Hurricane Dean: The Mahahual Relief Effort
Posted by Tony & Cheri on August 27, 2007
We’re sorry we haven’t posted in the last day or so, but we’ve been a little busy. After our first trip to Mahahual to take relief supplies, the response from this blog, the playa.info website, and TripAdvisor was overwhelming. The word got out across the internet, and money began to come in. As of this evening, we have raised over $10,000 in private donations from this paypal account alone. That does not count individual donations of volunteers and others that have been immediately spent to buy supplies.
After the first trip down with all the volunteers from Playa, our friend Claudia Hurtado Valenzuela, an EMT volunteer for Cruz Roja and the instigator of this relief project, convinced the local state Red Cross to reevaluate the situation and send her back as an official representative with medical supplies. Part of her duties was to do a detailed evaluation of what specific aid was most needed. The Red Cross also agreed to open up its own paypal account for donations but specifically asked that private donations such as this one continue to operate.
With this in mind, we began to prepare for a return trip to Mahahual two days after the first. With our friend Heather and an empty Big Bastard, we went on a shopping spree. We cleaned out Sam’s Club, purchasing giant bags of rice and beans, a pallet of over 300 bottles of water, 50 dozen eggs, and bulk amounts of toilet paper, baby wipes, sanitary napkins, diapers, milk, cooking oil, soup, pasta, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, Clorox…the list goes on and on. We & some of the other volunteers also bought machetes, hammers, hand axes, shovels, tarps and hundreds of shoes & gloves. The Big Bastard was filled front to back and top to bottom and sunk pretty low on the wheels.
While we were shopping to fill the Big Bastard, other volunteers (Jessica & Alex, Michael, Luis, Willem and others) were also filling trucks. The Hotel La Tortuga also sent a truck and a trailer filled with mattresses. We helped coordinate pickup donations from the Barcelo Maya resort of 100 kilos of clothing that had been left behind by vacationing guests. And, all the time, locals and visitors alike were dropping off food and clothing donations at the Luna Blue Hotel & Garden, which were packed into the trucks.
Some of the donation money was also used to purchase medicine and medical supplies at a huge discount from the Red Cross pharmacy.
From the Luna Blue, we donated about 9 giant bags of towels, sheets, pillows & blankets as well as a few folding beds (one for the volunteer civilian doctor and one for Francisco, the volunteer chef—both of whom had been sleeping on the floor.). We’ll be encouraging other hotels to do the same. Locals also contributed toys, and we bought some soccer balls, to hand out to the children.
Claudia had all the trucks (7 in all) and volunteers meet at Cruz Roja in Playa del Carmen at 8 am Saturday morning. Claudia made sure to tell us all that this was the REAL 8:00, not 8:00 am Mexican time (which could translate into 10 or 11). There was a last minute scramble to buy a couple things we needed and spend more last minute donation money. Then we were all off and running. We drove the Big Bastard and took our friend Heather with us. Not only is Heather a nonstop workaholic volunteer, she is fall down laugh hysterically funny AND she made sandwiches and brought food for the trip—all in all the perfect traveling companion.
It took about four and a half hours to get to Mahahual again. Our route took us down highway 307 (the only main road through the Yucatan). We went from Playa to Tulum, on to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, through the little town of Limones and finally left to Mahahual. The road from 307 to the ocean and Mahahual had finally been cleared of the large tree trunks and branches that had partially blocked it on our first visit.
When we got to Mahahual, not much had changed. There is still no power, no fresh drinking water, no potable water, no phone and no internet. People are using the remains of broken houses to burn for cooking fires and for light in the evening. As we neared Mahahual, we were tremendously cheered to see that CFE—Mexico’s electric company—had already made giant strides in restringing power lines to Mahahual. However, they had not yet, when we were there, been able to make a collection to supply lights or electricity. Of course, once electricity is restored, its use will be limited. People’s houses are gone; there are few electrical outlets or sources for electricity. And of course, the houses in which people had wiring, electricity and lights are now so damaged as to need major repair before they can make use of electricity.
Our plan was to meet with a local Mahahual real estate resident and businessman, Kevin Graham, whose initial SOS to Claudia had started the entire relief effort. We had tried to hook up with Kevin on our first trip down, but the incredible chaos amid the destruction made it impossible for us to find each other. This time he was waiting for the convoy at the lighthouse, which is miraculously the only building still standing undamaged in Mahahual.
Meeting with Kevin provided us a pretty good shock. When we had visited last, we had been stunned by the destruction of central Mahahual. However, this morning Kevin sadly informed us that this was only part of the area that needed help. There were at least three other sections where people lived and desperately needed food, water and supplies. Access to some of them had just been opened by the Army, and others were only accessible by walking in. The volunteers divided into four groups to take supplies to each of these areas. The Big Bastard was assigned the central Mahahual area that we had visited last, primarily since we had brought bulk good specifically for the community kitchen which was operating there.
Kevin is our point person in Mahahual. Despite having lost his own home and office, he has been working tirelessly to help us coordinate the donations so that they reach the most people in the area. Kevin, if you read this blog, THANK YOU!! And, BTW, did anyone ever tell you that you look like Jimmy Buffet? 🙂
We drove through the town, again our hearts breaking at the devastation there. The people of Mahahual were everywhere, piling up debris, digging out sand and trying to find a place to get out of the elements. As we went we handed out drinking water and supplies. Without fail, everyone thanked us profusely and gave us a smile.
In the middle of town is a single story concrete building that had been the schoolhouse. It is now the center for the Army and the community kitchen. When we got there, we were very pleased to see that the Army had not pulled out and had received instructions to stay in Mahahual. It seems our efforts and news had finally reached Mexico City. As we pulled up, soldiers began to come forward to help us carry things into the schoolhouse. Francisco, the volunteer civilian chef who appears to have been working 24/7 nonstop since the kitchen opened, came rushing out. He remembered us and our promise to return, and he was obviously thrilled. For some reason, Cheri got more hugs than Tony did. We explained that some of the goods were in other trucks being distributed throughout other hard hit areas in Mahahual. He completely understood.
After unloading the bulk food for the kitchen, we drove through the central part of down, distributing water, cookies, baby wipes and other supplies. We also wanted to get the news out to every person in town that there was food, clothing, and other items being distributed at the school. We drove as far south as we could before the road was too bad for the Big Bastard to handle. We have no spare for the van, and we have been extremely paranoid that we were going to get a flat tire each time we drove down and back to Mahahual. So far we have been very lucky.
As we drove around town, we also stopped whenever we would see a group of dogs. There are many pets wandering lost around the town. We had purchased a big bag of dog food, and each time we spotted some, we’d get out and offer them a meal. They looked pretty happy to get something. When we found families who obviously had pets, we dropped off bags of dog food to them.
After we distributed all the supplies we had, we drove back through town past the school and army post. We saw the army placing some of the food items, clothing and water that we had delivered into army trucks. We immediately went to investigate. The one thing we did not want to happen was to have our donations for Mahahual shipped back to Mexico City or other areas of Mexico.
Heather, who speaks pretty good Spanish, had struck up a friendship with a comandante (major) of the army who seemed to be in charge at the school. It was pretty obvious he thought she was something special. Heather went to the comandante and asked him what was happening to the supplies, and he assured her they were being loaded onto the trucks to be taken to another area in Mahahual that had been badly hit. That was good enough for us.
With the work done, we started back on the four hour return drive to Playa del Carmen. Claudia stayed behind to set up a medical tent with the Cruz Roja supplies we had purchased. She was also going to work on her list of needed supplies and return to Playa del Carmen either Monday or Tuesday. Once we have that list of supplies, we’ll go out on another shopping spree, again loading as many trucks as we can, and then heading back to Mahahual.
At this point, private donations and some small help from the Red Cross seem to be the only relief being offered to Mahahual. The Red Cross will be notifying the government of Mexico, and hopefully bigger, more organized relief, including construction machinery, will still be on the scene. However, we have received numerous emails and questions from people asking if we still need donations next week or even next month. The answer is YES, with absolute certainty. An entire town has been wiped out. The people there have nothing left. Right now we are simply trying to provide basics, i.e., food, water, medicine and hope. As people reestablish themselves, they will turn next to trying to rebuild. They will continue to need the basics but also will need tools and construction materials. Until power is turned back on, they will need to operate by generators. It is going to be a slow, painful process which will take months upon months to complete.
We are trying to fill the internet with pleas for more help. If you’re reading this, we ask you to help. We are not professional fundraisers or relief workers. We and our fellow volunteers from Playa del Carmen simply want to help our neighbors. Every penny that anyone contributes from our paypal site will be spent on buying supplies for Mahahual. No one is taking a penny to reimburse themselves for gas, food, or any kind of personal cost. When you give a dollar, you can rest assured that within a few days the items bought with that dollar will be in the hands of a family in Mahahual.
Once again, here is the information on how to donate:
To donate money via paypal, go to www.paypal.com and click on the “Send Money” tab. The paypal email account to use is: email@example.com.
If you are in or near the Playa del Carmen area, you can drop off items such as utilitarian clothing, non perishable food, candles, flashlights, roofing material, plastic tarps, tents, diapers, powdered milk, rice, beans, cooking oil, spaghetti, cookies/crackers, sanitary napkins, and anything else you think might be helpful in a hurricane zone at the Luna Blue Hotel & Garden, Calle 26 between 5th and 10th Avenue, between 7:30 am and 10 pm every day.
If you want to help via check, Laura the “Map Chick” is accepting checks in the US which she will forward to Claudia down here. 100% of those funds will be used by the Red Cross in Mahahual. For more information, check out Hurricane Dean Assistance.
Because the needs of this area are changing almost daily, monetary donations are preferred at this point. This way we can buy exactly what is needed and deliver it as quickly as possible.
We will do a new report after we return from the next convoy or Wednesday, or sooner if we have news to report. And don’t worry, we will continue to provide information and reports on the pleasures of living in and visiting Playa del Carmen in the near future. First things first.