Hi from San Pedro!
As you all know by now, on Monday night, Oct. 8th, Southern Belize was hit by a category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds. Luckily, we were spared up North but here is our report on some who weren't so fortunate. The storm made landfall in the Placencia/Monkey river area and continued on a South Westerly path far into the jungle regions of the Toledo district.
The following day, most of the attention was focused on the Placencia area, which was severely damaged, and primary supplies were sent down by boat and plane. The Toledo district, home of the Ketchi Maya Indian, was in the dark as there were no communications and just vague reports coming over the radio that all their thatch houses had been flattened and the road from the North was flooded out. Rebecca and I have Indian friends who live in the Big Falls village area so we decided that if we were going to help, that we would concentrate our efforts on a people who, by nature, would not be out there elbowing their way to the front of a soup line.
We made a quick recon trip by airplane on Wednesday to Big Falls and brought with us about 400 lbs. of food and a handful of cash for some of our friends. What we found was a very desperate and depressing situation and to top it all off, it was raining. It was apparent that the basic flour, beans and rice supplies were very limited as most of the Indians' home food stores had been ruined by the rain. My good friend, Bartolo Teul, who is kind of one of the head poopahs of the area, was involved with setting up shelters and a community kitchen for the families who had lost their thatch huts. We did not spend much time there as we had seen what we needed to see and knew that the priority was to get back and arrange for more food delivery. Luckily, there were few to no injuries from the storm. When we were there, my old friend Mariano Ack had come to Big Falls to look for food. He returned home with a 1 pound bag of rice for his family unit of 2 men, 5 teenage boys and 30 women and kids.The road to Belize City was still flooded out at one bridge and there was no more gasoline at any gas stations in Punta Gorda. There was also no flower in Punta Gorda. We assumed that the river would go down in a day and that vehicles would be able to pass south within 24 hours. We also knew, from our experiences from Hurricane Keith, that it takes about 4-5 days before organized help can arrive to more remote areas.
From our aerial recon and calculations, it appears that at least 250,000 acres of jungle is destroyed. The winds broke off the top canopy of the jungle and nearly all of the Cohune trees will die from the wind damage. The Cohune provides the roofing material for the Maya Indian thatch home and the majority of these homes have been damaged beyond repair. They will not be able to re-roof their homes with Cohune thatch or use much of the old thatch as it breaks easily when re-handled.The corn and rice crops were completely destroyed so any source of home grown food and income for the Indians are gone for the short to medium term. Also, the Monkey, Swasey, Bladen, Deep, Golden Stream and Rio Grande rivers are polluted with toxic organic debris and tannins which started killing off the river fishes on Friday. The fish and turtles provide a large part of the Maya Indians' protein in their diets.
Upon our return, we tried our best to figure out a plan and talk to some of our friends in San Pedro but things were rushed as there was no certainty of food delivery over the next few days. Under the circumstances, I got on the phone, rented a van and made plans to head for Big Falls that afternoon. Amanda and Cal Syme and Joe and Val Miller put together a sizeable amount of clothing and bedding for donations. There were more people who wanted to help and who still will contribute but there wasn't time to explain and pass the hat, so we fronted all of the funds for the two initial emergency runs. Our idea was to concentrate on Mariano Ack's family and help them build a new life again. I have known Mariano for over 10 years and he is as quality a person as one could find. The Ketchi Maya are not selfish people who share and help each other. We thought it would be wiser to help one central family get on their feet than give a mouthful of food to 1000 people. This one central family would then be able to help out others in their vicinity.
I was able to get into Belize City Thursday afternoon to provision. Two Belize City taxi driver friends of mine, Tom and Glen volunteered to go along with me and help out. We were able to get a little over 3000 lbs of supplies into the van and we headed south. The supplies consisted of rice, flour, beans, salt, eggs, baking powder, lard, canned meat, powdered milk, coffee, brown sugar, candles, matches, tarps and a bunch of other stuff.
We arrived in Big Falls village Friday morning and we drove to Mariano's settlement along with Bartolo, who is Mariano's brother. Mariano was, as expected, still in shock over the storm. The jungle and the river is the Indians' life and it is hardly usable anymore - at least not for many years. The kids were typical happy Maya kids, too young to understand the impact of the storm. We left the group with enough basic food to survive for a month and gave the rest of the food to Bartolo, who would distribute it accordingly in the village.
Bartolo heads the Golden Stream River reserve and was head of the Ketchi Alcalde (mayor) association. Bartolo is well educated and more than versed in the unique concerns of the Maya people. We had time to briefly discuss some items, such as the fact that the Jungle will now be a huge fire hazard during this coming dry season and will prohibit any slash and burn subsistence farming.
Upon our arrival, we assured Mariano that he would now not have to worry about food for his family and we would do our best to help him make a long term 1-2-3 plan, which would be dependent on the funding which we will collect.
1= ensure that his family has sufficient food and some conservative emergency funds for medical.
2=re-build adequate shelters - homes indian style
3=help them get established in a new 'profession' other than subsistence farming. This will obviously take some time and thought to come up with the right plan - agriculture based. The plan will not be to change their lives and customs but to provide them with a self sufficient means of generating cash. These people are tough and resourceful and survived before the storm. They just cant do what they used to do because of the environmental damage from the hurricane.
Please go to this site http://ambergriscaye.com/bigfalls/
to see some photos of what we are talking about. You can double click them to enlarge -
Now that the immediate food needs have been addressed, I would like to propose a long range plan where we get together as a group and adopt this Mayan family unit of 37 members. This will also bring support to Mariano's neighboring families. The people who donate to this project will be able to follow the progress over time and get the personal satisfaction of seeing the results of their contributions. Bartolo has an office in Punta Gorda and will be able to co-ordinate much of the assistance and be our main advisor. I do not expect the Belize Government to provide much assistance as they are always broke but I do expect some international groups to come in and hopefully we will be able to get some additional help from them.
At this time, I have no idea how much to budget so if we go under budget then we will have no problem finding someone else to help. All funds will be funneled right to the source - which is always a concern when people donate funds.
At this time I have spent a little over $us 4000 out of pocket on food supplies, cash donations and transport.
Rebecca and I are willing to pledge $ 2500 and spearhead the project.
Many people have indicated that they will help the family but don't have the details until this email goes out.
We would like to use our Sunrise Realty escrow account in the US for your donations via wire transfer. Once you have all replied, I will get a simple web page organized where I will post the funds donated and by whom and then get the ball rolling. I will have some form of progress update site with photos and accounting and an email list to advise you all.
Obviously, we are open to suggestion and I would like to see the donations come in asap so we can have some numbers to work with. Everyone on this mailing list has special ties in one way or another to Belize so this is your time and opportunity to do something good and become part of a family here.
Please email me with your intended donations and I will supply the Bank info.
Chris and Rebecca