashing down the mountain. The sun beat down on us as we pushed our vehicles when they became trapped in the loose dirt. In places we could see black oily smoke rising into the sky. The burning teams were out searching for bodies.

We came across a group of people that had left their village and come down in search of food. We left them supplies and took information about the numbers left alive and dead. We then continued farther up the volcano to the next community. A distribution centre was set up at one house and food, water, and clothes were delivered by a number of groups and organisations. People were on hand to give medical aid and immunizations were distributed.

We walked down the road that once had lead to a nearby village. I noticed how beautiful the countryside was; its greenness stretching above me and far down below. The road passed through trees and then they stopped. There were no trees. There was no road. There was nothing but mud as far as I could see. There was one house, set into the trees - untouched. A few meters over, nothing was left. Walking out on the mud I could find a shoe or a roofing tile if I looked closely, but other than that, there was no sign that people had been living there.

One side of the volcano had crashed down destroying everything in its path. The mud went on for kilometres. People who saw it happen said it had come like a wave and crashed over top of the houses.

When I returned to Managua, foreign interest in Nicaragua had dropped off. The news was no longer spectacular. Now it was simply hundreds of thousands of people trying to rebuild in the face of disease and hunger. There was not much left for me to do in the office.

Leaving the Red Cross

I decided to walk home after my last day at the Red Cross office. It was a beautiful afternoon and I was feeling good about myself and the work I had done. Suddenly a pain burst through my body and I found myself on my knees unable to breathe. Someone had whipped a corn cob at me from a passing bus and its end had smashed into my ribs. For the following month it was difficult for me to take a deep breath. Someone saw a rich gringo walking through the wrong part of the city and released their anger.

What it did was remind me what I had forgotten in the face of the disaster and popular mobilisation to help those in need: Nicaragua is a poor country where many people lack even the most basic necessities and with this poverty comes the problems and social resentment that it creates. Life is difficult in Nicaragua, and for many in the wake of the hurricane, it will be much harder.

Bluefields, December, 1998

Hurricane Mitch: Part II

In the zone with reporters

It is strange to travel with reporters. They are there to see and get the best story, not to give immediate help. What they do is vitally important, but it gave me an odd feeling in the face of such need for immediate help.

We are off to look and point and stare and marvel at Nature, naked in its fury. We are on the tour to see human misery, the eco-tour of desolation. We are going to visit the land of the dead.

- Personal Diary, November 6, 1998

All the bridges along the route had been washed out and the military had thrown up provisional bridges to allow passage. There were line ups for kilometres of trucks and cars, carrying aid and merchandise, trying to get in and to get out. One truck driver, at the front of the first line, had been waiting since seven the morning before. Beside the mass of vehicles, the destruction around the riverbeds was humbling. Roads dropped off into nothing. If parts of bridges did exist, they were jammed full of wrecked trees. Houses that had once lined the rivers were gone or half buried in mud. People were digging to try to find the remains of their families.

We went to a school that had been converted into a shelter and to a hospital filled with people injured by the mudslides and flooding. We talked to people who had survived but now had nothing – children who had watched their families swept away. In the hospital, people sat by the badly wounded and waved cloths over them to keep the flies away. What struck me was the calmness with which they recounted their stories. One young woman waiting for the television crews to leave a hospital room so she could visit her sister, told what had just happened and in the same tone told about how her father was killed in Honduras during the contra war. This is not the first tragedy Nicaraguans have faced.

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.