Post-hurricane: women rebuild in Nicaragua

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By David Tereshchuk*

November 5, 2012—As the Northeast United States recovers from Hurricane Sandy, and massive support to rebuild devastated lives is mobilized from near and far, it’s clear that even developed nations can learn from the experience of their still-developing neighbors, where vulnerability to natural disasters can be even greater.

UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, in its worldwide effort to support disaster-struck communities, often works with populations that suffer appalling losses, yet recover with powerful resilience and go on to be far better prepared against future threats.

In the Central American country of Nicaragua, for instance, hurricanes are an endemic fact of life. Indeed, Nicaragua ranks second among countries most affected by tropical storms, according to the UN’s Global Report on Reducing Disaster Risk.

Nicaraguans have horrific memories of historic Hurricane Mitch, which hit the country in late 1998 at category 5. Back then, fatalities and destruction were inflicted on a scale considered the greatest in many decades.

But Mitch also brought tremendous immediate humanitarian response and—significantly—a major shift in preparedness in Nicaragua for devastating events like it in the future.

UMCOR played its part by providing millions of dollars in relief and development aid through partner Methodist churches and ecumenical organizations between November 1999 and 2001.

The large rural municipality of San Francisco Libre was hit especially hard. More than 700 families (4,000 people) lost their homes, crops, and livestock, including 8,000 cows, pigs, and horses.

The Women and Community Association, a United Methodist Global Ministries partner ecumenical organization, was the leading NGO there at the time and contacted UMCOR immediately. The first assistance to arrive was a boat to bring gas and oil from Managua, across Lake Managua, to San Francisco Libre to power the rescue effort.

The women worked tirelessly with the mayor and the fishermen to coordinate the rescue of more than 1,500 people. They were holding on for dear life up in trees, on rooftops, or in small boats lashed securely to big trees. An entire population was severely traumatized, having in many cases lost everything.

Through the succeeding six months, Women and Community joined with the local mayor’s office in coordinating support for refugees that included food, health care, and the essentials for setting up camps of plastic tents.

Then came a development program that resulted in more than 400 new permanent homes, a water project, an electricity project, latrines, five parks, and several new roads.

Through UMCOR, generous United Methodists and others of goodwill provided $1 million for this life-giving work.

Two Global Ministries missionaries, Miguel Mairena and Nan McCurdy, helped Women and Community with this enormous task. McCurdy gives credit to the women, “who worked 60 hours a week or more for three years, and are honest and good administrators of the projects.”

The funds also went to buying two pieces of land, each about 60 acres, for beginning new communities, and the topography for lots, in two different parts of the municipality.

Mairena designed the anti-seismic homes that were built. These turned out to be the largest homes (about 516 sq. ft.) built by NGOs or governments in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.

All of this resulted in increased preparedness for risks broader than wind or flood, as Nicaragua is an earthquake-risk territory as well. In 2010, Nicaragua experienced record flooding in San Francisco. If it hadn’t been for the post-Mitch reconstruction on higher ground, more than 1,200 families would have been affected; as it turned out, only 351 families were impacted.

An important dimension of this work was how thoroughly informed it was by efforts to empower women. Landon Taylor, UMCOR’s executive for church relations, who took part in a Central American fact-finding tour this September, says, “Empowering women was a recurring theme in the Nicaragua work.”

Women and Community made a decision early on to title the new homes in the name only of women. McCurdy says, “It took a year of meetings with the mayor, the priest, the pastors, and other community leaders to get them all on board, but in the end, I remember the priest saying that the only way to protect the children is for the homes to be only in the woman’s name.” He had obtained extra money for some new homes—which also were titled, at his insistence, in the names of the women.

Today, the people in San Francisco Libre say they are thankful to the United Methodist Church and to Women and Community for the years of support provided to them in building their new life after Hurricane Mitch. Landon Taylor reports, “Now it is so very clear, the impact that has resulted from such powerful stress being laid on local ‘ownership’ for this recovery and on community readiness to handle adverse events in the future.”

Your gift to General Health Programs and Ministries, Advance #3020622, supports programs like the Women and Community Association.