- Daniel Pardo
- BBC Mundo correspondent in Colombia
“At 3 in the morning the ordeal began”, recalls Marichel Peñaloza. “At the time the cell phone signal was gone, the wind was furious; it blew, came and went, the earth shook, the walls, the whole world seemed to end.”
“But we kept on praying despite the anguish and we were saved by a miracle, because God is merciful, because everything material was destroyed; everything is brown, there are no trees, there are no animals, the iguanas have no trees to mount on.”
Peñaloza is one of the residents of Providencia, an island in the Colombian Caribbean, which was evacuated to the largest island of San Andrés, after Hurricane Iota devastated everything on Monday.
The 33-year-old woman was able to leave Providencia, where 5,000 people live, because a 92-year-old man, as well as his three children, depends on her.
From San Andrés, where the government of Iván Duque is promoting the rescue operation, Peñaloza speaks with BBC Mundo amid tears and euphoria, mixing Spanish and his native English as his emotions dictate.
“As soon as I landed in San Andrés I knelt on the floor, I opened my arms and said to God thank you, thank you, thank you for saving us“, Add.
Providencia was, at least until now, one of the best-kept secrets of the exuberant Colombian landscape, perhaps because its inhabitants – of Afro, Anglo and Colombian roots – never allowed tourism to arrive in droves.
To this is added the lack of state presence, which results in a precarious infrastructure, a hospital with little scope and houses built with local materials, almost all of wood, without the capacity to contain a category 5 hurricane like Iota, which surpassed any storms that had passed through there previously.
Iota destroyed everything that had been built in Providencia since the Spanish landed in the 15th century. “It destroyed 99% of the infrastructure,” Duque lamented. And yet, only one person (and another in San Andrés) lost their lives.
“Just something supernatural”
San Andrés y Providencia is one of the smallest departments in Colombia, but one of the most densely populated. It depends on tourism, so the coronavirus pandemic had already dealt a hard and unprecedented blow to its inhabitants.
The archipelago is a perfect X-ray of the country’s diversity: of the total of 80,000 inhabitants, according to official figures, 40% are Raizal, members of an ethnic community with African, European and Caribbean roots with their own identity and a language that mixes Creole, English and Spanish.
Most of the raizales are in Providencia, because since San Andrés was declared a free port in the 60s, its demography, economy and culture began to resemble the rest of Colombia.
Providencia, on the other hand, remained practically intact. And with that his religiosity, between Protestant and Christian, continued to be a central aspect of island life.
“The islanders are very religious, very conservative in their understanding of religion, and when the storm came, everyone’s prayers were connected like a chain,” says Adrián Villamizar, pastor of the Providencia Adventist Church.
On the island for three years, Villamizar spent nine hours sheltering in the bathroom of a neighbor’s house while the hurricane passed: “Eight people got into a bathroom holding a mattress as protection. We thought we were not going to live anymore. hours flew by. We just prayed, but the other people cried, they despaired. ”
Both he and Marichel Peñaloza attribute their survival to the natural disaster to a supernatural effect: “The only explanation is that God is merciful, that he loves us, that this is a wake-up call, that we have to change our attitude and think, “she says.
Iván Duque himself gave a religious interpretation to the events, noting that the effigy of a virgin at a high point on the island has remained intact: “Many people said that she is miraculous, because she avoided many deaths on the island” said the president.
The day after the storm, Peñaloza participated in the looting of a store on the island. “And I confess to you, I went in and took out some malts and soap and a package of bread, but the people, despite everything, were drinking beer and hot, as if celebrating.”
“So I say, man, how is it possible that they are celebrating after all this. On the contrary, that is a call from God for us to surrender to him, because if it weren’t for him we would not be alive,” he concludes.
But beyond this supernatural explanation that some islanders find as to why there were so few deaths on the island, there is the preparation of many locals before the passage of the storm.
“Everyone got ready,” explains Juanita Ángel, owner and manager of Cabañas Agua Dulce, one of the few hotels in Providencia.
“Everyone tied their roofs, sealed their windows, organized themselves, went to a safe place, went to shelters, but the hurricane was so strong that everything blew up and not a single roof was left,” he says.
The woman took shelter with about twenty people in a hotel, in what is perhaps the only underground bunker on the island prepared for a scenario like this.
Although the Duque government said it had taken precautions to avoid further damage, many have criticized it for not evacuating the inhabitants of Providencia, as was done in Honduras and Nicaragua, where Iota also passed with devastating consequences.
Yolanda González, a meteorologist at the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam), told the newspaper El Tiempo that “science and knowledge have allowed us to save many lives. Reaching the community with timely information saves lives.”
The official was there during the hurricane and attributes the low lethality to government measures, which included shelters for the islanders.
Marichel Peñaloza, however, disagrees: “Most of the people were saved because they went to the toilets, because they are the only (spaces) that have a cement ceiling “.
She, as well as Villamizar, spent the night of the storm in a bathroom with a dozen people. And that saved their lives.
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