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Laurie Fogarty-Swenson is an AmeriCares emergency response worker. Here are some of her reflections from Mexico on the devastating effects of Hurricane Stan.
Mexico City October 20, 2005 5:30 a.m. We met with The Order of Malta, our in-country partner, at their headquarters and drove to Toluca airport. Our destination was the State of Chiapas, a 26-hour drive south of Mexico City and the hardest hit area from Hurricane Stan. We flew out with the President of the Association of the Order of Malta, Jose Barroso. We arrived in Tapachula, the closest town to the border of Guatemala and after much negotiation we managed to get a helicopter to fly us over the Chiapas region for an aerial view of the damage from Hurricane Stan and the effect heavy rains are having in this region.
With little news coverage back in the states about Central America and their struggles with this natural disaster, I had no idea what to expect. We flew over what I’m told is Mexico’s richest area of natural resources—and it was apparent with the bright patches of green that this area was indeed flush with agriculture. Typically mountainous in landscape, it has numerous rivers cutting through the valleys.
But it was soon after our take off that we noticed something wicked and brown in the far distance, snaking its way across this lush area. As we flew closer, we saw that the muddy channels were the rivers that were running wild in their patterns and vicious in their strength, swallowing up homes, roads, bridges and parts of towns. One river that originally started as an 80-meter (240 ft) river now extended miles, cutting off travel, leaving roads impassible and displacing many families. What was really disturbing was the sight of people forced to live on the tops of roofs and bathe in the brackish water that was polluted by animals roaming in and out, cars and rotting trash. This is a likely breeding ground for communicable diseases, and our relief supplies includes antibiotics and antifungals for treatment.
Flying close to the Rio Suchiate, which separates Mexico and Guatemala, we noticed the main hospital from the air that was sitting very close to the river’s edge. There was apparent water damage, with flooded areas all around. We were left to wonder if the hospital was still operational, and where people were being treated, if at all. We managed to land in Huixtla, a typical rural town north of Tapachula with a population of about 50,000 people. Huixtla is still trying to fight one river’s waters as it continues to snake new patterns into their town and into their homes, and due to impassable roads, we were told, little to no help had arrived.
It wasn’t long after our arrival that the warm smiles of residents came out, kids gathered around and their eagerness grew to show us the harsh realities they continue to face. As we walked the streets we stumbled upon a makeshift shelter where some family members had taken in people who had lost their homes. They were told that there were several other shelters in town, primarily set up by families of those who needed help. “We lost everything, all we have are the clothes on our back. We’re just trying to get by and hope for some help,” is what one male resident, who is staying in the shelter, told me.
We then flew a little north to the town of Esquintla, where our partner had managed to travel 26 hours by car with AmeriCares relief supplies in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Stan. Here in Esquintla, we were able to see AmeriCares relief supplies in the Santo Domingo Church being prepped and staged for distribution in their area. Padre Jose Lering was both thankful and eager to get these relief supplies out to his community. Esquintla will now be the main staging area for distribution of AmeriCares latest air shipment of 5,270 lbs of essential medicines and hygiene supplies, to southern towns like Huixtla, that depend on our help.
Tapachula, Mexico October 26, 2005 During our visit to the Chaipas Region, our partners, the Order of Malta took us to visit one of the seminaries currently sheltering families displaced by the hurricane and heavy rains in the southern region of Mexico. We were introduced to the Archbishop of Tapachula, who had opened his seminary and was housing and feeding more than 200 people—40 families that had been displaced.
While there, I met one family who had lost everything and were trying to manage seven family members in one room. Juan Ramón Terado Gomez and his wife María Mecaela de al Cruz Gonzalez, along with their three daughters, brother and niece were all relocated to this seminary. They had been staying there several weeks now and couldn’t remember the day they were brought here. Juan recounted their terrifying story as María sat very quiet and still. “It was sudden and the river rushed in, taking María away,” said Juan. Both María and her sister were swept away by the raging river during the hurricane and were carried 15 kilometers from their home. Now she was in pain from the bruises and cuts she received from debris in the water.
Both she and her sister managed to swim out to safety, but had no idea where they were and how far from home. María and her sister was missing for 4 days until her husband found them scavenging with survivors—just trying to stay alive. She said she had no idea if anyone in her family survived. Both María and her sister were reunited with their children and are now recovering here at the seminary waiting to hear if they can return to their home and pick up the pieces.