On Oct. 30, 1998, Hurricane Mitch began its slow move across Central America. The fourth-strongest hurricane of this century, Mitch sat off the coast of Honduras as a Category 5 hurricane for two days. It then moved inward and loomed over Trujillo and other small towns for four more days. A deluge of 25 to 50 inches of rain per day devastated the country. Streams overflowed and became powerful rivers. Saturated mountainsides crashed down and wiped out entire villages. Homes and families were swept away by floodwaters. Hurricane Mitch left 6,000 people dead and 400,000 homeless. Two million inhabitants were affected by water and food shortages, the loss of electrical power and the destruction of 70 percent of the country's infrastructure. Already rated the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras faced the huge task of recovering from unimaginable devastation.
While the hurricane raged, Cari DeSantis, AS '78, '94M of Hockessin, Del., prepared to launch a major relief effort. As president of a charitable organization called Central American Medical Outreach (CAMO), DeSantis has been helping to bring medical relief to the Honduran highlands for five years.
"When I first traveled to Honduras, I was shocked by the lack of even the most basic medical supplies and equipment. The knowledge was there, but the tools were not," DeSantis says. "The country is so poor, it could not afford to buy the medicines, equipment, supplies and tools necessary to keep patients alive, much less ease suffering or prevent medical crises."
Founded by Ohio trauma nurse Kathryn Tschiegg, CAMO began delivering donated medical supplies and equipment to the public hospital in Santa Rosa de Copán in 1992. Tschiegg had served the hospital as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s and returned a decade later to find that conditions hadn't improved. While the Hondurans lacked basic medical supplies, the hospital where she worked in Ohio regularly discarded perfectly good supplies and equipment when new brands or technologies came on the market. Tschiegg collected the precious goods for shipment to Honduras. She then enlisted five medical friends to spend two weeks in Honduras doing some basic training in surgery and general medicine.
As CAMO attracted more donations and volunteers, the medical care in this Honduran village gradually began to improve. Since its inception, the organization has donated over $4 million in equipment, supplies and service to three public hospitals, four public dental clinics, two orphanages and a bilingual school in Honduras.
A former administrator at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, Del., DeSantis first learned of CAMO's work and signed up as a volunteer in 1995, joining one of the CAMO medical teams bringing dental care to remote Honduran villages. "In seven years as a hospital executive, I had seen all the miracles that money could buy. After five minutes in a public hospital in Honduras, I had seen the other side of the coin," says DeSantis.
But nothing that CAMO had dealt with in its first five years would compare to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. While Tschiegg arrived in Honduras a few days before the hurricane to deliver a previously scheduled load of supplies, DeSantis was back home in Delaware mobilizing relief efforts and soliciting donations. Reaching out to churches, community groups, hospitals and businesses, DeSantis helped CAMO collect enough medical supplies to fill a ship's container and more than $80,000 in cash during the first two weeks after the hurricane. She made a valuable connection with the Chiquita Corp., which agreed to put the supplies at no charge on one of its cargo ships traveling from the Port of Wilmington to Honduras. DeSantis even assisted the first lady of Honduras, Mary de Flores, in contacting first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to solicit U.S. support.
"Our efforts escalated dramatically in those first few weeks. If the need had been great before, it was a thousand times greater after Hurricane Mitch," DeSantis says. "The villages of Honduras were clogged with two to three feet of mud. Hundreds of thousands of people were without shelter. Their adobe huts had been washed away. They had no
crops, no houses, no work and no tools to rebuild their lives."
The scope of CAMO's work was immediately expanded. In partnership with the office of the first lady of Honduras and the Peace Corps/Crisis Corps, CAMO developed a yearlong, village-by-village relief plan for Honduras.
"The goal is to help rebuild five or six villages of less than 5,000 people. That will involve removing mud and debris, rebuilding their shelters, establishing a clean water supply, stocking a community food closet, offering basic medical care and generally getting them back on their feet," DeSantis explains.
Central to this effort has been the five tractor trailers that CAMO purchased and filled with nearly $500,000 worth of donated food, medical supplies, materials and heavy equipment. The semis left for Honduras on Jan. 1, carrying five Bobcats, two dump trucks, three generators, four vans, an Isuzu Trooper, 700 boxes of medications, 450 cases of canned food, 15,227 linear yards of heavy industrial coated tarps and numerous other items. Two of the semis were unloaded and sold upon arrival in Honduras, while the other three will travel with the CAMO/Crisis Corps relief caravan from village to village.
This spring, DeSantis will travel to Honduras to make an assessment of the relief effort's progress. She said she also hopes to meet with de Flores. "This cooperative effort is the first of its kind in Honduras, so we are all very excited about it," she says. "I believe this partnership will have a positive effect on CAMO's efforts well into the future. Combined with the generosity of our volunteers and donors in the U.S., we now have the support we need in Honduras to make significant improvements to the quality of medical care in the poorest regions of this country." * -Sharon Huss Roat, AS '87
For information about becoming a CAMO volunteer or making donations to the organization, please call (330) 683-5956.