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It was hard to fathom: Three major hurricanes hit the United States and three powerful earthquakes struck Mexico, all within a month. With so much devastation, it was hard to figure out how and where to help.
Since most of my business is in Mexico, I decided to do what former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros did immediately following the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico. I wanted to get needed items together and transport them to the neediest population as quickly as possible.
Forty-eight hours after the second earthquake on Sept. 19, I called Ramiro Cavazos, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He could help me find an available airplane. The next phone call was to Dya Campos, director of public affairs at H-E-B, a company that is unbelievably generous in providing help and community support in many disasters, including Hurricane Harvey last month.
The first decision to be made was where to deliver relief supplies. The Mexican government was so occupied with rescue efforts in Mexico City, where there were numerous pancaked buildings, that officials asked people to not send help immediately because logistics for receiving supplies had not been implemented. We needed to avoid Mexico City and the surrounding area and find another place to deliver food and medical supplies.
Realizing it would be easier to use a smaller plane, I called my friend and local attorney Bill Scanlan, who committed the use of his aircraft. H-E-B agreed to make available 1,500-2,000 pounds of nonperishable food and water, but Campos wanted a list of exactly what was needed.
I had a plane and I had the goods, but I didn’t have a destination yet. Almost on cue, Hector Navarrete, a friend from Mexico who has a home in San Antonio, called me and wanted to know how he could help. I told him all we needed was a destination, so he got to work contacting some of the states most affected by the quakes. After only a few hours, we had our plan: We were going to Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and one that had been affected by two earthquakes – the first registering 8.1 on the Richter scale on Sept. 9 followed by another 7.1-magnitude quake 10 days later. Because of the tremendous turmoil in the Mexico City area, Chiapas had been somewhat forgotten.
Sunday, Sept. 24, was set as the delivery date. We were in constant contact with the Governor’s Office of Chiapas, which sent us a well-prepared list of needs.
We gathered goods from H-E-B and purchased additional items such as small tents and tarps. Several friends contributed to the effort. Local businessman Roberto Espinosa from Northwestern Mutual helped solicit donations and friends Manuel Chacon and Victor Miramontes offered their pickup trucks. Dr. Manuel Castillo, a pediatric dentist, donated some medical supplies, and Paola Romero, owner of a dental practice management firm, rounded up several dentists to open their supply closets to supply toothbrushes and toothpaste.
At 7 a.m. Sunday morning, we began loading the nine-passenger Cessna Citation, filling every crack and crevice we could with about 2,000 pounds of supplies. The pilots, John Cooper and Simon Baier, helped us take as much as we could given the capacity of the plane. My wife, Carmen, and other friends pitched in. So did the entire staff of the Million Air at the San Antonio International Airport. Father David Garcia, archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions in San Antonio, stopped by to bless the shipment, the plane, and those of us making the trip.
I know Mexico like I know the back of my hand, but I had never traveled to Chiapas. As we landed at Tuxtla Gutierrez on the southern tip of Mexico, I was amazed at how green and unbearably hot it was.
Military personnel, federal police, state police, customs and immigration officials, and a drug-sniffing dog inspected our cargo carefully and professionally. As they finished, we spent about an hour meeting with representatives from the governor’s office headed by key advisor to the Governor David Leon and the Secretary of Civil Protection, Luis Manuel Garcia Moreno. I have either lived or worked in Mexico for more than 60 years, and I don’t think I have ever run across a more professional and organized group. They were extremely thankful for our help.
We asked local officials to identify their largest needs in addition to food and basic medical items. In order, the people of Chiapas need psychological and medical support, housing for the 48,000 families left homeless by the quakes, and economic development to address the tremendous poverty in the state.
After only two hours on the ground, we said our goodbyes and headed back to San Antonio. On the way home, we mapped out a followup plan that includes:
- Asking H-E-B to send some of the many trailers from their warehouse in Monterrey to Chiapas. We will handle all of the logistics, including transportation if necessary.
- Having Salud Interactiva/Medical Home, a company headed by Navarrete that offers health advice over the telephone, open its phone service free of charge to anyone needing help in Chiapas.
- Working to find a low-cost yet effective construction technique to replace and reconstruct the 48,000 destroyed homes. Many Mexican corporations have offered goods, and we hope U.S. companies will join that effort. The idea is to have all of the construction supplies donated and then teach homeowners how to rebuild. We already have identified a low-cost, wood-based construction process that has strong possibilities.
- Looking for the most effective and economically viable earthquake early-warning system. Chiapas is mostly rural but has organized emergency action plans.
- Formulating a tourism promotion plan to attract visitors from all over the world to Chiapas, a place of tremendous natural beauty dotted with many Mayan archaeological sites and Spanish colonial towns. This could help provide some of the economic growth state leaders are seeking.
It is going to take some time for “Chiapanecos” to recuperate, but recuperate they will. There is a lot of fear among the people there, but they are a hearty group that lives with hardship almost every day. With a bit of help, they will get through it and hopefully transform their surroundings into a bigger and better place.
As organizers, we are also going to need help. We have established a website that provides updates on our efforts and other information.