Latin America Correspondent
MEXICO CITY—Flooding has brought massive destruction, death, and millions of dollars in damage have come to Chiapas—yet prompted waves of solidarity and even surprising joint efforts to cope with the crisis.
The unprecedented disaster began in early September, when heavy rains overloaded eight rivers that run across most of the coastal state of Chiapas, located in Southern Mexico near the border with Guatemala.
When the floods precipitated avalanches which buried Chiapas's rural towns, help was slow in coming due to the isolation of the poverty-stricken Mexican state. By mid-September, the toll of the catastrophe included more than 200 known dead, almost 500 reported missing, and 30,000 homeless. A Reuters report estimated that as many as 5,000 were missing in one of the region's larger towns. With the destruction of crops came food shortages, along with flood-related diseases affecting almost 1 million people — more than half the state's population.
A statement issued by the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS) described the disaster as “the worst natural phenomenon in Chiapas' history.”
The scene could hardly have been worse in the wake of the flooding. According to the IMSS, special squads will have to work for several weeks to recover hundreds of bodies carried away by the rivers. The destruction of highways and local roads has limited the amount of aid arriving to the area from central Mexico. Countless acres of crops have been destroyed and cattle and dead bodies are being carried off by the muddy rivers.
“The stink of death is all over. Vultures are looking inside abandoned homes and they have become the only inhabitants of our towns,” said Leo Candelaria, an eyewitness who was interviewed by a local newspaper as he was trying to cross the Urbina river.
Early attempts to airlift in help from outside were mostly ineffective since flights could be scheduled only during a few hours of clear sky. “It was like fighting a forest fire with a syringe,” said Luis Pazos, a well-known Mexican political commentator.
But in the midst of the rains, a surprising silver lining became apparent: a wave of solidarity seemed to sweep across Chiapas and the whole of Mexico. “Paradoxically,” Pazos stated, “this flood has done far more to unite opposed sectors (in the region) than any previous initiative.”
The first organization to react to the crisis was the Catholic Church, the only organization in the region with an infrastructure capable of withstanding the collapse of almost all means of communication. “I have to say that I am absolutely proud of my priests and catechists,” said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of Tapachula in Chiapas, whose coastal diocese has been the hardest hit.
Both Bishop Arizmendi and Bishop Felipe Aguirre Franco of Tuxtla Gutierrez, another of the three dioceses of Chiapas, have asked their priests and catechists to quickly assess the situation and to provide key information about the most urgent needs of the people. A few days into the floods, the Catholic relief service Caritas established an information network, which now serves as the backbone for assistance efforts to the region.
Bishops Arizmendi and Aguirre Franco have asked parishes and Catholic schools in unaffected areas to provide shelter and “as much help as possible” to refugees, many of whom have contracted malaria and cholera.
Both bishops also asked all Catholic leaders to help foster hope and organize locals in prayers. “The whole territory of this diocese has been directly affected by both the floods and the rains,” said Bishop Arzimendi. “Besides the stunning loss of human life, people are living in anguish, [waiting for news] of relatives carried away by the waters.
“They have lost hope of finding them alive, but at least they want the consolation” of having their bodies returned.
During the first week of flooding, the main problem became the lack of food. With crops and cattle wiped out and bridges broken. It was impossible to provide enough food by air, and it wasn't long before signs of hunger began to appear in the affected regions. The initial solution to the problem came when Caritas coordinated delivery of food from the south with Guatemalan government and Church authorities. During the second week, food came more steadily from the north, thanks to the airlift created by President Ernesto Zedillo, who by press time had visited the disaster area four times.
“We are extremely thankful to the president, the governor, and the army, and we are encouraged by the great signs of fraternity expressed within the local community, across political, social, religious, and economic boundaries,” said Bishop Arizmendi. In fact, members of workers' and peasants' unions, opposing political parties, the army, and different ethnic communities were seen working together for the first time in years, bringing relief to the worst areas.
According to Pazos, “the flood stirred the political waters in Chiapas, reshuffling the players and coming up with new profiles.” Pazos, whose syndicated column appears in local newspapers, believes that the first social consequence of the floods is “the evidence that, in down-to-earth matters, different sectors can not only reach an agreement, but even work together for the development of Chiapas.”
One prominent exception to the joint effort to cope with the crisis has been the region's Zapatista rebel group. In fact, unlike Zedillo and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who distributed and accepted help across the political spectrum, the Zapatistas tried unsuccessfully to dissuade communities from accepting government help, claiming such help was “politically motivated.”
This stance on the part of the Zapatistas drew fire from Bishop Arizmendi, who in a public statement said that “the comments of [Zapatista chief] Marcos' against the government have been quite disappointing. … The pain of our people must bring us together, beyond ideological limitations, therefore Marcos should not simply condemn everything the authorities do, especially when they have been acting properly and adequately.” The bishop insisted that “there is a time for criticizing, and a time for uniting in the face of a great, common challenge.”
Meanwhile, the campaign to aid flood victims has turned into an unprecedented national phenomenon. The amount of aid provided by individual donors recently reached 250 tons per day, while in major cities, the number of volunteers helping to organize, pack, and distribute the aid has surpassed all expectations.
“More than 200 of us have been working here all day,” said Ana Teresa Vegas, a teen-ager involved in collecting and packing donations at the Catholic Parish of San Felipe Apostol in Mexico City. “I have never seen such enthusiasm and commitment before,” she said, adding that “all weekend, young people have come here, worked almost all day, hardly stopped for a bite, slept a few hours and then come back again. “
In announcing a $50,000 donation sent by Pope John Paul II to the victims of the floods, Archbishop Justo Mullor Garcia, apostolic nuncio in Mexico, said: “In the midst of this catastrophe, fraternity and solidarity have sprouted like a beautiful, unexpected fruit, like a fresh and inspiring sign of hope.” Bishop Arizmendi added, “This is incredibly inspiring and encouraging, especially in the face of the difficult task ahead.” The bishop noted that weather forecasts predict more rain — and more destruction — in the area in the coming weeks.
“Now we are turning to the international community to request more help, to cope with the ongoing floods, and also to rebuild in their aftermath,” the bishop said.
“Above all, we are convinced that prayer is the most powerful tool we have, so please pray that we may have better weather and the conversion of hearts.”
Donations may be sent to Master Account No. 329604, Banamex Bank, branch 130, Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico.
Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.