When I first saw the satellite image of tropical storm Wilma this past October, a small knot began forming in my stomach.
The next day I checked the Internet again and discovered that the storm had exploded into a Category 5 hurricane. A TV meteorologist said Wilma was “the strongest hurricane ever recorded”—and it was headed right for me and my neighbors in Cancun, Mexico. The knot in my stomach, like the hurricane, got bigger.
I went outside and took a few deep breaths. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sky overhead was a clear blue. I asked myself, “Do I really have to board up?” The last few hurricanes (Dennis, Emily, and Katrina) had only scratched us.
But the satellite picture and the knot in my stomach urged me to get on with my all-too-familiar “get ready for hurricane” routine. I boarded up the windows, tied down the cement water tanks on the roof, and disconnected the gas tanks and major electrical appliances.
My wife, Eileen, called out to me: “You’re like Noah out there hammering! Nobody is boarding up for this one yet.”
She was right, but I kept on with my routine. Had I forgotten anything? Did we have enough food for at least a week? What if we couldn’t get water for a week after the hurricane? Did we have enough batteries?
Getting ready for a hurricane involves so many small decisions, any of which could end up being a lifesaver.
Wilma hit Cancun with phenomenal force. We hunkered down in two rooms on the bottom floor of our house. For a full 60 hours Wilma churned overhead, dumping huge loads of water.
The first night our mattresses got wet, so the next few nights we all slept in hammocks like caterpillars in cocoons, hoping for transformation sooner rather than later. Eileen and I took turns getting up in the night to sweep water from our room into the hall and do the same for our boys in the next room.
On the second night Wilma blew its fiercest. After falling asleep exhausted I dreamed I was lying on a railroad track. A huge diesel train was barrelling toward me. I woke up, startled. The hurricane sounded exactly like the train in my dream.
In the Eye of the Storm
Around 6 in the morning a neighbor banged on our door. He wanted to borrow a machete.
I stepped outside to try to convince him to get back in his house. There were trees down all over the road. Strong gusts were still sending down branches and rain but my neighbors wanted to borrow my tools so they could start cleaning up.
“Go back inside for another day,” I called to them. “We are in the eye of the hurricane, and it will get worse again.” Once inside, I grabbed my cell phone and made two long-distance calls: one to my parents in Canada and the other to my boss in Mexico City. “We’re all right,” I told them, mustering my best voice.
Mysteriously, I was not charged for the calls I made from the eye of the storm. A few hours later, our cell phone reception went dead for several days.
After the storm abated, we ventured out to survey the destruction. Our jaws dropped at what we saw. A shopping mall two blocks from our house was completely destroyed. Tangled metal, bricks, and broken glass were everywhere. The gas station around the corner was completely gone, except for two pumps lying on the ground.
The radio announcer said that 300,000 people across the Yucatan were now homeless.
We saw how the storm brought out the good and the bad in people. There was extensive looting and robbing, and gangs wandered the streets at night. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced.
After a few days, the army came to protect our neighborhood, probably because we live close to many businesses and shops. Our neighbors also heartened us by the many ways they helped each other—sort of like the early church.
I spent a day pulling fallen trees off the streets and talking to men who otherwise would barely greet each other or me. One lady on our street had small children who hadn’t eaten for two days, so we shared food and water with her.
An army officer smiled when I approached him and asked, “Can you send me a few soldiers to pull out some trees that fell in my yard?”
“Sure,” he replied, and promptly ordered about 10 soldiers into our yard to chop the fallen trees up and drag them away.
After the Storm
Urban legends run rampant after a hurricane. According to one rather humorous story, a guard dog blew off the roof of a woman’s home and landed, unharmed, on the roof of her friend’s house several doors down the street. For the duration of the storm the woman kept yelling to her neighbour, “Priscillaaaaa, come over and get your dog!”
But the amount of work to be done after a hurricane is no joke. The rebuilding of Cancun is taking place at a phenomenal pace, mostly because the city—and the entire country of Mexico— depends heavily on the income this town makes from tourism.
About 15,000 hotel workers lost their jobs after Wilma hit. Some were rehired immediately to help with cleanup, but many others will face hardship as never before.
A few days after the storm, I went with several church leaders to a section of town called colonia Isla Mujeres. Most of the homes in this colonia were destroyed, and we were the first ones to bring any help. In spite of a supposed outpouring of help from the state and national governments, many people in this colonia sat hungry and homeless on a pile of rubble.
Scores of Mayan villages outside Cancun remained inaccessible more than a week after the hurricane. People in these villages depend on their crops for food, and those crops were obliterated. CRWRC helped us to feed some of these families. Still, the needs far outweighed the help available.
Evidence of God’s Love
So do we chalk Hurricane Wilma up as purely senseless destruction? Can some good possibly come from this catastrophe? Yes. I’m positive that this storm has blown new opportunities for the gospel right across the Yucatan.
I got that sense while attending a church service a few days after Wilma left us. Speaking to a predominantly homeless congregation in a church building that was missing a wall and a roof, the Mayan preacher put an apocalyptic spin on Wilma.
“Like the plagues that God sent to Pharaoh, God is sending us signs,” he declared. “Pharaoh would repent every time a bad experience hit him, but afterwards he would harden his heart.
“In a little over a year God has sent a tsunami in Asia, a huge earthquake in Pakistan, and an entire alphabet of hurricanes in the Caribbean. Each time people pray and repent, but as soon as the danger passes they forget about the event—and they forget about God, who sends these events.
“Like Pharaoh, all of us have a tendency to harden our hearts immediately after danger passes. So God will send us more signs until we get the message that he wants lasting repentance.”
As I listened to these fiery words, the bigger miracle of that story came to mind: the fact that God’s people walked safely through the Red Sea.
Suddenly I was inspired by the realization that God continues to chart a path of salvation and deliverance through the disasters that strike us. Christian groups across Mexico had already sent tons of relief supplies to Cancun, putting denominational differences aside. Together with all this aid came the gospel, which many received gladly because they were overwhelmed by chaos and desperate to rebuild their lives.
The simple acts of providing food and building material are much more convincing evidence of God than is the senseless destruction of a hurricane. But even more important, disasters such as Hurricane Wilma give us the opportunity to tell people about Jesus and his reconstruction program for each and every one of our lives.
Here in Cancun, those of us who survived Wilma thank God for safety and ask for faithfulness as we spread the gospel in the fertile soil left behind in the wake of the storm.