Rescue From the Killer Storm!
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch last year made headlines around the world. Little attention, though, has been given to the often heroic efforts made by Jehovah’s Witnesses to bring relief to victims of this killer storm. The following report dramatically shows how true Christianity and brotherhood can triumph, even under the worst of circumstances.
ON October 22, 1998, the waters of the southwest Caribbean gave birth to a killer. It emerged as a tropical depression. Within 24 hours, it had been upgraded to a tropical storm and given a name that will long be remembered with fear and pain—Mitch. Gaining strength, Mitch headed north. By October 26, it had become a Category 5 hurricane, generating sustained winds of 180 miles [290 km] per hour and gusts of well over 200 miles [320 km] per hour.
At first, Mitch seemed poised to strike Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. But the killer turned west and headed straight for Belize, on the coast of Central America. Instead of attacking, though, Mitch hovered menacingly off the northern coast of Honduras. And then, suddenly, the killer made its move. On October 30, Mitch invaded Honduras, cutting a swath of death and destruction.
Mitch Strikes Honduras
Mitch announced its presence with torrential rains. “About one o’clock in the morning, on Saturday, October 31,” recalls Víctor Avelar, a full-time evangelizer living in Tegucigalpa, “we heard a noise like tremendous thunder. What had been a tiny creek was now a raging river! The current carried away two houses, with their screaming occupants trapped inside.” In another part of the city, 32 people were killed in a mud slide, including 8 individuals who were studying the Bible with the Witnesses. No baptized Witnesses perished, however.
Honduran officials responded quickly to the crisis, setting up refugee shelters. Also, an international relief team from more than a dozen countries sprang into action. Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise began spearheading relief efforts, bringing to mind the Bible’s words: “Let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.” (Galatians 6:10) Emergency relief committees were thus established. Realizing how desperate the situation was in the coastal towns, the Witnesses mounted a rescue mission.
A Witness named Edgardo Acosta recalls: “On Saturday, October 31, we obtained a small boat and journeyed to the flooded area. Although we were able to rescue two brothers,* we realized that we needed a larger boat if we were to get all the brothers out. So we obtained a whaleboat and began a second journey early Sunday morning. Eventually, we evacuated every member of the congregation, along with some of the neighbors—a total of 189 persons.”
Juan Alvarado helped with rescue operations near La Junta. He recalls: “We could hear people crying, ‘Help! Save us!’ This was the most horrible experience I have ever had. The brothers were completely trapped. Many were on rooftops.” Explains survivor María Bonilla: “The waters around us were like an ocean. All of us were crying.” But the rescue efforts were successful. Says survivor Humberto Alvarado: “The brothers not only rescued us but also gave us shelter, food, and clothing.” Humberto further recalls: “One man who observed the rescue told us that no one from his church tried to get him out—only Jehovah’s Witnesses did. He is convinced now that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the true religion!”
In a town called La Lima, a group of Witnesses were trapped in a house. With the waters rising around them, they made an opening in the ceiling and climbed onto the ceiling beams. A Witness named Gabi relates: “We had enough provisions to last a few days. When those ran out, one of the brothers risked his life by going out in the water to pick coconuts. To ease our distress, we sang Kingdom songs.” Juan, a ministerial servant, recalls: “We didn’t think we would survive. So we decided to study the Bible journal The Watchtower. We all started to cry, thinking that this was the last time we would study together. The study strengthened us to endure.” For eight days they held on, until they were finally rescued by the authorities.
Though safe and alive, many flood survivors had to face bitter realities. Admits a Witness named Lilian: “It is very painful to lose personal effects like clothes, furniture, and family photos. When I saw my house full of mud, garbage, and even snakes, it was simply horrible!” Once again, though, the Christian brotherhood proved to be invaluable. “Brothers came to help,” recalls Lilian. “My husband, who is not a Witness, asked, ‘How are we to repay them for all their work?’ One of the sisters answered by saying to me, ‘You don’t have to thank me. I am your sister!’”
El Salvador Feels Mitch’s Fury
As Hurricane Mitch plowed westward toward El Salvador, it lost steam. But it still had the power to kill. At the time, Jehovah’s Witnesses in El Salvador were busy planning for the “God’s Way of Life” District Convention. Over 40,000 were expected to attend. As Mitch approached, the chances of all the brothers’ being able to attend that convention seemed slim. Rivers overflowed, swallowing up crops, highways, and houses. Weakened by deforestation, the hills formed huge mud slides.
Nelson Flores was the presiding overseer of the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the town of Chilanguera. On Saturday morning, October 31, he awoke to discover that across the river where Chilanguera had once stood, there was nothing! Five hundred houses had been swept away! Fearing for the lives of his spiritual brothers, and with little thought of his own safety, Nelson plunged into the swollen river. “When I reached the other side,” Nelson recalls, “I stood up and tried to get my bearings. I had passed through this area day after day, preaching from house to house, but I could not find one familiar landmark!”
About 150 people had died that night in Chilanguera. Among them were several individuals who were studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. No baptized Witnesses died, however.
Rescue efforts soon commenced. Arístedes Estrada, who assisted in organizing these operations, explains: “We were not permitted to go into Chilanguera. The waters were still rising! I will never forget the sight of people who were calling for help but were abandoned by rescue workers forced to flee for their own lives.” In time, though, all the brothers were safely evacuated. Kingdom Halls served as refugee centers. Additionally, Witnesses were posted at hospitals, schools, and other locations where they could check lists of injured and homeless people for the names of Witnesses. Local congregations quickly provided needed supplies.
Getting supplies to collection centers was not always easy, though. Brothers from a town named Corinto headed out loaded up with produce from their own fields, only to encounter a landslide that blocked their way. The solution? They dug their way through! At first, bystanders watched skeptically. But, in time, they were moved to pitch in and help open the road. The brothers from Corinto reached their destination covered with mud but happy to make their contribution.
The Watch Tower Society’s branch office served as one of the collection centers. Gilberto, a staff member who helped with the delivery of donations, recalls: “It was incredible! So many vehicles arrived that volunteers had to be assigned to direct traffic in the parking lot and the street in front of the branch.” An estimated 25 tons of clothing and 10 tons of food were donated. It took 15 volunteers a whole week to sort the clothes and ship them.
Mitch Passes by Nicaragua
Mitch passed close enough to Nicaragua’s border to dump devastating rain on that land too. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and highways were washed away. Near the town of Posoltega, a mud slide buried whole villages—and more than 2,000 people.
When Witnesses in Nicaragua learned of the tragedy, a massive relief organization was set in place. Volunteers were sent on a grueling and dangerous mission of mercy—to find their brothers! Two teams of Witnesses, one from León (a town to the south of Posoltega) and one from Chichigalpa (a town to the north), departed for Posoltega, each brother carrying a heavy pack of provisions. Rescue workers warned that the way there was virtually impassable, but the brothers were determined.
Early Monday morning, November 2, the brothers from León loaded provisions on a truck and drove as far as a washed-out bridge. After unloading the truck, the brothers formed two teams of cyclists: One to head out for Posoltega, and the other for a flooded town called Telica. The brothers began by offering up a prayer. “After the prayer,” says one of the rescuers, “we felt tremendous strength.” They would need it. They had to cross large ditches, at times by sliding across the mud and at other times by carrying the bicycles on their shoulders. Fallen trees often blocked their way. And they had to endure the gruesome sight of dead bodies floating in pools of water.
Amazingly, the cyclists from León and Chichigalpa arrived at Posoltega at virtually the same time! Nerio López, a member of the rescue team, recalls: “My bike had worn tires. I thought it was good for a kilometer or two.” Yet, the bike somehow held up. Only on the way back did both tires blow out. In any event, the brothers were the very first relief workers to arrive. What joy they felt when they met up with a group of local Christian brothers and sisters! “I am so thankful to Jehovah and to our brothers because they have given us their support and help,” said one sister. “We never imagined that our brothers would come to help us so soon.”
This was just the first of several bicycle expeditions that were made to flooded towns, and in many cases the brothers were the very first relief workers to arrive. The town of Larreynaga witnessed the spectacle of 16 brothers arriving on bicycles! The local brothers were moved to tears by their efforts. Sometimes the cyclists had to carry more than 50 pounds [20 kg] of supplies on their back. Two brothers carried over 220 pounds [100 kg] of provisions to the town of El Guayabo! Carrying as much as he could on his bicycle, one cyclist found comfort in meditating on the Bible text at Isaiah 40:29: “[Jehovah] is giving to the tired one power; and to the one without dynamic energy he makes full might abound.”
Witnesses in the town of Tonalá sent a messenger to report to the responsible brothers that their food provisions were almost depleted. When the messenger arrived, he was surprised to learn that relief provisions had already been sent! And when he got home, there was food waiting for him at his house. Marlon Chavarría, who helped take relief supplies to the flooded area around Chinandega, recalls: “In one town, there were 44 Witness families. However, 80 families benefited because the brothers shared their food.”
These relief efforts came to the attention of the authorities. The mayor of the town of Wamblán wrote to the Witnesses, saying: “We are writing to you about the possibility of getting some help. . . . We see how you have been helping your brothers and sisters here in Wamblán, and we want to know if it is possible for you to do something for us too.” Jehovah’s Witnesses responded by sending food, medicine, and clothing.
Rampage in Guatemala
No sooner had Mitch exited Honduras and El Salvador than it invaded Guatemala. Sara Agustín, a Witness living south of Guatemala City, was awakened by the sound of raging waters. The ravine in which she lived had been transformed into a roaring river. Often, she had knocked on her neighbors’ doors to share Bible truth. Now she went from door to door desperately trying to wake them up! A mud slide later came hurtling down the hill, engulfing many of her neighbors’ houses. Grabbing a shovel, Sara began helping survivors, digging seven small children out of the mud. A midwife by trade, Sara had helped bring one of these children into the world. Sadly, a teenage girl named Vilma was among the dead. Sara had recently placed Bible literature with her.
Although Mitch had lost much of its fury, the constant rain did considerable damage to crops, bridges, and homes. Great quantities of supplies were sent to the local branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Guatemala, and it was decided that some of these supplies could be used to help the brothers in Honduras. Since many bridges were out and the airport was flooded, the supplies had to be sent by water. Frede Bruun, from the branch office, relates: “We hired a 27-foot-long [an eight-meter-long] fiberglass boat and headed out with about a ton of medicine and food. After a harrowing journey on a rough sea, we finally reached the port of Omoa, drenched to the skin.”
Mitch appeared ready to die out over southeastern Mexico. In one last gasp of life, though, Mitch headed northeast and slammed into southern Florida, U.S.A. But Mitch soon lost heart. It retreated into the Atlantic and rapidly began to disintegrate. By November 5, all tropical-storm warnings had been called off.
Some experts have called Mitch “the most deadly hurricane to strike the Western Hemisphere in the last two centuries!” The final death toll may be as high as 11,000; thousands of people are still missing. More than three million were made homeless or at least severely affected. President Carlos Flores Facusse, of Honduras, lamented: “We lost what we had built, little by little, in 50 years.”
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their homes to Mitch. Unfortunately, in a number of cases, the plots of land on which their homes rested no longer exist! Nevertheless, Jehovah’s Witnesses did make arrangements to assist many in repairing or rebuilding their homes.
Tragic disasters like Hurricane Mitch are a grim reminder that we are living in “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) True protection from such disasters will come only when God’s Kingdom assumes management of this planet. (Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 21:3, 4) Still, Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that none of their brothers lost their lives as a direct result of Mitch.* Obedience to local evacuation orders and good organization on the part of local congregations helped many to get out of harm’s way.
During the past few months, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the affected lands have worked hard to get back into their routine of spiritual activities. In El Salvador, for example, arrangements were made to help storm victims to attend the district convention held just days after Mitch passed through. Buses were rented to provide transportation, and lodging was obtained. Arrangements were even made to give medical treatment to the sick so that they too could attend! The convention was a success, with a peak attendance of 46,855—far more than originally anticipated. “We were traumatized by our experience,” admits José Rivera, a Salvadoran brother who lost both his home and his business to Mitch. “But we came away from that assembly transformed for having witnessed the hospitality of the brothers.” Reportedly, attendance at meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in these lands has increased dramatically—a direct result of outsiders’ having observed our relief efforts.
But perhaps the greatest impact of the experience has been upon the Witnesses themselves. Carlos, a survivor of the floods in Honduras, says: “I have never experienced anything like this. I have personally felt the love and affection of my brothers.” Yes, the damage wreaked by Hurricane Mitch will one day be a thing of the past. But the love shown by Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of whom risked life and limb to aid their brothers, will never be forgotten.
Jehovah’s Witnesses commonly refer to each other as “brother” and “sister.”
In the storm’s aftermath, cases of infectious disease multiplied. One Witness in Nicaragua died as a result.
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Neighboring Witnesses Lend a Hand
WHEN forecasters predicted that Hurricane Mitch would hit Belize, the nation braced itself for the impact. Since the government ordered the evacuation of all coastal and low-lying areas, Jehovah’s Witnesses withdrew to the capital city, Belmopan, nearly 50 miles [80 km] inland, or to other towns on higher ground.
Fortunately, Belize was spared the brunt of Mitch’s wrath. But upon hearing of the plight of their brothers in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, the brothers in Belize donated food, clothing, purified drinking water, and money.
Actually, such a response was typical of brothers in neighboring lands. Witnesses in Costa Rica sent four huge containers of food, clothing, and medicine. Brothers in Panama set up four centers to receive, sort, and pack donated items. Within a few days, more than 45,000 pounds [more than 20,000 kilograms] of relief items had been collected. One non-Witness commented: “I thought the military were number one in organizing relief work. But now I see that Jehovah’s Witnesses occupy that position.” Witnesses have now begun visiting this man regularly to share Bible truths.
A brother in the transportation business provided a semitrailer and a driver (non-Witness) to take relief items to Nicaragua. Officials in both Panama and Costa Rica waived customs requirements when allowing the truck to pass through their borders. One gas station donated enough fuel to fill the truck’s two tanks—enough for a round trip! In Nicaragua the customs officials likewise waived inspection of the parcels. “If this is from Jehovah’s Witnesses, we don’t need to inspect it,” they said. “We never have any problems with them.”
Overland transportation to Honduras, however, was not possible. But a Christian sister working for the Honduran Embassy was able to make arrangements through the embassy to send relief shipments by plane free of charge! Over 30,000 pounds [over 10,000 kilograms] of material was shipped in this way.
Interestingly, some non-Witnesses were quite moved by the Witnesses’ relief work. Some companies donated cardboard boxes, tape dispensers, and plastic containers. Others gave monetary donations and discounts. Airport employees in Panama were particularly moved to see over 20 Witness volunteers assist in unloading the donation to be sent to Honduras. The following day, some of these airport workers showed up with a donation that they had collected among themselves.
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Similar Relief Work in Mexico
MEXICO suffered little damage from Hurricane Mitch. But just weeks before that killer hit Central America, there was intense flooding in the state of Chiapas. About 350 communities were affected; some whole towns disappeared.
Naturally, the flooding created many hardships for Jehovah’s Witnesses in that area. However, quick action on the part of local congregation elders often helped to minimize the storm’s impact. For example, in one small community, elders visited each member of the congregation and warned them to take refuge in the Kingdom Hall if the rains continued. It was felt that the hall was the soundest structure in that community. At dawn the town was hit by the combined forces of two flooded rivers! The Witnesses—and a number of their neighbors—survived the onslaught by fleeing to the roof of the Kingdom Hall. Not one Witness lost his life.
Still, about 1,000 Witnesses in Mexico were forced to move into government shelters. About 156 Witness homes were totally destroyed, and 24 were damaged. In addition, seven Kingdom Halls were totally destroyed.
Thus, six relief committees were organized to serve the needs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their neighbors. Food, clothing, blankets, and other supplies were quickly distributed. In fact, when local officials were briefed on the extent of the relief work, they said: “Not even the army has been able to do it so quickly.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses have long had a reputation for honesty, and often this has worked in their favor. For example, when one group of people requested help from local authorities, they were asked if there were any of Jehovah’s Witnesses in their community. When they responded in the affirmative, the officials told them: “Then bring one of them to us so that we can give him the relief provisions!”
A local congregation elder sums matters up well when he writes: “The brothers have kept a positive attitude in spite of this catastrophe. At the risk of their own lives, many brothers from nearby communities came to our aid with food and with Bible publications to strengthen us. We have much for which to give thanks to Jehovah.”
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◼ Guacerique River
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◼ Main Street in Chilanguera
◼ José Lemus and his daughters survived, along with the Kingdom Hall
◼ José Santos Hernandez, in front of his destroyed home
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◼ First team of cyclists to Telica
◼ Witnesses in El Guayabo happily received food bags
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◼ Volunteers rebuild the first of many homes
◼ Witnesses from local congregations helped in packing food bags
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◼ Sara helped save seven children out of the mud