Hurricane Mitch relief looks toward the long term

January 27, 1999

In a response that has spanned the church, Episcopalians have worked together to ship tons of food, clothing, medicines, tools and building materials to hurricane-ravaged Central America, but now that the countries hit hardest by Hurricane Mitch last fall have faced their direst emergencies; planning is beginning to shift toward long-term aid focused on rehabilitation.

The Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief, for example, one of the first agencies to respond after the storm struck, is now looking at how it will use the money it has received for hurricane relief-well over $1 million, with more arriving every day. The Fund has dispensed all it can under its guidelines for emergency grants; now it must determine how to award development grants to the affected dioceses.

"That money has to be thoughtfully allocated," said Phoebe Griswold, wife of the Presiding Bishop and an organizer of an informal committee trying to help match grants with imaginative projects. The committee was formed, she explained, shortly before she and Ann Vest, former interim executive director of the Fund, visited Honduras and Nicaragua last December. Those countries were the hardest hit by the hurricane. "Before I left, I wanted input from people representing different constituencies in the church structure; I wanted to know what stories they wanted me to bring back-the different lenses through which the church would view the tragedy," she said. Now, she said, she wants to "see what seeds planted in the relief work could grow into good development work."

Water pumps and jobs
She cited the example of the solar water pump donated for use in a Honduran village she visited. She said she had marveled at how well the man running the pump was making it work efficiently to the benefit of his entire community. He confessed with a smile that he was a volunteer firefighter with a special knowledge of pumps. "I could just see him running several of these in a network," Griswold said. The result would be a job for him and help not only for his community but surrounding areas.
Thoughtful development could also help in areas where forests have been destroyed, she said. There is discussion in Honduras of a moratorium on cutting down trees-nearly impossible to enforce in areas where wood is the main fuel for cooking. "We need alternative energy sources there," she said. "Maybe solar power?"

While planning for the long term has begun, others in the church have found ways to send help in the wake of the first major deliveries of goods. One of the more imaginative has been "Church in a Box," a project led by Sara Jordan, director of the Altar Guild in the Diocese of Texas. The project is one of several involving collecting vestments, chalices and other church appointments that can be boxed and shipped to specific churches in the Diocese of Honduras. Nearly half of Honduras' 27 Episcopal churches were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch.

Plans call for each box to contain a chalice, paten, purificator, lavabo bowl, two cruets, a flagon, linens, two candlesticks, Missal, clergy stoles and/or vestments in seasonal colors. "It will make a big difference to the people there to see their church getting back to normal," said Jordan. The Diocese of Washington, which has a companion relationship with the Diocese of Honduras, shipped more than 1,000 "Family to Familia" boxes packed with household and baby items plus tools and medicine to Honduras in December. The Diocese of Washington has also sent money for the purchase of 4x4 dual-cab pickup trucks to help in the distribution of supplies in Honduras. Funds raised by the diocese have topped $400,000. 

Send checks
Meanwhile, though a number of dioceses in the United States are continuing to collect supplies of all kinds, more than one disaster relief organization operating in Central America has begun saying, "Don't send supplies; send checks."
According to the Miami Herald newspaper, agency heads who are still deeply moved by the huge initial emergency response point out that local economies are functioning normally now and that many supplies can be purchased at home. What's needed now are:

· Specialized medicines to treat cholera and other diseases resulting from disaster-related conditions. The medicines are available; what's needed is money to buy them, local experts say.
· Land for farmers whose fields disappeared in mudslides and floods. Local officials are trying to buy property in order to relocate the farmers.
· Seeds, available locally if farmers have the money to pay for them. Most do not.

Of course, the agencies say, donations of any kind will not be refused, but they see a situation growing more urgent every day that long-term development-and the jobs and security it promises-is less than fully addressed. The New York Times noted recently that the number of impoverished immigrants fleeing toward the United States from Central America has grown rapidly as people look desperately for ways to support their families. For Phoebe Griswold, development after the disaster will not only bring answers to economic questions; it will tell the Episcopal Church much about its own identity. "I saw how effective we are" in December, she said. "Now, what is our charism in the rest of this work?"

--Kathryn McCormick is Associate Director of the Office of News and Information of the Episcopal Church.