Hurricane Georges' victims continue their recovery

December 21, 1998

The winds, the rain-and much of the world's attention-have moved on, but the people of Central America and the Caribbean see reminders everyday of the two hurricanes that ripped through the regions this fall.

But coping with the loss of loved ones, wrecked homes and mud everywhere is only the first step for the hurricane victims. Already, the affected areas are getting on with the massive job of reconstruction. Hurricane Georges, which hit the Caribbean and U.S. Gulf Coast last September, killed 602 and caused $5 billion in damage in this country alone, according to the National Hurricane Center. In Hurricane Mitch, called the deadliest storm in 200 years, aimed at Central America and Mexico in October and early November, more than 9,000 died.

"The first three months [of] next year, we hope to finish the reconstruction of the houses," said Bishop Martín Barahona of El Salvador, where almost 300 died and 125 more disappeared. He said the initial relief work, distributing food, medicines and other materials is pretty much finished. The work in El Salvador has been aided by ecumenical cooperation. "We established immediately an ecumenical emergency committee," Barahona said, "sharing with the Lutheran, Reformed and some Baptist churches, we worked together with the Lutheran World Federation."

In Guatemala, another of the four Central American countries ravaged by Mitch- though not as badly as Honduras and Nicaragua-an emergency relief team of lay and clergy was formed, according to the Rev. Virginia Hall, director of San Tomás seminary. The focus in Guatemala has been in the eastern lowlands, where banana plantations were all but wiped out. "We have churches in those areas and the diocese sent [supplies] within a couple of days," Hall said. Anglicans immediately got involved in relief and reconstruction efforts. In Puerto Barrios, a Caribbean port, "One of our seminarians [Marlin Estrada] and her priest [the Rev. Eugenio Espinoza] were very active in a community shelter which the town helped get together ... in a school."

Two other towns, Morales and Mariscos, also were hard hit, along with Puerto Barrios. According to Rudy Busé, an American who grew up in Guatemala and recently attended the diocesan convention, the church in Morales is being used as a shelter. One church in Mariscos, however, is on the edge of a ravine and part has collapsed. Conditions are still dire in the country and epidemics are a constant threat. Squatters have begun living on the banks of the Gualan River-a video of the area was shown at Guatemala's recent diocesan convention-and water tanks and purifiers have been brought in. "I can't imagine actually how they're doing any of this because [of] having lived there and knowing what the conditions are ... I don't know how they're managing it."

Busé noted, "Their one big concern is as this becomes old news, that this is going to be a long-term problem. The second concern is jobs," he said. "Multinational banana companies will not reinvest fully in the areas" where their plantations were, because there had been a glut on the market. Spirits are positive overall, however, Busé said. "People generally were thankful for the support they'd received, both physical and emotional; the whole society is very fatalistic ... [They think], it happened and we will now see how we'll move forward or continue."

The Rev. Bob Stevens has been traveling to the Dominican Republic, which is still recovering from Hurricane Georges, even though it's been overshadowed by Mitch's devastation. He coordinates relationships between the Dominican Republic and three U.S. dioceses, South Carolina, Southwest Florida, Western Louisiana. Bishop Julio C. Holguín made the needs of the people his first priority. Only then did he begin to look at repairing damaged churches and schools, said Stevens. "He bought several thousand sheets of tin," which are used as roofing material. Wood and bedding material also was provided and some new houses were built.

"I'm real impressed," said Stevens, who traveled to the island on Thanksgiving weekend. "There's been a very concerted effort and they have done well with getting back on their feet." Stevens' assessment of the Dominican Republic is a foretaste of where the more heavily damaged countries of Central America are headed: "What I see is the whole perspective is them making that transition - they're past the relief stage, into the reconstruction stage and moving into more long-term development work."

--Ed Stannard is news editor of Episcopal Life.

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