We stood in silence, that morning after the storm, staring at the gorge that used to be a bridge, our one link to Santa Elena and off the mountain. It took time to understand that we were cut off, on our own, with no electricity or water or supplies. No internet or cell phone to find out about loved ones in other areas. Word spread of a community meeting at 11:00 to start figuring out how to keep going…
That was last Thursday morning Oct.5, when Tropical Storm Nate hurled 23 inches of rain at us in 2 windy days, causing landslides, floods and fear. Below is a chronicle, from the perspective of Rick Juliusson (Co-Director of the Monteverde Friends School) of how a community comes together to take care of each other and start rebuilding.
We should have seen it coming. Tuesday the 26th we’d already mustered all hands-on-deck to redig trenches and drains (see photos here) as our kindergarten and meeting house flooded from the upper field, thanks to a record-breaking early rainy season. That Saturday we moved ultimate frisbee to the morning to avoid the rain/lightning, and by Monday the field was closed altogether (see video of indoor PE class here).
But even Thursday morning, when the government had declared a red-alert and we closed the school, I still spent the morning on my computer doing normal work, and posted a rather nonchalant comment comparing this pending crisis to a US snow day. It wasn’t until the afternoon, with power gone and winds driving the rains against our windows and doors, that it started to feel big. I swept gallons of water off the porch each hour, but it still seeped under doors not designed for monsoons. Every towel in the house couldn’t stop some flooding.
While the worst my kids faced was having to abandon their living room fort in the middle of the night to seek higher ground in their bedroom, we later heard that a school family had to crawl out through their 2nd story windows as a landslide claimed their house, car and even pets.
Friday, Oct.6 – Reality Dawns
A casual morning-after stroll turns into shock – the bridge is gone. Another school family’s house on the other side destroyed. We are cut off. More and more neighbors add to the disoriented mass – some silent, some muttering expletives, all with disbelief.
Pax opens Whole Foods and we somberly check in with each other, thankful for each house and family that has survived. Each purchases some basic supplies, mindful of leaving food for other families in need, and Pax rations candles from behind the counter. No computer cash register today, so he starts a journal and gives us what we need on credit and trust. Later he closes the store, and reopens for a few hours each morning, to make sure supplies can last for however long this will take.
Sarah and I go check on our neighbor Margaret Adelman. Soon enough, 3 other friends have also come to check, and we are all having tea with bread and jam while Margaret sends our son back to Whole Foods to get her some food and boxes of wine. Margaret will not be alone in this…
Words spreads of an 11:00 community meeting at CASEM, where we meet the well-trained and organized Emergency Commission. They share what information they have managed to receive by radio – essentially that we’re on our own for now – and focus on the very basics: who is missing, who needs a home visit, who needs immediate help for food/water/fuel/medicine/injury/shelter. No talk yet of missed vacation plans and online meetings – this is about meeting basic needs and safety. One of our grade 12 students (Izzie) joins other climbing and zip-line experts to create an emergency river crossing in the wood above the Institute.
My wife Sarah volunteers for the local coordination team, and stays after the second community meeting to make more detailed plans. As it is getting dark and she still hasn’t returned, I calmly (at first) circle back to the Monteverde Institute where the meeting was, 3 times not finding her. Unable to reassure my children, I venture out a fourth time and finally hear that she has volunteered to visit the Trapp Lodge to help tourists with their needs (including evacuation the next day). We boys calm down and eat a candle-lit dinner then they go to sleep, but by 9:30 I’m out searching for her again. I know she’s in a jeep with other folk, but it’s still raining and roads are collapsing. Thankfully, we meet soon on the road – they continued on to other hotels and homes, including finding a group who had been afraid to come to the meeting to voice their needs. One has a UTI and hasn’t drank water in 2 days. The needs are real, and these brave volunteers are out in the night helping.
Saturday – Evacuation?!
Early morning we walk down to Mary Rockwell’s where a tenuous cell phone signal can be reached. Several friends are all typing on their devices to reassure loved ones that we are well, and to try to gather information about friends in other parts of our community. Our first morning without rain, we gratefully hang out the soggy towels and clothes to at least avoid mold, or prepare for further flooding.
The police cross a makeshift “bridge” to tell us that everyone must evacuate today – the lagoons above the Belmar are still unstable and might cause more landslides and a longer-term separation from supplies and aid in Santa Elena. But at the community meeting, officials from the municipality have also made the risky river crossing to clarify that it is up to each family to decide, and they actually recommend that most folk stay. Santa Elena is also cut off from supplies, and no arrangements have been made to house the 305 of us who are trapped on the Monteverde side. Besides, we have the dairy and the Guindon farm and the ice cream factory… Most of us decide we’re better in our own homes and community, though some who live near water or edges do move to friends’ safer houses.
Sarah and I host an impromptu Canadian Thanksgiving potluck, with about 50 friends bringing delicious dishes (using up foods about to go bad without refrigeration). We are all grateful for the social time, a respite from the ongoing crisis. Then it’s back to collecting drinking water from the Fabrica, El Bosque Hotel or Stuckey farm, while from 7-8:00 we’re invited to Hotel Fonda Vela to recharge cell phones while their generator is on.
Sunday – Some Rest
This morning I learn how to hotspot from my cellphone letting me finally post on the school’s Facebook page to let the world know what’s happening here. Mainstream media hasn’t somehow missed this – even my mother didn’t know she should be worrying. The post is shared over 250 times and reaches almost 40,000 people. Expressions of support start to pour in, bolstering our spirits, and friends also start to donate (over $2,500 in 2 days!) to support school families who will now struggle to pay tuition due to the effects on tourism (mfschool.org/donate).
Quaker meeting is small but gathered. Then as we gather for today’s 1:00 meeting, electricity comes back (to most homes). Medicines have arrived for folk in need – I get the pleasure of delivering a child’s insulin supply to one grateful mother. Farmers are arranging to distribute 1700 liters of free milk that would otherwise go bad. A neighbor contributes a generator to Cafe Carube to power what will now be the community’s freezer so we don’t lose food stock. Community kitchens are organized for those without cooking fuel or food. And we continue to fill out the “census” sheet to know exactly how many people we are caring for. Today there is a strong feeling of progress, even with the ongoing uncertainty of how long this will last. My teenagers go home “to relish in electricity” and, a bit later, the return of internet. At a personal level I would have liked one more candle-lit family night with no Netflix, but the increased communication and sense of security is very important for our community. Thank you to ICE (electric company) for their heroic efforts.
Monday – Kids & Copters
Twice today I get to cross a clandestine but safer “bridge” (an old door or plywood) to carry supplies purchased by a friend on the other side. A brief taste of freedom and connection, including an ice-cream sandwich at the gas station, before carrying the much needed supplies back to the new food distribution center at the Institute. Other men are carrying huge sacks of animal feed to care for our livestock – yet another need I wouldn’t have thought of.
Monteverde Friends School offers a “vacation camp” each morning to give parents a much needed break (or time to work on rebuilding), and provide some normalcy for the children. It’s run by volunteer teachers from both schools alongside older students and community members.
A helicopter lands in the pig field behind the school, and community members materialize out of thin air to help move water, toilet paper, rice & beans, milk powder., etc down also to the food distribution center. We follow for today’s community meeting, where we hear good news that the San Luis community has cleared their road (at the bottom) and can now get supplies in. We also talk about the fears of looting – strangers have been entering our area – and set up neighborhood watch patrols until the promised police presence can come over.
Tuesday – Waiting Pattern
Kids camp continues, now with the addition of a community lunch thanks to the helicopter food drop, plus afternoon drum/play time at CASEM. San Luis’ ever-vigorous volunteers have opened up a walking/motorcycle path up the trocha, further connecting us to the world, and we wonder about policing/restricting the still-precarious walkway across the chasm, which more people are taking to do shopping and pay bills in town. We are ready to get back to some normal life, even though we still don’t know if things might get worse again – the rains could return, the lagoon could break – do we continue to conserve food and supplies, or get back to living?
At the community meeting we learn that some people have diarrhea (more serious than it sounds in these situations), and are encouraged to boil water. We also celebrate that water has been restored to nearly every home, and the school. Another key marker of recovery.
Wednesday – Bridge to Nowhere
Machines are filling in the gorge to rebuild a temporary bridge – we might be free at last! But at the community meeting, Mayor Vargas tempers the enthusiasm by stating it’s just for emergency and reconstruction vehicles. We voice our concerns to these government officials – how can people get back to work, when can tourists return, what about medical appointments. We are ready to live again, and a system needs to be worked out so the bridge can be used by all.
We announce that day camp finished today – too many volunteers and families are finally leaving for vacation and visa renewal trips. Then the committee announces that this is the last meeting. We are out of crisis. I feel relieved and, in an dd way, let down. This has been a beautiful, powerful community experience and we reluctantly let go. Time is given for people to thank and acknowledge the thousand acts of quiet heroism and support we gave each other.
Moving Forward – We ain’t done yet!
Just because we can buy peanut butter and pork rinds (not at the same time!) in Santa Elena doesn’t mean this is over. Homes and roads need to be rebuilt. The lagoons are still unstable. The bridge is temporary. Families have lost their income. A few first steps:
- Donations: Many of our school families have lost their jobs or businesses as tourism has disappeared. They will need higher levels of financial aid, and we may need to introduce lunch programs, bussing, or other support systems to ensure that their children can continue their studies with us. Please consider a special donation that will go directly to help these families in need: mfschool.org/donate.
- Tourism: Please help spread the word that Monteverde is open and ready for business. It is still stunningly beautiful here – this morning Sarah and I were the first visitors to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest since Oct.1, and the forest felt rested, rejuvenated, and ready to welcome us all back.
- Social Media: Please share this post, our regular Facebook posts, and anything else you see about Monteverde and Costa Rica. We will continue to share our journey, including updating our special page: mfschool.org/Nate.
Thank you all for caring and for your ongoing support and fellowship. As your messages have come through over the past week, it has meant a lot for us to continue to feel connected to our worldwide family.