SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The flight took off Monday morning, before sunrise, with stars still dotting the Detroit sky. Within an hour, there was breakfast served, cheese omelettes, muffins, piping hot coffee. Newspapers were passed around. Conversations were spirited. Nineteen people, including an NBA coach, a local businessman, airline reps, a TV executive, an ambassador and several journalists, had come together to do some good. Or so we thought. We were bringing supplies to a hurricane-ravaged area. We felt excited, maybe even a little bloated in how benevolent a thing this was. After all, how many people go to Honduras on a mercy mission? We rummaged through our bags of bug spray and cameras and long-sleeved shirts and took note of the boxes stacked in the back of the plane.
“This,” we said, with promising smiles, “should really be something.”
To see this flight from afar was to see a thing of moneyed privilege, for we were riding in a private jet belonging to the Detroit Pistons — Roundball One, they call it, a jet with a name. Normally it is used to spirit around Grant Hill, Joe Dumars and the rest of the very rich basketball team. But since the Pistons aren’t using it — thanks to the NBA lockout — someone suggested it might be put to good use. Fill it with supplies. Send it to Honduras. Help the victims of Hurricane Mitch, which struck nearly a month ago and left thousands of Hondurans dead, and millions more stranded without homes, food or water.
Fill Roundball One? Turn it into a delivery truck? The word went out. The media picked it up. And before long, thanks to the generosity of strangers, the belly of the plane was filled to the walls, 15,000 pounds of canned goods, diapers, bottled water, baby food — as was a 67,000-pound cargo hold of a Northwest 747, offered when the supply of donations exceeded the capacity of Roundball One.
So here we were, a mercy fleet, on our way to Honduras for a day trip, a small attempt to fill the bowls of the needy from the horn of plenty. Thirty minutes before touchdown, someone pulled out bug spray and began to spread it — as had been advised in our faxed instructions — and next thing you knew, we were all doing it. The Honduran ambassador to the United States, 67-year-old Edgardo Dumas Rodriguez, who was traveling with us, nodded at the act.
“To fight malaria?” he said, half-smiling. “Yes. In Honduras, we say if you don’t have malaria, you cannot really be a citizen.”
This should have been our first clue that flying to a nightmare is not the same as being ready for it. And the truth is, we were not ready for Honduras. Not the devastation of it all. Not the dirt, the poverty, the muddy horror. When we glanced out the airplane windows and saw pools of water still covering the mountainous landscape, still soaking Honduras nearly a month after the eye of the hurricane hit — this, despite 80-degree heat and a frequently unforgiving sun — we began to realize this was not TV.
And we would not be going to a commercial break any time soon.
Honduras is green, humid, mountainous place about the size of Tennessee, with nearly six million people, most of them terribly poor. With the Caribbean Sea lapping its northern shores, Guatemala to the west and Nicaragua to the east and south, it is a banana republic of the truest kind, with bananas as its biggest industry. Christopher Columbus came here 10 years after discovering America.
That is where the similarity ends.
There are hurricanes in Honduras. It is part of living here. But even on the hurricane stage, Hurricane Mitch, which struck a few days before Halloween, really stole the show. Its winds reached 180 miles an hour, and it came off the water and blew into Honduras and pretty much set up shop on top of the country, barely moving for several days. The eye of the storm hovered like a surgeon’s laser, cutting wind holes in the landscape, stripping bark off trees, raising rivers over people’s heads, causing countless mudslides and washing away bridges, roads, trees and homes. As its devastation wore on, day after day, night after night, TV anchors interrupted their news reports to ask the populace to pray that it would stop raining.
It finally stopped raining. But that only hastened counting the dead and tallying the damage. This was the stage that we arrived on Monday morning. Dead: 6,500. Homeless: 1.5 million. Damage: $4.2 billion. And counting.
Our first exposure to this was the banana crop field just outside the San Pedro Sula airport. It looked like someone had chopped through it with a machete. “The entire banana crop is ruined for this year,” Rodriguez said.
“Ruined. No bananas all year. People who work in these fields will not work for 18 months now. And we can only hope the factories decide to rebuild.”
Trees and crops and buildings were uprooted and crumbled. But this was only physical destruction. It was inadequate preparation for the human factor that we saw upon arrival at a municipal gymnasium that was doubling as a shelter for storm victims. In the parking lot, a young girl, no more than 15 years old, sat barefoot on the curb, peeling green oranges and trying to sell them. She was pregnant.
Nearby, a woman who said her name was Petonina Martinez spoke through her two teeth. She wore a crusted pink cotton shirt and no shoes. “I lost everything,” she said, through a translator. “Everything I have was taken by the river. My five children and I are here now. We get one meal a day.”
“What is the meal?” I asked.
“Beans and rice.”
We carried our boxes of water and food and diapers into the dilapidated gymnasium. I looked around, and my first thought was the same as others on our trip. It is not nearly enough. The gym was wall-to-wall victims, most without shoes, many without shirts. Their “living areas” were designated by a piece of paper on a wall with their family name and number of members written in magic marker. Sometimes you saw a bed, sometimes just a sheet, maybe a rickety desk, an unplugged fan, a bucket. Whatever they could salvage from the storm was here and nothing more.
“Attention! These nice people come from Detroit,” announced Elena Larius, the wife of Roberto Larius, the mayor of San Pedro Sula, as she pointed to us carrying in the boxes, stacking them on the rubber mats. “Let us say thank you to them! Ready? One, two, three . . .”
Their voices rung out together, high, sweet. And this was the hardest part of all. Because they were all children. So many children. Hundreds of children, all thin, all eyeing the boxes, 8-year-olds holding 6-year-olds’ hands, 5-year-olds holding 2-year-olds in their arms. Nearly half of the Honduran population is under 15, and at that moment they all seemed to be in front of us.
“Gracias!” they yelled, the way school kids yell everywhere.
It is not nearly enough.
The scene would repeat itself throughout the long, hot day. At the Olympic Stadium, now a converted shelter for nearly 3,000 victims, hens and dogs mixed with people who raced toward the gate when we arrived. Again, children. Dark hair. Big eyes. Some in bathing suits, some in shorts, some in cotton skirts, some in diapers. Always barefoot.
“Where are the shoes?” I asked a local photographer.
“Shoes are a luxury,” he said
And so the children — and many adults — walk barefoot through muddy waters that have often been contaminated with animal excrement, sewage, and in some parts of the country, with corpses. There is such a shortage of fresh water now, that many of the citizens are forced to wash in and even drink this sludge. They are, in extreme cases, literally bathing in death.
And so again, we stacked out boxes of bottled water, and diapers, and canned goods, and again, the Hondurans smiled and cooed thanks and again, you left wanting another 10 planes’ worth of stuff.
“The biggest problems here are dysentery, diarrhea, eye infections and stomach problems,” a doctor told me, waving his arm to the hundreds of victims sitting by their sheets or chairs. “It comes from drinking the wrong water, then rubbing their eyes with it.”
“When this first happened, we had rural people coming to the city shelters who didn’t even know how to use a toilet,” Elena Larius said. “I thought for sure we would all die of an epidemic, because who could teach them toilets when 200 new victims were arriving all the time?”
She sighed. She looked at the boxes being unloaded from the truck. “We are making progress. We are trying to focus on the positive. We do what we can.”
You do what you can. A young girl who said she was 18 held a newborn baby in her arms. “He was born in the water,” she said, through a translator.
Born in the water?
“The water came up to here” — she pointed at her waist — “there was no place to run. And then he came out.”
The child of a hurricane.
You do what you can.
A single day of viewing only scrapes the surface of Honduras’ damage. But the images of San Pedro Sula and the more rural La Ceiba — where Roundball One flew next — are enough to sketch an outline of a world turned upside down.
There was the Benito Bridge, which was ripped in two by surging water. Citizens had to hang a cage over a cable and push it to get across the river. And that wasn’t even the worst part of the story.
“At the moment the bridge washed away, there was a military transport trying to get across with medical supplies,” said Roger Velasquez, a 32-year-old teacher. “Three men were inside that vehicle. We have only found one. He is dead. We never find the others. They just disappear.”
There was a man who pointed to a water line on his concrete house; it was above the door frame. There was a line of traffic sloshing through a muddy river, buses with tires buried in filthy water, the only way to get anywhere. There were latrines in tents. There was a line for a tepid shower. There were stories of land mines, buried years ago by Nicaraguans, now floating to the surface in the muddy mess.
But mostly, mostly there were the children.
At a caked mud intersection in Benito Amenia, a ramshackle place with a church, collapsing houses and a soccer field half-buried in fallen trees, we stopped our truck at the sight of three children. A Detroit FM radio host had brought a large duffel bag of Beanie Babies. He took out three and offered them to the children. They ran forward as if being offered the first gift of their lives.
What happened next is hard to describe except, in what seemed like an instant, children were running from every corner of this village, making a beeline toward the truck. They seemed to appear from the grass, from the trees, from behind the thatched roof huts, preschoolers, schoolkids, teenagers. They came from behind us, ahead of us, the sides of us, holding hands, or carrying each other, their bare feet sloshing though the mud. Suddenly, there were no less than 50 children around the Beanie Baby man, hands out, yelling desperately
“Deme uno! Deme uno!” (Give me one! Give me one!)
The bag was emptied in no time.
What stays with you is not only the hunger in their eyes, but the satisfaction in those eyes when they held those little furry toys. It was beyond moving. You don’t need to speak Spanish to know this was the nicest thing that had happened to them since the wind started howling just before Halloween.
The president of Honduras recently said this of his country: “We have before us a panorama of death, desolation and ruin.” Against such a backdrop, even a 747 full of supplies can’t make a ripple in the recovery.
And yet the people who put together Monday’s trip are to be saluted. From Alan Frank, WDIV general manager, and his wife, Ann — who came up with the idea — to Art Van Furniture, Northwest Airlines, the Pistons — including coach Alvin Gentry and president Tom Wilson, who made the trip — and, of course, the folks who contributed the supplies. We did not come home with the same optimism that we had on departure. And we talked a lot about ma