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Surviving Hurricane Mitch: A firsthand report from Honduras

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Editorís Note: This article is adapted from several emails that Anne Marie Sorenson í96 sent from Honduras to the States during Hurricane Mitch. Sorenson, a community worker for the Mennonite Central Committee, experienced the hurricane firsthand from the capital city of Tegucigalpa and has been an integral part of the regionís painstaking rebuilding process. Hurricane Mitch, which first struck in late October 1998, killed 7,000 people, left millions homeless, and wiped out 80 percent of the countryís agriculture. The PLU community raised nearly $4,000 toward the relief effort.

Anne Marie Sorenson '96
Anne Marie Sorenson í96, a community worker for the Mennonite Central Committee is Tegucigalpa, Honduras, helps on many levels with the relief effort in the wake of 1998ís Hurricane Mitch. Here she is pictured with her visiting father and two Hondurans helping with countryside repairs in La Tigra Cloud Forest.

Nov. 2, 1998

The hurricane-turned-tropical-storm Mitch has now left the country, but not without wrecking severe destruction in each and every part of Honduras. I canít even begin to list all the damage done, all the lives lost, all the people left homeless, all the roads destroyed, and bridges and buildings washed away.
      Whole towns have disappeared. All schools have been turned into shelters, and school has been cancelled until next year. My house is fine, thankfully. And though I personally haven't been affected, itís incredibly stressful seeing all that is going on around me.
      The mayor's office is trying to coordinate donations to get food and water to these folks, but there are so many in need throughout the city that they are pretty much running around like chickens with their heads cut off. To make matters worse, the mayor - who was acting as a real motivation to the people of Tegucigalpa - was killed last night in a helicopter accident.
      Some neighbors and I have been rounding up donations of food so these folks can eat. Itís pretty amazing to see very poor people come up with so much food to share with their homeless neighbors.
      There is definitely a food crisis. Several supermarkets have closed because they have no more provisions, and we havenít been able to find gas for cooking anywhere. The few supermarkets still open have long lines in front just to be able to go in. Since practically all the crops in the country were lost we are looking at the likelihood of this crisis getting much worse.
      Water is another big problem. There was severe damage done to the cityís pipes, and the water companyís headquarters was largely washed away by one of the rivers. People are going into the muddy rivers to gather water for washing clothes. There is drinking water in the bottled water factory, but it is too expensive for the poor, and distribution is a problem since so many parts of the city are now isolated from other parts.
      There is no normal life here anymore. Many people are out of work because of the disaster. Many people live on the day-to-day salary they make, and are just plain out of luck.
      Despite it all, I really think that Hondurans have a very strong spirit and everyoneís talking about how we must pick ourselves up and get past this.

Nov. 7, 1998

I continue to take food donations to about 500 people in seven shelters in my neighboring areas. My co-workers and I also help organize the food distribution, lay down ground rules, and provide emotional support to as many as we can.
"Itís hard not to feel powerless in the face of such loss and destruction."
Soon we will need to focus our efforts on the women, especially helping them organize small businesses to become self-sufficient. Women are definitely the hardest hit in this situation. While we see lots of men drinking away their sorrows, women are the ones taking responsibility of caring for their families. Domestic violence cases are on the rise, too.
      The stress of this city is so high you can just feel it in the air. No one has water, there are long waits in line for food, the difficulty in transportation is huge, there is a big outbreak of crime and so many families have suffered tremendous losses.
      There is no more cooking gas in the city, and people are building fires outside their houses to cook. Gas is rationed and cars can only circulate every other day (even license plate numbers one day, odds the next).
      To control crime they have outlawed the sale of alcohol after 5 pm, and there is a 9 pm citywide curfew. I love this law. Since I live above a bar itís usually very noisy and the customers aren't too respectful of the local gringas (white women). So no more drunks in front of my house: hurray!
      My spirits are pretty high as I continuously count my blessings that I was kept safe and that I'm able to participate in the helping activities.

Nov. 11, 1998

Not much has changed. No proposal has been made for the homeless: the first priority has been getting food to the homeless and cleaning up the streets and buildings. I'm still taking food and working with the women in nearby shelters.
      A general sense of depression has set in. We are all realizing that though the storm is gone, its effects are with us for the long haul. Itís hard not to feel powerless in the face of such loss and destruction. I really am focusing on lifting my attitude. My spirits are low, and Iím not even someone who lost anything.
      I must say, though, that one of the most encouraging things is hearing about all the support being shown from all over the place. It is wonderful to know that humans care about other humans despite their geographical distance and differences.
      In the face of this support, however, I find myself reflecting that hunger and poverty and inadequate housing were already realities of daily life for a majority of Hondurans long before Hurricane Mitch. It makes me realize that if we can rally around victims of natural disasters, that we must also have the collective power and compassion for the victims of manmade ones, such as economic systems that allow for such glaring injustices. When we decide something is intolerable, we act and we move mountains.
      Nov. 19, 1998: Stuff here is starting to feel a bit more normal again, though life is still quite different from what it was before. Today I was at a demonstration in front of the presidentís palace. He was having a meeting with the head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). There is quite a push to have Hondurasí and Nicaraguaís (among others) external debts cancelled (Jubilee 2000), and we are just praying that all these efforts pay off. It would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

To donate to the relief effort in Honduras, contact the Red Cross at 1-800-257-7575.

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