[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
MCC strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. Committed to strengthening and supporting local churches and community-based organizations, MCC has focused since its inception on the importance of relationship-building in its relief responses, including fostering relationships of mutuality with local churches. That was true one hundred years ago as MCC responded to famine in the 1920s in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) and it was true 78 years later as MCC mobilized to accompany Central American churches and other organizations as they ministered to people whose lives had been upended by Hurricane Mitch. In this article I reflect on what MCC learned from the 1998 Hurricane Mitch response.
Hurricane Mitch was the strongest storm of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season, forming on October 22 and then becoming a category 5 hurricane. After being downgraded to a tropical storm, Mitch hit Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. According to United Nations data, these countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to floods and hurricanes. Mitch carved out a path of destruction in these three countries, tearing through entire communities. In Honduras, officials estimate that over 5,600 people died and 6,000 disappeared who were later declared dead. Economists, meanwhile, assess the hurricane’s monetary damage at around US$6 billion.
In reflecting back on MCC’s response to Hurricane Mitch, we can think about a before and an after. Before the hurricane, the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua were marked by socioeconomic conditions that increased the vulnerability of many in these countries to natural hazards like hurricanes: when Hurricane Mitch hit, the devastation it wreaked was exacerbated by these pre-existing vulnerabilities. For MCC and its partners, after the hurricane meant mobilizing communities to rebuild infrastructure, recover from trauma and discover new ways to live with the environment that decrease community vulnerability to natural hazards like hurricanes. Unfortunately, twenty-two years after Hurricane Mitch, many of the factors that make communities in Central American vulnerable to the destructive impact of hurricanes persist, including land tenure systems that disenfranchise small farmers. Young people under the age of 21 lack memories of Mitch: more broadly, one could argue that Central American societies have forgotten the unimaginable damage hurricanes like Mitch can do, failing to learn the lessons from Mitch.
When Hurricane Mitch made landfall, I was living at and working with SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala, codirecting the seminary’s CASAS language and cultural exchange program. We received little warning about the hurricane’s arrival, and people living in remote communities received even less, with no early warning system in place at that time for hurricanes. [One lesson from Mitch was the need to invest institutional and budgetary resources into early warning systems and disaster preparedness.] I heard about Mitch thanks to a relative attending a conference at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, who called me late one evening, asking if I could get him on a flight to Honduras, explaining that a powerful category 5 hurricane would soon descend on Honduras. Fortunately, my relative was able to fly into San Pedro Sula on one of the last flights allowed to land in Honduras. Once the hurricane’s rains arrived, the city’s airport was flooded, with water up to the second floor of the airport’s buildings. The hurricane’s swath of destruction was not limited to the airport: rains flooded practically the entire country, including communities with Mennonite churches, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure.
While I was based in Guatemala when Mitch made landfall, I had previously worked in Honduras, my home country. Specifically, I coordinated emergency relief responses for Proyecto MAMA of the Honduran Mennonite Church. In response to floods in Honduran regions such as Colonia 6 de Mayo, Chamelecon, Las Cuarenta, Guaimitas and Santa Rita, where Proyecto MAMA carried out educational initiatives in collaboration with numerous Mennonite churches, we supported congregations and communities in helping families displaced by these floods relocate to other communities, with Mennonite churches hosting displaced families and offering comfort and distributing food and non-food relief items donated by MCC. Given this previous relief work experience, I joined MCC’s Mitch emergency response in Guatemala, led by Scott and Rhoda Jantzi, MCC’s representatives in the country at the time. Our committee sought to discern how best to match the needs of marginalized Guatemalan communities with the outpouring of donations from Mennonites in Canada and the United States and the desire on the part of these churches to help in practical ways.
Over the course of the coming months and years, MCC and its Guatemalan partners distributed food, blankets and water and offered medical care and emergency shelter. This first emergency stage then gave way to reconstruction, including building and rebuilding homes in Guatemala City and Chiuimila and discerning with communities what the rehabilitation of economic and community life would look like in the long term. MCC programs in Central America also welcomed work-and-learn teams from the U.S. and Canada, which joined local communities in reconstruction work: my wife, Lizette, and I joined one of these work-and-learn teams in the Sabillon Cruz community in Chamelecon, Honduras.
MCC’s Hurricane Mitch response included immediate and longer-term elements. In the immediate aftermath of Mitch, many families did not have food for many days due to the loss of their crops and food stores reserves and because of difficulty in accessing markets (and in food getting to markets). Over the ensuing weeks and months, illness spread across the hurricane-ravaged communities, thanks to water pollution and spoiled food. In the longer-term, families and communities were confronted with the need to rebuild their lives, even as they mourned the loss of loved ones and coped with post-traumatic stress symptoms that were not always diagnosed as such. MCC joined its partners in seeking to respond to these multi-faceted needs.
What did MCC and its partners, including Central American Mennonite churches, learn from the Hurricane Mitch response? Honduran Mennonite pastor Oscar Dueñas’ recollections point to some key lessons:
I was in my last year as a pastor in the Central Mennonite Church in San Pedro Sula, when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras. We immediately began to get involved in relief work, contacting and providing help to communities with Mennonite churches and to nearby communities to identify emergency needs and make plans for responding to them…
I was hired by CASM (Mennonite Social Action Commission) as the person in charge of organizing the distribution of the material aid CASM had received from MCC and of relief items that CASM had purchased using funds from MCC and other sources. We managed, planned and coordinated the distribution of humanitarian aid— first in response to immediate needs, and then as part of food-for-work projects in which recipients assisted with individual home reconstruction and with communal cleaning and rehabilitation initiatives. We learned from this response how important solidarity, planning and coordination with local communities are.
Throughout the response, we also felt the support of external organizations like MCC, support to respond to people’s priority needs. While we appreciated the donation of material aid and of money for local purchase of humanitarian aid, we even more welcomed work-and- learn teams not only from the U.S. and Canada but also from Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia: these work-and-learn teams that accompanied us in the reconstruction process showed us that we were not alone.
MCC began with an emergency relief response in southern Russia in the early 1920s that worked with Mennonites there in meeting the basic needs not only of Mennonites, but also of others facing famine. Seventy-eight years later, MCC joined Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches and other partners in Central America in assisting victims of Hurricane Mitch, both members of Anabaptist churches and beyond—MCC’s partners included the Honduran Mennonite Church and its Proyecto MAMA project (today ACEM), CASM, Amor Viviente Choluteca, CADE, PRODEM, ADP and the Brethren in Christ church. MCC ended up sending over 50,000 relief buckets for distribution through these partners. Meanwhile, MCC organized more than 75 work-and-learn teams from Canada and the United States who went to Honduras and Nicaragua to accompany communities in the reconstruction effort.
As its work wound down, MCC commissioned an evaluation of its Hurricane Mitch response and highlighted multiple lessons.
First, MCC learned that Hurricane Mitch was not simply a “natural” disaster but was in fact a social and economic disaster. “The impact on people of this natural disaster depends much on the social and economic condition in which they lived,” the evaluation report observed, explaining that the conjunction of natural hazards and social and economic vulnerability compounded risks communities faced. MCC learned the importance of working with churches and community-based organizations in developing disaster preparedness plans.
Second, we learned that while MCC itself is not equipped to be a first-responder organization, churches and other local organizations can be well-positioned to provide immediate assistance, given their knowledge of local community contexts. Commitment to working through partnership, meanwhile, underscored the importance of supporting these local partners in developing disaster preparedness plans.
Finally, the Hurricane Mitch response highlighted a new role for churches in emergency response. “Now more than ever, the Church in general and specifically Christian base organizations are seen as actors of social change,” the evaluation report observed. Since Hurricane Mitch, Anabaptist churches in Central America have greater commitment to developing proactive responses to emergencies and creating local emergency committees that prepare for such disasters.
César Eduardo Flores Ventura is MCC Area Director for Central America and Haiti.
Barrios, Roberto E. Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Ensor, Marisa O. The Legacy of Hurricane Mitch:Lessons from Post-Disaster Reconstruction in Honduras. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2009.