2nd Update on Hurricane Georges

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Posted by President Stone on October 02, 1998 at 06:43:08:

I have now finished visiting the most affected areas in our mission and can give you a final report on the effects of the hurricane and the measures we have taken to assist those who have been most seriously affected.  In the last two days I have been in San Juan, Tamayo, Vicente Noble, Padre las Casas and Ocoa. 
First of all, the death toll does not appear to have been as great as we first feared.  The only confirmed death at this time is one of the sons of President Luis of the Mesopotamia Branch--his other invalid son was hospitalized but is expected to recover.  All the active members appear to have been accounted for, although it is possible that some member who had been inactive for a long time could be among the missing.   The story of the funeral of President Luis's son is one that breaks my heart.  Due to the necessity of having to bury people within 24 hours in a tropical climate and the many other demands during the aftermath of the storm, only the family and our four sister missionaries were able to be there.  The sisters cried as they told me about singing a hymn at the funeral service for that young boy, and it reminded me of the heart-wrenching stories of pioneers having to bury their children in haste, by the trail, as they needed to push on to escape advancing winter.  
We had a very moving meeting in which the elders and sisters in San Juan recounted their experiences during the flood.  The trauma of seeing the flood and the terrible destruction wrought was made even more harrowing the next morning at 4 am when the populace was awakened by yells and shouts that the Sabaneta dam had broken and the whole town was going to be engulfed by the waters.  People were running and driving to try to get to higher ground.  It turned out that the rumor was completely false, but to those who were weary and exhausted from the drama and terror of the night before it brought fear and tension and more emotional suffering.
To sit in the meeting and have those elders and sisters recount their experiences was as if to view a jewel in the light, revealing another facet as it turned.  One talked about fear and courage, another about the brotherhood of the mission, about love for the people, about unity, faith, prayer, charity, empathy, sorrow, perseverance and the ever present influence of the Lord.  Each had his own memories, each had been affected in his or her deeply personal way.  With a good night's rest the night before, the missionaries had been able to recover somewhat from the trauma of the previous few days.
We have about 40 people who are currently staying in the San Juan 1 chapel, but I was impressed with how the priesthood leaders (under the direction which President Reyes had given them) had organized the daily routine of the members there.  Meals were being prepared communally in the chapel under the direction of the District Relief Society President (Angela Cuevas Mendez--her conversion story is a story for another time), and a doctor who visited remarked on how clean and bright and orderly it was.  All water was being treated in the cistern, so that the water for washing and bathing was free from contamination.  They also had bottled water to drink and plenty of food was on hand.  Some of the people had returned to their homes, after the mud and debris had been cleared.
Throughout the mission, the number of families whose homes had been completely destroyed was less than had been feared (approximately 60).  However, in many cases, although the home was still standing, everything in it had been destroyed by the mud and water which came into the home.  Our 4 elders in Mesopotamia and the 2 elders in Tamayo have only the clothes which they wore and the things they carried with them in their backpacks.  We have made arrangements for them to purchase replacement items, but in some cases they lost irreplaceable things (such as pictures and letters).  Others have had water damage to a number of their belongings.   In the case of members, there are a significant number who have lost stoves and refrigerators and furniture and books, etc.  In some cases they were carried off by the water, and in others they were just ruined.  Outside the Mesopotamia chapel I saw dozens of sodden hymnbooks scattered around, plus other church books and manuals.
The Mesopotamia area was slowly recovering.  The river was back in its course, although the bridge to Las Matas was totally destroyed, and people were crossing the river on horses and mules.  The destruction in  Mesopotamia itself was less than had been expected during the time it was flooded.  Many  of the cinderblock houses were still standing, and even some of the wooden shacks behind the chapel had survived (possibly due to the shielding effect of the chapel).  However, it was heartbreaking to see people picking through the mud and debris, trying to find some of their all too few physical possessions.  We have asked the zone leaders to evaluate whether the house in Mesopotamia could be made habitable for a short period of time.  There is so much work to be done there, and there are too many missionaries staying in the San Juan 1 house, which is far away from the Mesopotamia chapel.
It may be good for those reading the report to know that the missionaries in San Juan all have mosquito nets and plentiful supplies of insecticide and repellent (I took these with me when I went there).  The missionaries have also been instructed (over and over again) of the absolute necessity of using chlorine to purify ALL water, to be scrupulous about personal hygiene, as well as drinking only bottled water.  They have been warned that diseases after the flood many times kill more people than the flood.
An interesting note.  We have transfers coming up this next week and I asked the zone leaders from all zones to request volunteers from the other zones to transfer to San Juan.  I told them that for the next one or two months in San Juan there would probably be very little proselyting but a lot of hard, arduous work.  There would be some personal danger involved because of the possibility of water-borne or mosquito-borne diseases, and that I would select transfers from among the volunteers.   Unfortunately my job has not been made any easier, because almost to a man (or woman), everyone volunteered!
The Church has already sent trucks of food and supplies out to the affected areas.  I know that trucks have gone to the East Mission, and a truck loaded with 300 boxes of food (rice, beans, oil, pasta, tomato sauce, canned goods, etc. plus bundles of clothes) left for San Juan early Wednesday morning.  The boxes had been made up by volunteers in Santo Domingo and packed at Centro de Servicios.  There was also another truck which went to Vicente Noble and Tamayo today.
Tamayo is a mess.  When I was there yesterday, the town was covered by about 1 to 2 feet of wet, oozing (and soon to be stinking) mud.  Although very few people appear to have lost their homes, (the town was not hit forcefully by the floodwaters) the mud appeared to ooze over toward the town and cover the streets and slime its way into the houses.  There were houses which had been somewhat cleaned out, with a pile of slightly drier mud piled up outside.  The house of the missionaries was full of mud, as was the rented chapel.  Most of the members have suffered the loss of their belongings, even if their houses are still standing.  They will require much assistance over the next few months because many of them are poor farmers, farming plots of land which are now buried in mud.  I talked to the Branch President from the adjoining town, Vicente Noble, (where the damage from the mud is nowhere as extensive) and asked him about his little agricultural plot of land.  He said it is buried in mud, there are no roads, no paths, no landmarks, nothing to tell where his plot ends and the next one begins.
Padre las Casas appears to be all right.  Two bridges were washed out and it was necessary to drive across the river (I was happy that I had rented a SUV, because the water was about 2 feet deep in places).  The missionaries' house was undamaged, and although water had gone into the chapel, the members had cleaned it up the day after the storm.  There was a little mud in the parking lot.
Ocoa was also fine.  The reports were that a few members had had their ramshackle houses blown down, but had put them up again.  There does, however, appear to be the same problem with agricultural production, and this may affect the livelihood of many of our members.  As you drive in the country, the acres and acres of plaintain trees which can be seen from the road, are in many cases yellowing and showing signs of being finished.  I fear that there are serious consequences for food production over the next few months.
We have been asked many times by members in the USA as to how they can help financially.  The first (and best option) is to contribute through your regular donation slips and specify Humanitarian Services (I believe the new slips have a line for this).  The Church at this time has not yet set up a separate account for the Dominican Republic, although Salt Lake will be sending carloads of aid in the near future, and the Temporal Affairs Office is already involved in providing food and materials obtained locally.  The response from local members has been heartwarming, with many bringing food and clothing items to the stake centers.   The second option is to donate to the International (or American) Red Cross.  The Red Cross is a very fine organization but in the meeting that I attended last Saturday in Santo Domingo they appeared to be organizationally overwhelmed by the task in front of them, and I am not sure that the aid given to them will be efficiently used.  The third option, and this one is principally offered to returned missionaries if you would like your donations to go specifically to our mission, is that you send those donations to the Santo Domingo West Mission, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84150 (att. Sister Rosalie Stone).  
Now the task of cleanup and reconstruction begins in earnest.  But even in the direst of tragedies, there is something of value to be gained.  Our missionaries in San Juan have seen and felt and experienced some things which I am sure they would have preferred to avoid.  But in the crucible of this experience, in the refiner's fire of this tragedy, the pure gold in their character has been purified.  They will ever remember, and know, that at this time, in this place, they were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.
President David R. Stone   

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