Following the weeklong onslaught of Hurricane Mitch Oct. 26-31, members of the Church in Central American countries, primarily in Honduras, began the long process of rebuilding their homes and lives amid endless destruction.
Officials estimate that the death toll from the storm may be as high as 10,000, and that reconstructing public utilities will take as long as 10 years. However, the United States and many other countries are helping with temporary bridges and other assistance.Some Church leaders estimate that up to 13,500 members suffered from the effects of one of the century's worst storms, and one member died. Most of the people gain their livelihoods from agriculture, but most of the plantations and crops have been destroyed, creating a serious challenge of joblessness.
Another serious challenge is the lack of water, with 75 percent of the water system in parts of Honduras destroyed. People have been asked to boil their water to prevent contaminated water diseases, primarily cholera, from infecting the population.
The Church has sent one shipment of 280,000 pounds of food and clothing and bedding by sea, and another 80,000-pound shipment by air, and will send a third 200,000-pound shipment with the help of the United States Air Force. The assistance has gone to members and non-members with about 20 percent of the air shipments donated for use by governmental relief agencies.
Elder William R. Bradford of the Seventy, president of the Central America Area, said all missionaries are well and accounted for, and their leaders are in daily communication with each pair to maintain health.
An LDS physician, Dr. Mac Kartchner, is visiting missionaries to ensure that each is taught sanitation and hygiene, and each is given a list of dos and don'ts. Missionaries also have antibiotics and rehydration kits to use if needed.
"They are out helping people clean up a good many hours of the day," Elder Bradford said. He said it would require another two to three weeks before the missionaries could begin to resume their daily routines.
Members who lost their homes are no longer living in Church meetinghouses, but are involved in the massive, long-term clean-up process.
"Every one is pitching in, young and old alike, in long hours with sparse food and clothing."
He said that the clean-up is made more difficult by the lack of clean water. Where whole communities were underwater, the people are shoveling mud from houses and throwing away many personal belongings ruined after being submerged for several days.
The meetinghouses that were flooded are being cleaned "as best as the members can under the circumstances."
The Church's food shipments have been quickly put to use, said Elder Bradford. When the Church's air shipment to Nicaragua arrived, the food was taken to two meetinghouses where members and non-members flocked to assist. The food was packaged with each container holding enough to supply a family of five for a week. In the package were rice, beans, cooking oil, salt, soap and powdered milk.
"People set up packaging lines and there were so many people who came to help that we had to set up teams to take turns. In the course of an hour or two, 80,000 pounds of food were in family packs. It was an inspirational event with the people singing hymns as they worked.
"The magic of this is that we followed the system of the Church. Quorums were organized and they rallied their men and boys; the Relief Societies rallied the sisters. They have known what to do. They accounted for all the members so none was lost in the shuffle. Our system works."
He said bishops are distributing the food to the needy through bishop's orders. These orders are also being given to non-members who have no other resources. Hundreds of families of non-members have been helped."
Food is being airlifted by the Church to members in isolated areas, said Elder Bradford. "It has been a difficult job, but necessary to care for isolated members."
He said that members face long periods of joblessness. Local growers have laid off thousands of people and are yet to decide if they should rebuild.
Overall, "the members are trying not to be discouraged. They have tremendous faith and the fact that the Church has been there to help has buoyed up that faith. Many non-members who have seen the Church in action are wondering who these people are who are so well-governed."