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Students abroad aid Mexico floods

Rohan Anand | Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Although much of the flooding that had submerged nearly 80 percent of the Mexican state of Tabasco and parts of adjacent Chiapas earlier this month has subsided, the Notre Dame students studying abroad in Puebla are working to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians that remain homeless.

“We were told that nearly 800,000 people have been displaced in Tabasco and 20,000 in Chiapas,” said junior James Welle, who is in Puebla. “Although the death toll of 50 people has been relatively low for such a major disaster, a lot of people did not receive much warning about the floods and have lost everything.”

Although Puebla is located in central Mexico, several hundred miles away from the flooded areas, the aftermath of the disaster hit close to home for many of the students staying with host families. Many of them were shocked to see that relatives of their home stay families had lost everything in the flooding.

“My host family first told me of the situation and were especially concerned because my [host family] dad’s brother and his family were trapped,” said junior Jason Rodulfa, from Puebla. “They lived on top of a hill in Villa Hermosa, the capital of Tabasco. The house was completely flooded.”

The family lost all their possessions and are in serious danger because of water-borne diseases and insufficient food and shelter, he said.

To aid the Red Cross and the Catholic Relief Services with relief efforts, the students abroad, with the aid of the Center for Social Concerns and Pasquerilla West and Breen-Phillips halls, are selling rosaries and collecting donations this week on campus.

“Both of these organizations are well established in Mexico,” Welle said. “The work of the CRS in Mexico has primarily been with migrants and farmers, and is focusing on providing basic needs such as food, water, blankets, and other emergency supplies.”

The Red Cross also helps to provide basic needs but is working to prevent potential epidemics that could stem from the lack of clean water and growing mosquito populations, he said,

Welle contacted vendors in the neighboring town of Choluca who make and sell rosaries for a living.

“So not only will the profits be supporting the flood victims in Tabasco, but the purchase of the rosaries themselves will be supporting the hard working people in our Mexican community,” he said. “The sale of rosaries is going to be limited to the Notre Dame community because of basic logistical problems, but the fundraising will not be.”

A number of Notre Dame students said they were motivated to help in part because the images of thousands of civilians trapped on their rooftops reminded them of Hurricane Katrina just two years ago.

“The disaster has been aptly called, “the Katrina of Mexico” because it is the worst disaster to hit Mexico in recent history,” said junior Kim Churbock, a Puebla participant.

The destruction is widespread, with the Red Cross website claiming more than 1 million people as affected.

“The loss of agriculture, infrastructure, homes, etc. makes the situation all the more complicated,” Churbock said. “Also, the possibility of disease spreading from lack of clean water sources is a very real threat.”

Students also said they felt the need to act in return for the large amount of aid Mexico provided the U.S. following Katrina. According to the American Red Cross website, on Sept. 1, 2005, two days after the hurricane struck, Mexico sent 250 tons of food, bottled water, canned food, disposable diapers and medical supplies to New Orleans to aid relief efforts.

“As neighbors, it seems right that we should return the favor,” Churbock said. “It’s interesting that there have been recent proposals to spend a significant amount of capital building a border fence. It’s almost worth researching how much the government is willing to pay to help those in need versus for a border fence.”

Katie McAnany, a student in Puebla, said she was particularly motivated to help after seeing the United States struggle with disaster relief, while equipped with far greater resources than Mexico.

“I was appalled at the lack of publicity that these floods have had in the U.S.,” she said. “We know they helped us during Katrina, we ought to return the favor.”

The Puebla students hope to begin selling the 200 rosaries they have purchased during the week following Thanksgiving break. Although he is uncertain to what capacity the proceeds will go toward, Welle hopes that it will be for infectious disease prevention and medicine, relief efforts to remove people from the affected areas or recuperation for the victims.

“The response that we’ve received thus far has been heartwarming,” he said. “Everyone has been so receptive and positive. I am so happy to be able to actively experience the loving nature of the human spirit.”