Images of Hurricane Mitch's aftermath in Central America stream from Neftali Mejea's television in Austin, Texas. Since the storm shook the region last week, that TV screen has been his only contact with his homeland. Mr. Mejea, a Honduran native, has heard nothing from his brother Pedro Gutierrez, who is pastor of a church near San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest city.
"We're worried, but there's nothing we can do except wait for word from him," Mr. Mejea said. In the meantime, he is assembling a package of medicine and blankets to ship to San Pedro Sula.
And he's praying.
According to Christian leaders in Central America working to rescue, feed, and clothe tens of thousands of Mitch's victims, Mr. Mejea's attitude of prayer and willingness to do what he can to relieve suffering is shared worldwide by evangelicals who are donating money and supplies to devastated areas. The hurricane all but razed Honduras and northern Nicaragua, leaving 11,000 dead and one million homeless. The storm killed approximately 500 more and destroyed thousands of homes in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Congregations in Central America, largely made up of poor, storm-beaten victims, have united to help rescue survivors, bury the dead, feed the hungry, and console the mourners, said Ralph Merriam, a World Vision aid worker in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Church buildings left standing after what may prove to be this hemisphere's worst-ever natural disaster double as shelters for the homeless-who make up at least 20 percent of Honduras' population.
"The response of all churches of Honduras, no matter the denomination, has been immediate and extremely helpful," Mr. Merriam said, adding that he's seen the volunteer crew display commitment and bravery during the crisis. "A lot of these people have had their homes if not washed away damaged in one way or another. They've put that on the back burner to help those in greater need."
Mitch parked for five and a half days over this nation (which is about the size of Tennessee) and unleashed a deadly fury. Honduras and Nicaragua are among the hemisphere's poorest nations, quintessential "banana republics" with agriculture-based economies. International governments and non-governmental organizations are channeling supplies to the region, but the storm damaged or destroyed key roads and bridges, all but preventing aid distribution beyond the airports. Few helicopters are available to airlift goods where they are needed, which is practically everywhere.
Witnesses in Nicaragua's and Honduras' urban centers report that dogs and pigs are eating bodies that lie rotting in the streets. Food and water, when they can be found, cost as much as five times their normal price, despite warnings that gougers will be arrested.
In Nicaragua, a patchwork of emergency highways created by the army enabled Evangelical Pro-Denominational Alliance Council of Churches (CEPAD) workers to bring in food, water-purification tablets, plastic for tents, mosquito nets, and medicine last week. CEPAD director Gustavo Parajon told WORLD those necessities will be distributed in Leon, 20 miles southeast of La Casita volcano, where 1,500 people died beneath a crushing flow of mud when its crater collapsed on Oct. 30. Among those who perished in the volcanic mudslide were Assemblies of God pastor Mariano Vargas and 120 of his church's members. An unknown number of other churches in the mudslide's path also were destroyed.
Relief workers in both countries say that right now two needs come first: rescuing the stranded and supplying food and water to those who have had neither for a week. Addressing spiritual needs within two nations still in collective shock will be part of the longer-term follow-up. "Our first priority is to feed the people," said Freddy Zamoran, executive director of the Nicaraguan Central American Church's relief arm, the Self-Help Committee. But Mr. Zamoran said that while churches within the denomination are collecting goods for the victims, little can be done to deliver them until more roads and bridges are repaired.
"It's impressive how a whole country can be destroyed within the span of a week," said Mr. Merriam. Yet amid Mitch's devastation, Mr. Merriam said remarkable providences of God have not ceased. "There are dozens upon dozens of cases where entire families have been rescued from treetops after three, four, and five days," he said.
Mr. Parajon of CEPAD said that the church he pastors, First Baptist Managua, has a small mission called El Madroito on Lake Managua's shore, 13 miles from the town of San Francisco, which was in the path of the mudslide. A member of El Madroito heard the slide coming and tied himself and each of his eight children with a single rope. When a wave swept the family more than half a mile to the lake, he caught a treetop and managed to hang on. All survived.
Relief workers predict, however, that getting through Mitch's aftermath may prove more difficult than making it through the storm. Kevin Sanderson, Nicaragua country director for World Relief, expects the situation to become worse before it improves. "The nature and depth of the disaster is such that it's not something that's going to be solved quickly." Mr. Sanderson anticipates outbreaks of cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and other potentially deadly illnesses. Government officials face the enormous task of rebuilding infrastructure before overseas relief truly can be put to work.
"No one church is going to be able to solve everything," Mr. Sanderson said. "But everybody doing something together will finally get things going.... I don't see this as the end of the world. The nation will get through it, and I think the church and civic network will have much to do with it," he said.
Mr. Merriam agreed. "We are a resilient people, and we are trying to restore ourselves," he said. "Hope is the last thing that washes away. If we lose hope, we might as well throw ourselves into one of the rivers. We'll go on."
Meanwhile, as soon as phone lines are repaired, Mr. Mejea is confident that he will hear good news about his brother and his family of eight. "They know that we'll be worried about them," Mr. Mejea said. "They'll call us when they can."