By Christie Pashby
When Hurricane Mitch came crashing towards the Atlantic Coast of Central America at the end of October, Shannon Smith imagined the worst.
A Whistler resident and mother of two, Smith has lived and worked for many years as a sea-kayaking guide in Belize. Her husband and many close friends still live there. News reports winds of over 150 km/h and up to five feet of rainfall in four days didn’t quell her anxieties.
Smith says that although she hasn't been able to contact her friends and family directly, she's received word that they survived the Hurricane without serious damage or loss of lives.
But the people in nearby Honduras and Nicaragua weren't as lucky. Mitch struck these countries with such ferocity that the exact toll on life may never be determined. Ten thousand people are missing, more than 7,000 are dead, and survivors will need food supplies for at least another four to six months.
"Most of the people hit by Mitch were peasants," Smith says. "Before the storm they maybe had a shack and wood for a fire, they washed their clothes in a creek and maybe they had a few acres of corn. Now, they have no food, no shelter, no clean water and they're digging bodies out of the mud."
With over a million peoples' lives destroyed by Hurricane Mitch, it may be hard for many Canadians to grasp the scale of this disaster. Smith says often people will turn their heads and go on as usual, "worrying about our new skis." They may forget that you can drive from Whistler to Central America in less than 10 days.
"In Whistler, I see a lot of people wanting to better ourselves and our community," she says. "I'm asking them if they could open their eyes to beyond the valley and look at the broader picture."
Smith wants to help in any way she can and she's looking for other people in Whistler who can lend their time, advice and support. Her goal is to organize a local benefit concert, to be held in January. Vancouver musician Alpha Ya Ya Diallo has expressed an interest in performing. Smith hopes a hotel will offer a ballroom. Restaurants could provide food and beverages. Now she needs help from locals to pull the event off and to generate other ideas on how Whistler can help.
The funds raised locally would support the efforts of organizations like the Red Cross and OXFAM. Survivors in Central America right now need clean water, medicine, shelter, and clothing. They need to fight the threat of epidemics like cholera and malaria, replant their crops and reconstruct their homes.
Then they'll start rebuilding their national economies from ground zero.
"Our efforts would be a long-term thing," says Smith. "It could be years before things get back to normal in Central America."
Meanwhile, Doug Harwood from Alpine Mechanical Service did his part this week to help the people of Honduras. Harwood heard about the Red Cross' "Buckets of Love for Honduras" program on Mountain FM and decided to get involved by "piggy-backing on a nation-wide idea."
"It just struck me that this country has been wiped off the map, and that they can't rely on other parts of their country to help them out," he says. "They are totally reliant on the generosity of other countries."
Harwood says it was television pictures of children stranded by the storm that really touched him. "They looked to be the same age as my kids and they had nothing around them but destruction," he says.
He contacted a church in Surrey that has chartered a plane for Nov. 27 and faxed every business in the valley with a list of what they could contribute.
The five gallon buckets are to be filled with items requested by the Red Cross in Honduras like candles, aspirin, towels, toothbrushes, salt, dried beans and water purification tablets. Harwood says these are all items local businesses have plenty of. The buckets will be delivered to a relief agency in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and then flown out to survivors in rural areas. One bucket alone can provide clothing, temporary nourishment and shelter.
Harwood initially hoped to be able to fill 40 buckets. But none of the local businesses he contacted came through. At an estimated total cost between $45 and $75 a bucket, Harwood says local individuals, not businesses, have been the ones to fill the buckets up.
"Whatever I can't get others to help me fill I'll do myself," he says. So far Harwood has filled five buckets out of his own pocket. "But a week ago I had zero buckets and now I have at least 25. That's a real contribution."
Harwood sent the buckets down to Surrey on Thursday. He says there's a chance that another plane will head out before Christmas, in which case he'll once again call on Whistlerites to pitch in.
Any one who wants to get involved in Hurricane Mitch relief efforts locally can contact Shannon Smith at 932-5176 (after 7 p.m.). For information on Hurricane Mitch on-line, check out bc.cbc.camitch