Hurricane Fifi Devastates Honduras
By “Awake!” correspondent in Honduras
“HELP us, please! What is happening here is horrible! You just can’t imagine it!”
The pleading voice was that of a ham radio operator on the north coast of Honduras. And he was right. Any description of the catastrophe, though it might sound exaggerated, pales before its cruel reality. The government declared Honduras in a “state of national disaster.”
It was the worst calamity in Honduras’ recorded history. Authorities estimate that 8,000 to 10,000 persons died. About 100,000 persons were left homeless, and a half million others suffered losses. Farms, cattle and most of the economically important crops were destroyed. Highways, railway lines and bridges were ruined, crippling transportation.
A man pointed to where his home once stood amid hundreds of houses. The area was now a wide riverbed, and not the slightest evidence could be seen of any of the homes! Dry riverbeds had suddenly become raging torrents several hundred yards wide. When the storm was past, bodies were found as far as six miles from their homes. Automobiles were uncovered three feet beneath the surface of the mud. It was not unusual for houses that were left standing to be half filled with sand and mud.
What forces wreaked such devastation?
The Gathering Storm
On Tuesday afternoon, September 17, the Civil Aeronautics office radio first broadcast a warning that Hurricane Fifi was nearing the Caribbean coast of Honduras. But there was no particular alarm. September is the month of hurricanes, and the flooding they cause is desired, since it is generally moderate and leaves a layer of fertile soil that favors agriculture.
But on Wednesday, the 18th, at about 4 p.m., the northern Honduran cities began to feel Fifi’s fury. Instead of moving quickly along the north coast into Guatemala, Fifi’s speed was reduced by low-pressure areas along the Pacific coast. Heavy rain and flooding resulted along the Pacific coast. But the real disaster areas were in northern Honduras.
Finally, on Thursday the hurricane moved on into Guatemala, eventually dying out in Mexico on Friday. In the meantime, twenty inches of rain had fallen in parts of northern Honduras.
The storm was also whipping up the sea, raising its level. This stopped the drainage of rain-swollen rivers, causing them to overflow into cities and create havoc and destruction.
The downpour in the mountains set the stage for even greater devastation. As if by giant claws, the deluge scratched and clawed out the mountainsides, sending tons of mud, sand, vegetation and boulders onto the land below. This debris filled up rivers, blocking the water. When the obstruction broke loose, or the water found another exit, it was like a flash flood that carried with it millions upon millions of tons of rocks, mud and trees. These rivers of destruction were often hundreds of yards wide, and where there were villages or houses in the way, these were not just flooded; they were swept away altogether.
The flash floods often caused more damage than the howling winds and torrential rains of the hurricane. In the predawn hours on Friday an avalanche of boulders, tree trunks, earth and water swept down from surrounding hills and devastated the town of Choloma. “We woke up and the water was already up to our waists,” one young woman said. “We climbed onto the roof of our house, but the roof collapsed, and three of my little sisters were swept away.” So were thousands of others. According to one estimate, 2,800 died in Choloma alone.
About ten miles or so south of Choloma is San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras, with a population of some 150,000. From there an eyewitness reports: “In the early daylight hours the eye of Fifi passed about thirty-five miles to the north of us. Flooding was extensive. All you could see for miles around, and all the way to the steep mountains nearby, was water. People panicked, rushing to nearby villages on higher ground. But many were crushed by mammoth mountain slides or drowned in the raging waters.”
La Ceiba was one of the first cities to feel the fury of the hurricane as it churned along the coast of Honduras. It was terrifying, especially for small children. This is what a little eight-year-old girl, whose mother regularly takes her to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses for Bible instruction, said about the experience:
“When the hurricane came, my father was away and we were scared because we had never seen a hurricane before. But mother explained that hurricanes were just part of things that happen in the weather and that it was not like some people say, that God is angry with the people.
“We went up to the second floor of the house, because mother said it would be safer up there. But even there the water almost reached us. So my older sister and I decided that the best thing to do would be to get our book Listening to the Great Teacher and read Bible stories out loud so that mother could hear too.
“We chose chapter 14, the one that tells of how Jesus calmed the sea. We especially looked at the picture that shows him walking on the water, coming to help the disciples in the boat when they were scared by the storm. That really made us feel better, because we were trusting in Jehovah and in Jesus.
“The next night the hurricane was still bad, so we did the same thing. This time we studied the chapter on prayer. We asked mother to say a prayer for all of us and we prayed a lot that night. Mother said that we were a help to her too, because it made her happy to see that we trusted in Jehovah.”
Many, however, were not so fortunate. Those who had lost everything crowded together in refugee shelters. According to relief organizations, children under seven years of age comprised 75 percent of the refugees. The scenes were often despairing.
There were boys who had seen their sisters die. There were parents who had lost their children, and children who had lost their parents. Their faces reflected the desolate feeling in their hearts. The whole northeastern part of Honduras was devastated by the effects of the hurricane.
In certain areas it is truly remarkable that anyone survived. In Omoa, for instance, officials estimate that 80 percent of the town was destroyed. The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where many had taken refuge, was flooded with some four feet of sand and water. Yet those there survived by climbing up into the rafters, where the water did not reach them. A full-time preacher of Jehovah’s witnesses in the town reports:
“In the middle of the night, when I saw that it was becoming dangerous, the first thought that came to my mind was, How can I help my fellow Witnesses? I quickly got up and went out.
“I could see that the water was becoming a raging stream just ahead of me. It was impossible to go farther, but I managed to crawl upon a wall that was still above water. I could see very little in the darkness and heavy rain. And the terrible roar of the rushing, debris-filled water drowned out the screams of those who were being carried away by the force of the current.
“The local city hall, filled with people seeking refuge, was soon washed away, as were the majority of the homes in town. Now I realized that I was not going to be able to help anyone, and that I might not survive myself.
“It is very difficult to know what to do in the situation I was in. Should I jump into the raging waters and try to swim to safety? Or should I stay on the wall and wait until the current swept me away? How high would the waters rise?
“The raging torrent carried all sorts of trees, rocks and debris that became like battering rams, pounding against the wall as if in a deliberate effort to demolish my one place of safety. Every time I felt a thud against the wall, my heart would pound and I wondered how long the wall would stand up to this severe treatment—especially since I knew that so many other walls were now floating in the stream. Is this the final blow? How many more blows can it withstand?.
“All of a sudden I saw coming toward me a huge object, at first formless in the darkness, but as it drew closer I could tell what it was—a house heading straight for my wall! With little hope of surviving, I crawled to the far edge of the wall and asked Jehovah for strength and help. I was determined to accept whatever Jehovah permitted. To my amazement and joy, the house swerved away and only grazed the side of the wall.
“Now more grateful than ever to be alive, the daylight found me still clinging to the wall giving thanks to Jehovah for my survival. However, I felt sad for all the less fortunate people who had lost their lives. In the whole area where I had spent the night on the wall, there was very little else left. Everything was desolate.
“My grief was deepened as I thought that I must be the only Witness in the town still alive. But when I made my way to the Kingdom Hall and saw the others there and learned that all had survived, you can imagine the tears of joy that came to my eyes!”
There were many amazing escapes as the floodwaters demolished certain places, but not others. In San Pedro Sula, for instance, about thirty houses only five blocks from the Kingdom Hall were swept away. In another instance, a small village in the vicinity was demolished and many died. However, one boy, still alive, was found in a nearby tree.
As the destructive flood neared their refuge, four families of Jehovah’s witnesses in San Pedro Sula prepared to get into a big diesel dump truck and two pickups to flee up the canyon to Sapotal, a nearby village. A neighbor gathering valuables, however, blocked the Witnesses’ way and they were detained for ten minutes. But, in the meantime, the highway they were headed for became a torrent carrying logs and boulders. If they had gone ahead, they would almost certainly have been killed! They are grateful that, as a result of being detained, they were spared.
Concern for Others
In the terrible flooding of such towns as Choloma, people often survived because of the help offered by others. One of Jehovah’s witnesses, whose home there is set on stilts about four feet off the ground, relates:
“When I realized the danger of my next-door neighbor and all her children, I called to her, urging her to come over to my place where it would be safer. But she seemed determined to stay where she was. So I tied a rope to myself and fastened the other end securely to my property. I then crawled through the barbed-wire fence and made my way through the water to her house. With the family’s consent, I took the children, and we managed to get back safely. Later the rest of the family, thinking the matter over, decided to come to my house. They had previously not been favorably disposed toward Jehovah’s witnesses, but they now had a change of heart, for they never imagined that we would risk our lives to save them.
“Eventually about 200 people took refuge in my home. I stood on the porch and watched the waters carry by all kinds of debris. But the most horrifying sight was the dead bodies. I knew that it would be dangerous if those bodies came up onto the porch or into the house and caused a backup or overflow of the waters. So I got a pole and stood on the edge of the porch, pushing the bodies away as they came by.
“I had fine opportunities to explain the Bible truths regarding the condition of the dead—that they are unconscious and are not being tormented in any way. (Eccl. 9:5, 10) I also spoke of the hope that the Bible offers of a resurrection of the dead, and that in God’s new system those who have died have the prospect of again being reunited with loved ones.—Acts 24:15; 2 Pet. 3:13.”
A full-time preacher of Jehovah’s witnesses also endeavored to help others, but had harrowing experiences in doing so. He relates:
“We heard the warnings over the radio at about 10 p.m., but we didn’t really think that the hurricane would do much damage to us so far inland. But about three o’clock in the morning the flood came with such speed and force that in the areas closer to the river many people were literally swept out of their beds; others were carried away still in their houses.
“By the time I awoke the water was already three feet high, and was rising about a foot an hour. The current had already ripped out part of the fence in front of our house. I held our two children under my arms and carried them to higher ground. But my wife, being in poor health, was too weak for the swift current. She started to go back, but fell. A man who was watching nearby saw her plight and came to her rescue. However, he was not strong enough, although he was able to keep her from going under. When I got the children to safety I returned and helped both of them over to where I had left the children.
“Then we began walking because I knew it would not remain safe for long where we were. It was becoming daylight but still it was hard to see. We stumbled along, stepping into ditches and would go into the water up to our necks. Finally we got to a bridge, which was still passable even though it was covered by water and pieces of it had broken away. When we were all safely across, I left to check on other Witnesses.
“There was three feet of water on the road, so I walked along the railroad track. Soon I heard screams and looked and saw a family stranded on the roof of their house. I just couldn’t walk by and leave them there, so I went to see what I could do. When I stepped off the railroad track, I went into water that was flowing so swiftly it knocked me off my feet and carried me right through the gate of the house and over a barbed-wire fence, where I ripped my trousers badly. My jacket caught on the barbed wire and got all tangled up in it.
“I finally got out of my jacket and the water carried me smack into a tree. I got hold of the tree with my arms around it, holding on for dear life. When I got myself together, I was thrown a rope, which I tied around two trees. There were seven in the family, and all but the grandmother were up on the roof. The house was leaning at a very bad angle and it seemed almost ready to cave in. I got the children over to where the rope was tied to the trees, and they climbed into a tree. It was a little harder to get the grandmother out, but I finally succeeded. When the last person was out of the house and up in the trees, the house collapsed.
“We didn’t feel very safe up in those trees, however, because there were other creatures there that had the same idea as us—to get to a higher place of safety. These were poisonous snakes. I later heard of a man who had taken refuge in a tree, only to die of a snakebite in the neck. Fortunately, we did not have such an experience.
“Finally, after a couple of hours the water subsided. We helped each other out of the trees and I continued on my way to see how my fellow Witnesses were. Thankfully, all in that vicinity were all right. But then, along with friends, we went to check on still others in a section called Guayabal. There we got a terrible shock—we saw nothing but a huge river with logs and debris and houses floating downstream. I was really worried about the brother who lived there. But there was nothing we could do, so we went to see what we could do for others.
“We arranged a meeting for 2 p.m. the next day, after spending all that day caring for different ones. When the meeting started, some were still unaccounted for, but halfway through, one by one, the rest began coming in. By the time it was over, everyone was there safe and sound. How happy we were to see each other!
“There had been brothers living in the worst hit sections, so we were really amazed and grateful to see them still alive. No one worried about lost houses or possessions. We were just glad to be together alive. We were so filled with emotion we barely managed to get through the final song; everyone was crying. We thanked Jehovah from the bottom of our hearts in prayer. We really came to know what it means to rely on Jehovah and to trust in his protection.”
An estimated 1,600 of Jehovah’s witnesses lived in the area affected by the hurricane. But the truly remarkable thing is that not a single one of them was killed, even though many lived in the hardest hit places, such as Choloma, Omoa, San Pedro Sula and areas nearby.
From thirty-five countries the world over, Honduras received aid in the form of food, clothing, medicine, tents, blankets, money, and so forth. Literally hundreds of tons of relief goods for hurricane victims were sent by boat and airplane and were distributed through government agencies.
Jehovah’s witnesses, too, had a major share in providing relief. Already on Thursday, September 19, before the storm was over, three representatives from the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Tegucigalpa went to San Pedro Sula to check on the situation. That same day Witnesses in Tegucigalpa began contributing food, clothing, medicine, utensils, bedding and money to help persons in hard-hit areas. Others, too, hearing of the Witnesses’ relief program, contributed. By Saturday morning Witnesses were busy at the branch office sorting, packing and loading supplies into trucks for distribution to their Christian brothers in the north. Also, some clothing was sent to the Pacific coast where there were fewer needy ones.
The first day, almost six tons of locally donated items were shipped out, and more tons were sent later. Until such supplies became available in hard-hit areas, the Witnesses there made every effort to account for each brother and sister, and to care for them. Even those with whom Bible studies were being conducted were searched out and helped. In some areas it took up to five days before all the Witnesses could be located and accounted for.
On Thursday, even before the worst was over in Choloma, sixteen Witnesses from San Pedro Sula walked there carrying parcels of food and clothing on their shoulders. Most of the way they waded through water, sometimes waist high, avoiding snakes and dead bodies. Later, clean-up crews of as many as forty Witnesses went out from San Pedro Sula. They brought their own shovels and cleaning equipment to dig the mud and slime out of homes and Kingdom Halls. Some worked right in San Pedro Sula, others in Choloma and nearby towns.
Jehovah’s witnesses in many other lands also provided assistance. From every Central American country they made inquiry as to the needs of their Honduran brothers, and the most practical arrangement for sending supplies was worked out. A boatload of ten tons of food and clothing arrived from Belize only five days after the hurricane. It was unloaded by the Witnesses themselves at the dock in Puerto Cortés. Other boats and planes, carrying many more tons, were dispatched from Miami and New Orleans. The headquarters staff of the Watch Tower Society’s main office in New York personally contributed some 9,000 pounds of clothing and bedding. Additionally, spontaneous money contributions were made by Witnesses in many parts of the earth, and the headquarters office sent money to the branch office for use in obtaining supplies and to help in reconstructing homes for those who had suffered loss on account of the storm.
Kingdom Halls were the centers from which the supplies were distributed to Jehovah’s witnesses. The Witnesses, in turn, were able to share the abundance of things contributed to help feed and clothe relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. In this way they were able to demonstrate love and generosity to their fellow humans, and thus imitate Jehovah God, who manifests such consideration for all sorts of persons.—Matt. 5:45.
Hurricane Fifi once again demonstrated how weak humans are in the face of natural forces. And yet Fifi served to demonstrate something else: that humans with love in their hearts will come to the aid of their fellow humans, even at the risk of their own lives.
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