After the flood

Disaster relief | For victims of Mexico's worst flooding in 50 years, cleanup requires seasoned outside helpers willing to go the distance

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico- The scrap metal never stops arriving at Alberto's place in Villahermosa, Mexico. Throughout the day neighbors bring pushcarts, shopping carts, and discarded baby carriages laden with steel, copper tubing, and aluminum cans to dump in a mound inside Alberto's large garage.

Nearly two months ago record-breaking rainfall inundated Tabasco, causing Mexico's worst flooding in over 50 years-and at one point covering about 80 percent of the low-lying, oil-rich state. The floodwaters trapped 300,000 people in their homes, forced thousands to live on their rooftops for weeks, and has left wreckage everywhere.

Alberto witnessed a spike in the supply of scrap from Villahermosa's streets after floodwaters subsided. In the same way, relief workers see a spike in needs even as Mexicans try to return to normal.

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A team from HCJB Global Hands in Ecuador, including including three Ecuadorian and two U.S. doctors, and two assistants, traveled to Tabasco state to provide medical help to flood victims. Working with Samaritan's Purse and the Tabasco Health Department, they set up a base and found housing with Alberto and his family.

Inside the comfortable house behind Alberto's garage, the team plans each workday before heading to hard-hit ranchlands and rural churches outside Villahermosa. They're accompanied by three retirees from Mexico City who dispense bottled water, basic foodstuffs, cooking oil, and tins of tuna from their 1987 Ford Custom van while the physicians receive patients in makeshift reception and exam rooms.

Spreading a thin layer of lime dust near his home in Gaviotas Norte to prevent disease, Rodolfo Arcos stops long enough to take questions about the flood that put up to 9 feet of water in homes and businesses in dozens of Villahermosa colonias. His wife and children moved to neighboring Chiapas state before the flood. "Material possessions, they're easy to replace," he said. "But life is not so easy to recover."

A local church, Centro Cristiano, paired up the physicians and retirees, also bringing in foodstuffs through another organization, Operation Blessing International. "We try our best to work with local churches as a way of having long-term work in this area," said Kumar Periasamy, director of disaster relief.

Treating respiratory illnesses, skin problems, and other disorders both related and unrelated to flood conditions, the physicians and their Mexican companions give spiritual as well as physical help to flood victims in Tabasco state. Their efforts are also part of a well-organized government campaign to vaccinate against dengue fever and other threats, as well as to fumigate in Villahermosa, a city of 1 million people.

Two weeks after floodwaters subsided "is when depression begins to hit," said Brad Quist, a Michigan physician who led the Ecuador team. Since mid-2005, he and fellow team members Steve and Dorothy Nelson have ministered in disaster zones in Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Solomon Islands. Responding to invitations from organizational partners (like, in this case, Samaritan's Purse), they usually arrive within two weeks of a disaster.

Working in conjunction with both the health department and Tabasco's social services, the team learned that health authorities had observed a secondary effect of the flood-a spike in suicide attempts.

Taut emotions stressed by initial trauma and property loss were fed by rumored threats of further flooding. A newspaper headline reading "Alert" was followed the next day with "Everything Under Control."

The central focus was a huge natural lake, formed by a river blocked by a massive landslide in the early November floods. In December Tabasco's governor put the area on alert for flash floods, but two weeks ago heavy construction crews had nearly completed a channel through the soil and rock for a controlled release of the dammed water.

In the small ranchland town of Rivera de Las Raices, Ana Maria Griego, 80, told the relief team, "I give thanks to God and to you for coming to help us here."

But residents know the disaster is far from over. Another area resident, 85-year-old Manuel Antonio, heads out on horseback, as areas of his rancheria are accessible only that way after the floods.

"I've lived on this place since 1937," Manuel says, "and there's never been flooding like this before."

-Ralph Kurtenbach works with HCJB Radio in Quito, Ecuador


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