SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS — Watching the waters lap at the top of the stairs leading to the second story of their convent home in the La Planeta neighborhood of La Lima, Honduras, Srs. Victoria Emérita and Milena Vanegas of the Sisters of Charity of Santa Ana knew they were running out of time and options.
The protective levees surrounding the town had been breached earlier that day, Nov. 5, and a wave of water swept through town in an instant, brought to La Lima by Hurricane Eta, which made landfall the day before. Even after the initial surge from the broken levees, flooding worsened as heavy rains pelted their submerged neighborhood.
Now, with water rising as high as 12 feet, the sisters prepared to evacuate into their attic on a ladder set up next to the access door. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary: A rescue boat arrived around 6:30 that evening, and the sisters were able to pry apart two security bars on the second-floor balcony, slip through the narrow gap, and slide down the patio roof into a waiting boat.
“We could see everything had already been lost,” Emérita said, surveying the mud from the balcony of their home in La Planeta in late January. “We were worried for ourselves, yes, but when the boat came, we knew our prayers had been answered.”
The boat transported the sisters to the higher ground of the highway running through town. Because of the damage to their home, the sisters first relocated to a private home and now live in a retreat center dormitory in nearby San Pedro Sula.
However, Eta was only the first of two major storms: Hurricane Iota followed two weeks later, Nov. 18, as a Category 4 storm, soaking this low-lying town in northeastern Honduras next to the Chamelecón River and resulting in further damage to the Our Lady of the Holy Fountain Nursery School that the Sisters of Charity of Santa Ana run and to the adjacent church.
The storms affected an estimated 4.7 million people and resulted in more than 100 deaths. At least $5 billion in property damages was sustained during the storms and subsequent flooding, one-fifth of Honduras’ gross domestic product. The total economic impact from the storms is estimated at $1.86 billion, including losses of 80% of the annual sugar cane, cacao and banana harvest.
Hondurans fortunate enough to return to their homes or construct makeshift shelters still face the ever-present threat of COVID-19, made worse by limited supplies of personal protective equipment. Large groups congregate at shelters and distribution centers when much-needed food and fresh water arrive. Few wear masks.
When Eta struck Honduras, there had been more than 98,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 2,700 deaths. As of March 1, confirmed total cases had risen to more than 170,000, with more than 4,100 deaths.
The sisters have tried to set a good example throughout the pandemic and hurricane recovery by wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same, observing distancing protocols, and advocating for testing and isolation from infected people. But for the poor residents of La Planeta struggling to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, these safety measures are often secondary to daily survival.
Providing help amid their own recovery
Months after the hurricanes, La Lima and the church property are marked by devastation. Although floodwaters receded by mid-December, the streets are still a muddy maze of makeshift paths and mud piles cleared from inundated homes. The mucking continues, shovelful by wheelbarrow. Some heavy machinery is present, with excavators and dump trucks clearing debris already removed from buildings where the deluge deposited 3 to 4 feet of mud.
At Our Lady of the Holy Fountain Nursery School, the flooding waterline is visible at nearly ceiling level, stopping at the neck of Jesus in a painting hanging over a doorway. Although the mud has been removed, the school’s rooms are piled full of salvaged equipment, such as cribs and toys. Most everything else at the school, church and convent is a total loss. The school’s kitchen and bathrooms will need to be redone, walls scrubbed and repainted, electric equipment and wiring repaired or replaced, and plumbing recertified for potable water.
The sisters continue to clean and prepare for an engineer’s evaluation on the soundness of the structures, which have several cracked walls, destroyed doors and buckled sections of flooring. They don’t yet know when their 35 students can return to the nursery school.
“At the moment, we don’t know the costs,” Emérita said. “The financing of the repairs is going to be quite difficult, and we will look for help since the nursery school by itself is not self-sustaining due to the type of population we serve.
“We are looking at the situation and asking God for his wisdom.”
Even as progress continues to restore the school, church and convent to their pre-hurricane states, the sisters are engaged in hurricane relief efforts for people affected in the area. Although displaced themselves, Emérita and Vanegas are coordinating efforts with local parishes to sort and distribute donated clothing, food and home furnishings to people who lost their homes and belongings in the storms.
Working out of two rooms piled floor-to-ceiling with donated goods at the Mhotivo Foundation in San Padro Sula, volunteers from nearby St. Peter and Paul Parish organize the items, preparing bags for Fr. Fredy Valdiviezo to pick up and distribute to local shelters housing hurricane victims. It’s a herculean effort, with thousands of items still coming through the doors each day: mattresses, bedding, cleaning supplies, food, propane tanks and more.
But the sisters know these physical provisions are only the beginning of the needs that have to be addressed in La Planeta.