PARAMARIBO, Suriname (BP)–As the muddy floodwaters of Suriname’s Tapanahoni River recede, thousands of Aukan villagers who live along the river are welcoming a flood of a another kind: help, and lots of it.
Rice, anti-malaria drugs, gasoline and hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief funds are pouring into the country’s waterlogged interior, and the International Mission Board is playing a critical role in addressing what the Surinamese government calls an “unprecedented” crisis.
Days of torrential rains swamped Suriname’s remote rainforest during the week of May 8, forcing an estimated 22,000 people from their homes and severely affecting another 15,000, according to a United Nations disaster assessment and coordination team. At their height, floodwaters inundated more than 10,000 to 15,500 square miles as rivers rose to levels not seen in recent memory.
Some 60 percent of the population along the Tapanahoni River alone was displaced by the flooding, including Aukaners evacuated from four island villages near the home of IMB missionaries Charles and Brittany Shirey. The Shireys run a radio ministry to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Aukaners. The program is called “Radio Paakati –- 88.3 FM.” Since the flood, however, the station has been pulling double duty, broadcasting both Bible stories and news about the disaster.
Charles Shirey said the station is acting as a key communications hub during the crisis due to the extreme isolation of the Aukan people. More than 100 miles from the nearest road, their villages are accessible only by air or by boat. They live so deep in the jungle that no television, cell phones or any other means of electronic communication can reach them -– except Radio Paakati.
Besides rallying prayer, the station’s biggest boon has been its ability to coordinate logistics, letting villagers know when and from where help is coming. Shirey said Radio Paakati is airing reports about locations for food distribution, tips for combating flood-spawned illnesses such as malaria and diarrhea and even live interviews with aid organizations and government officials working to get more help to people in the interior.
Though most villages have no electricity, Aukaners are able to listen to the station with battery-powered radios. Paakati normally broadcasts every night from 5 to 11, but the flooding has created the need for two hours of programming in the morning and afternoon. Shirey said the station has remained on the air since the flooding began, thanks to a gas generator, 15-foot stilts as the studio’s foundation and a back-up plan: a DJ and emergency studio on top of the mountain where the radio station’s transmitter stands. Most important of all, Shirey said, the Bible stories and Christian music the station plays have not stopped either.
Shirey said it is crucial for the station to continue broadcasting, especially during a crisis. He said after three years of operation, Aukaners have come to depend on Radio Paakati. Though its Gospel message has recently met resistance from a few Aukan leaders, the station’s service during the flood has only strengthened its standing in the community.
However, broadcasting news bulletins and Bible stories has not been the IMB’s only response to the disaster. The Southern Baptist missions entity also has released an initial $22,000 for relief work. IMB strategy coordinator Tim McClard said the money primarily is being used to airlift thousands of food packets and other aid material from Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo, to dozens of small airstrips scattered throughout the interior. Such charter flights aren’t cheap, and McClard said the cost was preventing aid groups from getting enough supplies into the hands of the people who needed them. So far, the IMB has sponsored more than 20 flights. Returning planes are loaded with evacuees fleeing to Paramaribo.
A portion of the relief money also has been used to buy drums of gasoline. Aukaners and other groups living in Suriname’s interior use the country’s rivers like roads -– dugout canoes with outboard motors are their “cars.” But fuel is very expensive outside the city, and there is little extra to go around in a crisis. Shirey said the gas powers boats delivering food packets from the airstrips to outlying villages. He has helped hand out more than 600 food packets in his area alone.
“It has given us huge credibility steps with men,” Shirey said. “When I showed up with the food, they just kept saying, ‘Charles, we really thank you for this, this is a big thing -– you came out here when we needed help, and you’re still here now.’”
Short-term humanitarian needs aside, Shirey hopes the biggest impact from the IMB’s relief work in Suriname will be eternal. He said God is using the flood to soften hearts to the Gospel, and he already has witnessed God at work. Shirey recounted an instance when he was approached by a man while unloading food from a relief flight at an airstrip. The man asked if there was a way he could get his wife and children to the city. Shirey told the man the plane was ready to leave and could take his family. Once they were safely in the air, Shirey said the man asked him how he could learn more about the Bible stories he had heard on the radio.
Shirey says the IMB’s relief efforts also are strengthening vital relationships between the radio station and Aukan leaders. At a recent meeting, captains from several Aukan villages discussed what to do about food shortages after flood relief supplies were exhausted. The majority of the Aukaners’ planting grounds and livestock were destroyed by the flood, and the Surinamese government is offering only short-term help.
When the captains asked his opinion, Shirey told them the story of Joseph, explaining how he helped Egypt survive a severe famine. When he had finished, Shirey asked an Aukan friend with him to make sure the captains had understood the story. As he began to speak, Shirey said the captains stopped him, saying they understood because they had already learned about Joseph on the radio. Whether or not the captains choose to ration their food packets and follow Joseph’s example, Shirey said such instances are a powerful example of Radio Paakati’s witness.
As the floodwaters continue to retreat from the thatch-roofed homes along the Tapanahoni, dark clouds mark the horizon -– literally. Meteorologists in Suriname say more heavy rainfall may be on the way, making the possibility of a second round of flooding very real. Many villagers are watching and waiting to see what happens next before they begin piecing their lives back together. As far as the radio station is concerned, Shirey isn’t wasting any time. He is in the process of installing a stronger transmitter on the tower. If the rivers do rise again, Radio Paakati will be ready.
— Ask God to hold back the rain and allow villagers to return to their homes.
— Pray for good health as some villagers struggle with digestive problems from flood contamination and a possible outbreak of malaria.
— Pray that the Aukan people will respond to the Gospel during their time of need.
To contribute to the International Mission Board’s relief efforts in Suriname, send a check to the International Mission Board, World Hunger and Relief Ministries, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230-0767, with “Suriname Flood –- General Relief” on the check’s memo line. For more information, call 1-800-999-3113.