CRESWELL, Ore. (BP)–Originally scheduled to repair well-drilling equipment, three Northwest Baptists were among the first volunteers to assist in the Hurricane Mitch disaster in Central America.
As Dewayne Tiller and his 24-year-old son, Matt, and John Petty, all of New Hope Baptist Church, Creswell, Ore., flew into Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 2, the devastation of one of the century’s deadliest hurricanes was evident.
Petty, who had taken a week’s vacation for the mission trip that turned into a disaster relief project, recounted, “As soon as I [saw] land, I could see where the river was supposed to be and I could see a town in the outline of the streets and some of the buildings along some of the north coast, and it was all water.”
Petty returned Nov. 11, while the Tillers remain indefinitely in the country.
As they traveled into parts of the city, damage from the hurricane’s Oct. 29 onslaught became more apparent. Petty said traffic was in a state of mass confusion and the smell of decay filled the air.
“The riverbed itself is normally 80 feet wide,” he said, “with homes built clear out to the edge of the river bank, and now the riverbed is a half-mile wide.
Human & animal corpuses and raw sewage were in the river, he continued. “People are bathing in it. They wash their clothes in it. Anytime you get close to the water, there’s a definite odor.”
Soon after arriving, the team found their task was to drive a 2,500-gallon water truck. They were to fill it and distribute water to various colonials, or communities, in the area.
Driving almost around the clock, they delivered a two-day supply of water to each colonial they serviced during the day; at night, they delivered water to missionaries in the area, stopping for only three to four hours of sleep.
The Hondurans ran to greet them with pots, pans, barrels and bottles each time they drove into a new colonial. Some colonials went for an entire week without water before the team arrived with relief.
People waited, quite often impatiently, in lines of up to 400. As he observed the Hondurans’ great need for water, Petty said he thought of this Scripture in John 4:13-14: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The team filled the truck’s tank with water from a city water-purification plant. Because they were not paid to drive the truck and were giving water away rather than selling it, officials gave the team priority over dozens of other drivers who waited in line.
Another source of clean water came from a well at Communion Church in Tegucigalpa which had been drilled 10 years ago by Tiller, the mission team’s leader, and others who were with him at that time.
“They drilled [the well] 10 years ago when they first got a new drill rig,” said Tiller’s wife, Pat, “and they really struggled to get that well in. It just excites me to think that 10 years ago God knew that water would come in handy for the disaster today.” Shortly after the well was drilled, the city wanted to buy water rights from the church. They offered to pay a price that was more than the church’s annual budget, but the pastor refused.
“The pastor turned them down, because he would be losing control of that well,” Petty said, “and he wanted to make sure the water went to the people in that neighborhood. They not only have water to give to people now but they opened up the church as a shelter the first few nights for people that were homeless.” Communion Church also has been the distribution center for the first surge of food boxes going out to homeless families, Petty said. Church members were involved in putting together these boxes which were financed by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
For the past 13 years Tiller has taken a mission team into Honduras to drill wells. The trips are annual, sometimes semiannual, except for the last two years when the trips were postponed because of a broken drill rig (a large truck with well-drilling equipment) and also because Tiller contracted hepatitis during his last visit and had since been ill.
Tiller’s pastor Sam Morgan said, “Dewayne should not be down there right now, but he really doesn’t spare himself.”
Last year a trip was scheduled for the first part of December to repair the drill rig. Repair parts were shipped to Honduras but then were confiscated by customs and held for an extended period of time. Thus the trip was canceled. The airline gave team members until Dec. 1, 1998, to use their tickets. Commenting on God’s timing, Pat said, “God knew all along that they would be needed down there.”
Originally this mission trip was scheduled for Sunday, Nov.1. Hurricane Mitch hit Thursday, Oct. 29.
Tiller then received e-mail from Tegucigalpa missionaries Larry and Jean Elliott. They said the bridge into the city, which was normally 40 feet above the river, was going to flood by Friday. At that point Tiller lost communication with the Elliotts.
“He tried for hours to get [a line] into the country,” Pat said. “Finally, he reached the Elliotts’ daughter in Houston, Texas. He received a message that the Elliotts were fine and to come — help was really needed.”
Early Monday morning, Nov. 2, with the help of the IMB, Tiller communicated with Tim Patterson, another missionary in Tegucigalpa. Patterson told him to come but at that time planes weren’t landing in the country.
Anxious to get to Honduras, Tiller contacted his travel agent. He asked her to let him know as soon as planes were allowed to land. Later that morning she returned his call.
“She called Monday morning at 11 o’clock,” Pat said, “and said, ‘They’re landing today and you’re booked to leave Portland at 3 o’clock this afternoon.'” Tiller quickly gathered team members together and they arrived at the airport with six minutes to spare.
Petty, who manages Sears Automotive in Springfield, returned home late Wednesday night, Nov. 11, and returned to work the next morning.
Although Tiller and his son remain in Honduras indefinitely, his wife said, “He assured me he would be home by Christmas.” In his absence, Pat runs the family plastics business, E.K. Johnson industries, also in Springfield.
Moreau is a correspondent for the Northwest Baptist Witness.