It is not hard to be moved emotionally by scenes of tragedy and human suffering on the news. We shed tears and we pray for those experiencing loss and despair. We want to be there with them, to provide relief, to bring hope. Five months ago I shed tears and prayed for those involved in a natural disaster in Northern Chile. At the time I did not think that in less than half a year I would be living in the same region, hearing eye-witness accounts of events and seeing the aftermath of the catastrophe. With the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund I set out to see what relief and hope, if any, I might bring to those still affected by the disaster, months after international journalists had left and emergency humantiarian assistance withdrawn.
Welcome to Atacama! Atacama, the world’s driest non-polar desert surrounds the small town of Copiapo. On 25 March 2015, the equivalent of 7 years of rain fell in just 12 hours in Copiapo, causing extensive flooding and unprecedented mudslides which extended even to the rural areas near Copiapo.
For several years the River Copiapo had been dry. Young children in the town had never really experienced rain or considered it destructive. The riverbed was parched until the downpour began in March. Driving past this view of the remaining water in the river on 25 August, the Chilean passenger sitting at my side drew a deep and shuddering breath and muttered to herself in Spanish, “There’s water in the river…FEAR”.
Driving in August 2015 through the desert surrounding Copiapo, it was still hard to imagine rainfall so heavy and prolonged that would cause the deaths of over 20 people. Learning from the accounts of locals helped me imagine the events of that horrifying time: “It never rains here…we ran upstairs…there was no light…no internet…my cell phone did not work…we had to rely on radio reports to find out what was happening…later I saw uniformed young men outside, the Forces had come”.
During natural disasters such as floods law enforcement can be difficult and crimes such as theft and unlawful possession can rise. This vehicle from the wreckage of the flood and mudslide attracts a cute but terratorial canine squatter.
A child under the age of five could not play outdoors when the brown, muddy waters rose rapidly to almost 1m outside this pale green home, leaving behind a tidy, horizontal line and pile of rubble.
“So, what was it like when the flood started?” I asked a local woman after seeing the internal damage caused to homes. “Panic!”, she replied.
There was probably no time and no means of rescuing Teddy who lay in the doorway, drowning in muddy water.
During the floods many sought refuge in emergency homes. A rainy day in the UK is nothing more than a mere inconvenience: spoiled outdoor plans, perhapsa ruined hairstyle and certainly an increased demand for public transport and taxis. I might run home in British rain but would never need to flee for saftey. I might seek shelter at a bus stop but never a life-saving refuge. The rain I was used to was certainly no emergency.
After seeing and hearing disheartening stories about the flood, the hope-filled opportunity arose to work with a team of Youth With A Mission volunteers to prepare the foundation of a new house for a family whose one-bedroom home had been washed away by the deluge. It was a relief for us to provide practical relief to those affected by the flood.
The mother of the family was both relieved and delighted when the flooring of her new, two-bedroom home was finished and the walls ready to be erected. Her 15-year-old son’s school had been closed for two months after the flood. Schools in Copiapo each chose one of three options to compensate for missed teaching hours: longer school days, additional lessons on Saturday or shorter school holidays! Which would you prefer?
A morning was spent visiting an indigenous community of twelve families living in a remote area on the outskirts of the city. My task was to engage with community leaders, understand their post-flood health needs (eg, sanitation, mental health, physical wellbeing) and make recommendations to the regional department of health.
The University of Atacama in Copiapo provided an opportunity on most days to help psychologists, a psychiatrist and a sociologist with a research project which explored the emotional and academic impact of the flood on university students.
The host professor welcomed me to the research team. Reading through the emotive personal accounts of the flood by student participating in the study was a greater challenge than expected. These handwritten accounts revealed themes of trauma, helplessness, denial, fear, hopelessness and shock.
The message “Christ Saves” displayed on this taxi in Copiapo reflects the faith people often find or cling to at times of adversity and loss. A Christian radio station in Copiapo passionate about sharing a message of hope and restoration interviewed me about the purpose of my visit to the region. “I am simply here to help those who are helping people affected by the flood,” I replied. Perhaps this truth, motivated by my own faith, would bring hope to at least one person in Copiapo. The international community still cares.
A rest day at a Playa de la Virgen, a beautiful beach near Copiapo, was a reminder that water, even in large quantities, can be healthy, safe and enjoyed fearlessly. Excessive and unresolved fear can adversely affect a person’s emotional and mental well-being; truth, compassion and help can cultivate the green shoots of hope and relief on the road towards restoration.