The first nine days that Hurricane Mitch hovered over Nicaragua the storm dumped 4 inches of rain per hour for 6 days. And then the rainfall lessened to 10 inches a day dumping an additional 30 inches of rain in 3 days. The flooding and mudslides took their toll on human life, agricultural land, livestock, roads, bridges, houses — the landscape once flourishing with signs of life — was quickly covered by water and mud. Then, as if to add insult to the injury, the crater of Casitas Volcano, filled with water from the heavy rains, broke, sending an ocean of water, mud, and debris into heavily populated villages below. It left a 30 square mile path of destruction. It is estimated that 1,500 were killed in this one location and many thousands remain missing. In one town, only 92 residents were found alive; 172 towns were cut off by floodwaters, 80 percent of the big bridges in the country were washed away, as were almost 50 percent of the roadways. Managua Lake rose 15 feet during the flood, forcing the relocation of 10,000 families. We may never know the complete death toll of this terrible storm. However, it is estimated that 5,000 died, while another 8,000 remain missing, and 400,000 are homeless in Nicaragua alone with estimates that the number of homeless may rise to as many as 750,000.
In the aftermath, International Church Relief Fund's Nicaragua Director, Mario Aviles, called the U. S. office in tears. He and his team were trying to get food to eight people who had tied themselves to a tree to keep from being washed away. On the way to help these folks, he saw a pig eating the corpse of a small child — it was too much for this former guerilla warrior who, after conversion, had dedicated the last ten years of his life to rebuilding his homeland after the ravages of years of civil war.
He told the Chalcedon Report, "After the civil war, we were reconstructing the nation. After 10 years, we were looking good. New roads, new bridges, democracy and liberty. Then we received this brutal impact. We have been working hard and it is like somebody punched you. Sometimes we just say, 'Why?' Well, I don't know what God wants for Nicaragua, but I know he wants something good. We have always been a stubborn people. So we are going to begin again."
Mario and his congregation immediately set up a refugee shelter about 25-30 minutes from the capital city of Managua. This is the area where Lake Managua forced the evacuation of 10,000 families. Within days, Mario's church provided shelter, blankets, mattresses, medical help and food for 65 families. This number grew quickly to 202 families receiving shelter and three meals a day. ICRF quickly sent a check to help with supplies and food. Of those entrusted to his care, Mario says, "It is not enough to keep the refugees in rice and beans. We must focus them on the future. We have to rebuild their lives. Some reconstruct buildings; we reconstruct lives."
The Mayor of Los Brazilis provided a building where some of the refugees are being housed. He also promised Mario land in the area where permanent homes can be built for the homeless. Mario is praying for God's wisdom as to how best to use this property to help the refugees rebuild their lives. His current thinking is that if homes are built with property surrounding them, the people will be able to grow food for their own use and for sale in the neighboring towns and cities. This will be a major step to rebuilding self-sufficient lives.
Mario is hopeful. He told the CR, "I think that in months these people can begin to work and to produce instead of sitting down like beggars. I want them to have dignity. These people are hard working people. They used to live near the lake and they had livestock and agriculture. This place is near Managua, the capitol, where everything can be taken by road. Here the people can sell their products. It will be better for them if we can stop feeding them and let them begin to produce for themselves."
This will require strengthening the microenterprise programs that have been a staple of ICRF's ministry in Nicaragua. Hurricane Mitch ravaged the marketplaces of Nicaragua and all but stopped trade and commerce. The buildings used as markets have been destroyed as has the means of producing products to sell. Re-establishing microenterprises is a key component in Mario's strategy to rebuild his nation.
Currently, Mario and ICRF are scrambling to meet the immediate needs of feeding, clothing, and sheltering the homeless. They are prayerfully seeking God's wisdom as they seek to rebuild families and the nation.
The emotional impact on the survivors has been tremendous. Many families have been destroyed. Grieving survivors who watched their loved ones being torn away to drown in flood waters or sinking helplessly in a sea of mud have also had to watch recovered bodies being burned to stop the spread of diseases like typhus and cholera — diseases which could prove more deadly than the thrashing floodwaters. The surreal scenes of livestock — pigs, ducks, chickens, dogs — eating decaying human bodies has been repeated so many times that soldiers are routinely slaughtering all livestock to prevent the spread of disease.
Mario says of the survivors, "These are not just numbers, these people have names, they are human beings." Mario and his congregation spend time praying with the survivors and offering God's comfort and hope to them. Already ten families at the shelter have turned to Christ in repentance and faith. Mario and ICRF hope this is just the beginning of a mighty spiritual harvesting for the people of Nicaragua.
The devastation of Mitch reminded Mario of a sight he had seen often repeated in flooded jungles, "When the river goes up, I have seen a lion with a deer in the same woods. The lion does not try to attack the deer and the deer does not try to run from the lion because they are so busy trying to stay alive. It seems the only way that you see Jerusalem on earth is when there is a big emergency. This tragedy is different from the civil war because our civil war separated brother from brother. This tragedy has united brother with brother. Now, Nicaragua is united in pain and mourning. We will rebuild our nation. We have no options. We have to go forward."
Going forward and rebuilding in the midst of such total devastation requires our help. For $25.00 ICRF can put together a one-week survival package of basic foods and supplies for a homeless family. After meeting the immediate needs to help the homeless survive, more funds will be needed to help them rebuild self-sufficient lives. Mario and the ICRF team can help their fellow Nicaraguans only to the extent that our generosity allows. Please send your donations to International Church Relief Fund, P. O. Box 5366, Santa Rosa, CA, 95402-5366, designating in the memo section, "For the Nicaraguan Relief Effort."
- Susan Burns
Susan is the managing editor of the the Faith for All of Life magazine and the Chalcedon Report (bi-monthly newsletter). Susan has worked for Chalcedon since 1997. She lives in Virginia and is rather fond of animals, especially her many cats.