Posted by Nathan McCleery on September 27, 1998 at 17:06:06:
We have been cut off from the internet for the past three days, so here is an update on the effects of Hurricane Georges as of Sunday, Sept 27.
The information I provided about all our missionaries being safe was correct, but the preliminary conclusion about San Juan not being hit hard was totally incorrect. The hurricane itself did not do too much damage to San Juan (just a heavy storm with rain), but the amount of rain dumped in the mountains above by Georges created a catastrophe in San Juan. At about 2 am on Wednesday morning the Sabaneta dam started to overflow and the supervisors were forced to open the sluice gates on the dam, sending a wall of water and debris down the rivers. The Mesopotamia area of San Juan was absolutely destroyed, and hundreds are dead or missing.
Earlier that day, the four elders who lived in Mesopotamia had discussed the approaching storm with neighbors who had indicated that Mesopotamia had flooded during Hurricane David some 15 or 20 years ago. As a result, they decided to move to the San Juan 1 house, where the zone leaders live, and therefore they were not in their house that night. Their house was destroyed. Sometime after 2 am the district leader and another elder were watching the storm and they received a strong impression that they ought to go down to the Mesopotamia chapel and bring out the people who had taken refuge from the storm there. One of the zone leaders had awakened, so the three of them drove the pickup down to the chapel. When they drove over the bridge the water was rising fast but the bridge was still dry. In the midst of the storm, rain and wind, screaming people and chaos of the night they loaded virtually everyone into the pickup (some thirty people, members and non-members alike) and, ten or fifteen minutes later, started back for higher ground. The pickup was so full Elder Baker and Elder Peterson ran behind it while Elder de la Cruz drove, and as they went back across the bridge, the elders were running through 2 to 3 feet of raging water. Their sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit, and their act of personal heroism had saved the lives of thirty or more people.
We do not yet have an accurate account of the members of the Church who died in the flooding, but there are some confirmed deaths and we believe the final toll will be 10 or 12. Among the members, sixty families have had their homes destroyed and the destruction and desolation in San Juan is incalculable. Of the sixty families, more than half found homes with relatives and friends. However, the rest were housed in public shelters which are in deplorable condition. The lack of sanitary facilities and the overcrowding have created a ripe situation for epidemic disease, so we made the decision to move almost seventy members into the San Juan 1 chapel, where we can at least assure cleanliness and hygiene and good food and water.
These decisions were made easier because President Reyes (my first counselor), two missionaries (the trainers) and two others completed a 6 hour odyssey into San Juan (normally 2 1/2 hours), by fording the five or six rivers on mules or donkeys, then catching "motoconchos" (motorcycles used as taxis) over to the next river.
They arrived on Friday and returned to the capital on Saturday. One of the reasons they went was to provide money to the missionaries, who had run out of funds. Food was available in San Juan, provided you had money. Subsequently we were able to establish communication with the banks and can provide funds as needed. The missionaries had sufficient food and water for themselves, but many of the members did not.
They were also able to buy up plentiful supplies of Clorox, useful for cleaning and purifying water.
San Juan is effectively cut off from the rest of the country, but the authorities are hopeful of reestablishing the road for light traffic early this week. At first, all communications were cut off, which is why we had no knowledge as to the well being of the missionaries. Eventually, on Thursday evening the elders were able to call the North Mission in Santiago, (not to Santo Domingo), but the North was able to patch us together and we had definitive word as to the safety of the missionaries. By Friday evening all telephone communications had been restored. By the way, the Mesopotamia chapel is still standing, although filled with mud and debris.
President Reyes returned from San Juan full of praise for the exceptional work which had been done by our missionaries under the most harrying of circumstances. The sterling work of the zone leaders in organizing relief efforts, locating our members, helping clean out the mud and muck from houses, comforting the bereaved, tending to the injured and hurt, through the long days and nights was remarkable. When the disaster occurred and San Juan was isolated, the government took over all the gasoline supplies in the town for the use of the civil and military authorities. It is a measure of the recognition our missionaries have received that the Governor personally approved the sale of gasoline to our missionaries for their truck. President Reyes was asked by the Governor to serve on the committee overseeing all rescue and reconstruction work, but had to decline to return to Santo Domingo.
As far as the rest of the mission is concerned, the amount of damage varies considerably. Los Alcarrizos has 17 families rendered homeless due to the hurricane, but most of them are already in the process of rebuilding and the government has made tin/zinc corrugated sheets available to people already for the rebuilding process.
In the capital the damage was minor in terms of houses lost, and it appear the local leaders will be well able to cope with the extent of the destruction. Azua and Bani themselves sustained very minor damage. There were 5-10 members who lost their houses in Ocoa. Padre las Casas is still isolated so we have not been able to determine the extent of the damage there. We brought the missionaries out before the hurricane, but the floods have cut the road and we have been unable to get them back in.
The road to Barahona is cut at the bridge in Canoa. The floods that ravaged San Juan rampaged downstream, cutting the bridge between Neyba and Tamayo, between Tamayo and Vicente Noble and on down to Canoa. We had brought the missionaries from those towns into Barahona. I visited Vicente Noble on Friday (accessible from the capital) and found that although a number of members had mud in their houses, none had lost their house. However, since many of them farm small plots of land, their livelihood may has been seriously affected. I was able to buy some rice, beans, oil, pasta, canned fish and soap for the six most stricken families. The bridge at Canoa is missing the center spans, about seventy yards, and will take some time to repair--at a guess a week or more before a makeshift road can be built. However, it was possible to cross by boat, so the missionaries from Vicente Noble and Tamayo went across yesterday and then across the bridge into Tamayo (they crossed by cable--not as perilous as it sounds because the bridge is intact but the water carried away about 30 yards of the on ramp). Tamayo is devastated. We have not been able to determine yet what is the status of the approximately 20 members there. There is apparently a back road through Cabral into Neyba so the elders were going to attempt to return there today. Barahona itself was not seriously affected.
Power has already been restored there.
In concluding this report, I can only state again the superb character and quality of our missionaries, particularly those in San Juan. In desperate circumstances they have acted with courage, dignity, honor, selflessness and compassion. For those who may know them, these are the names of the missionaries currently in the San Juan zone. Elder Warren Smith and Juan de la Cruz (zone leaders--what an exceptional pair!), Elders Baker, Olson, Richards and Dibb from Mesopotamia; Sisters West, Disla, Platt and Valenzuela (mini-misionary) from San Juan 2; Elders Koyle and Nephi Smith from Elias Pina (but in SJ for the storm--now back in EP); Elders Mark Peterson, Brandon Welch, Sosa and Mata from El Cercado (also in SJ but now back in EC), and Elders Simpson, Slade, Schmidt and Sparks from Las Matas (came in afterwards to help out).
We are grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ; for the comfort and strength it gives us in times of distress or tragedy. We are also grateful that the gospel builds men and women of character and selflessness as evidenced most recently by the superb conduct of our missionaries.
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