Baja Relief Trip

Baja California Sur, Mexico
Hurricane Odile Relief Trip
by Nena Barlow

My trip to Baja was my small way to contribute to the efforts of rebuilding from the damages of Hurricane Odile. We launched the Friends of Harald group to raise funds to go directly and entirely to help those who need a boost to recover in Harald’s neighborhood, like Pedro, who lost his entire house. I chose to contribute by using my resources of time and money to actually deliver some goods and be there to assist physically and with whatever reassurances I could offer. I took my 17-year-old son, PJ, with me for experience for him and just some extra muscle for the rebuild projects. We both saw a lot, learned a lot, and it was a gratifying trip.

We left from Arizona with our 4x4 pickup truck and drove Mexico 5 through San Felipe and Coco’s Corner on our way to Highway 1, the famous Transpeninsular Highway, to Guererro Negro at the border of Baja California Sur. Then we drove the 1, all the way to La Paz. Everyone will tell you to be careful driving in Mexico. But after driving in Phoenix and Los Angeles, I find that driving the Transpeninsular Highway is a refreshingly friendly experience. Yes, the lanes are very narrow much of the way, but the pavement (even after the Hurricane) is much smoother than, say, Sacramento or Santa Monica. The traffic is light, polite and very cooperative about passing and making way for oncoming traffic.

As we passed through coastal areas of Baja California, you see some roofs missing, sand piled against some structures, and a few downed trees, but you are not sure if this is just neglect or hurricane damage. But once you reach Baja California Sur, as you drive through San Ignacio, then Santa Rosalia and Loreto and Mulege, you suddenly realize how violent and recent this all actually was. Water lines on trees and walls above the roofs of homes, trucks and cars half-buried in sand alongside a recently rebuild bridge, wind-whipped trees leaning with just a few scraggly leaves clinging to the branches, and tarps where roofs of homes and businesses used to be.

I have to admire the people’s response to the hurricane. Instead of sitting down in the middle of the devastation, lamenting their losses, and waiting for someone to come help, they take the attitude of “well, that sucked—let’s start sweeping up and do what we need to do to get working again.” The Transpeninsular Highway, the main artery of all of Baja, washed out in many places. Bridges or low water crossings were just gone, and in many places where the highway had been built up to be level, the fill was washed or blown away and the road edges were collapsed. By the first day the water had stopped flowing, locals were clearing go-arounds and bypasses so the trucks could get through. The federal government sent over ferries full of CFE (the power company) trucks to reestablish electricity as soon as possible. Within a week or two after the hurricane knocked down nearly every power pole in the La Paz area, CFE workers had them upright and functioning again. And on an individual level, I like to point to Pedro and his family-- Pedro’s entire house collapsed. They salvaged what they could and put up a tarp for some shelter. He showed up to work the following Monday. Life goes on.

So, our trip was not to bring immediate relief of emergency supplies, but rather to help with the ongoing rebuild of secondary needs (if you consider things like a house secondary, after water, food and electricity are restored…) La Paz has a population of almost one-hundred thousand people. Like many American cities of that size, has a Home Depot and a Walmart, which seems so odd after driving the last 1000 miles through rural Mexican countryside. Having those stores meant that there were many supplies we needed for our projects that did not have to be carried by us from the states. Our load of supplies consisted of odd things that cannot be found in La Paz stores: a cement vibrator, synthetic motor oil, solar panels, and Viva paper towels. Any of you who have traveled with Harald understand the significance of Viva paper towels.

 

This also made for interesting conversations at the military checkpoints. The primary goal of the military checkpoints is to stop guns and drugs, but they found my camping air mattresses, Viva paper towels, and my ARB weather-proof duffels to be the items of most interest. When one thorough soldier insisted on me showing the contents of my duffel, I pulled out the pair of pink panties on top and waved them at him. He quickly decided that we could move on. I might not recommend that as a technique for everyone.

We spent five whirlwind days at Hacienda Las Puertas (Harald’s house), righting leaning trees, cutting up trees that couldn’t be saved, rebuilding hurricane-ravaged roofs, and working on wall and house designs that would be better this time around. We did take evenings off to enjoy local cuisine, cruise El Malecon (the Esplanade), or hang out at the beach. I lived on seafood and tortillas—yum! We held a small party on Saturday afternoon for the Friends of Harald, and presented Pedro with a gift certificate for a house. He was surprised and very happy! On Monday, Harald, Karl, PJ and I visited Pedro’s family. Pedro showed us his property, and gave us radishes from his garden. His mother and father, who also live on the property, showed me where their kitchen had collapsed. Karl came up with a plan to improve the electrical wiring for the whole property as well as hook up the rebuilt house to the sewer for the first time.

We talked a lot about what to do next with Friends of Harald, now that the plan for Pedro’s house is set and work is starting. The challenge is that there are so many that still need basic things, like a roof over their head, that it is hard to choose who gets what little help we can offer. We made some wonderful friends and saw some amazing things. I hope that we made some difference, and through Friends of Harald, can continue to do so. We go on, and we do what we can with what we have. Hasta mañana!