It’s been three weeks since Tropical Storm Eta landed in Honduras forcing dozens of PartnerHero employees and their families to evacuate their homes, in many cases with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Between then and now, Hurricane Iota also hit the region, causing additional flooding and delaying the timeline for when those impacted can begin rebuilding their lives.
I had a chance to catch up with Maurice Alexander, our Director of Workplace Services, and Claudia Alvarenga, Workplace Manager, both based in San Pedro Sula, about their experience coordinating the PartnerHero relief effort these past few weeks. The most striking takeaway is that there is a very long road ahead for those impacted by the storm and any support our larger community can provide is truly needed. We will continue to raise money through the end of the year via our GoFundMe campaign. Please consider donating and sharing with your network.
Since the storm hit, PartnerHero has coordinated 15 hotel rooms for associates and their families and put together 50 recovery kits that include clothes, food and cleaning supplies to support the basic needs of those impacted. We’ve also coordinated transportation like boat rescues and rides in and out of impacted areas. Maurice said, “we put together the kits in the office and used a delivery service to send them to people regardless of if they were at a hotel or staying with relatives. We even personally delivered some of the kits. At the end of the day, we wanted people to forget, even just for ten minutes, what they had just been through. To put on fresh, clean clothes. To prepare a meal with their family. To have a respite from the overwhelming feeling of losing everything.”
Claudia is old enough to remember Hurricane Mitch from 1998, the worst hurricane to hit Honduras until these most recent ones. From that experience she knew how to jump into action. First, help people with their immediate needs. She coordinated boat rescues and rallied the PartnerHero community to come together to donate and purchase basic necessities within hours of the storm. Some of our employees were stranded on their roofs for multiple days and as their cell phones ran out of battery, Claudia had nothing but WhatsApp locations for each stranded employee to use to coordinate boat rescues. When everyone was finally evacuated, many had nothing but the clothes on their backs. During the first week after the storm Claudia and Maurice were working to provide basic necessities like hotels, clothes, food and water.
“Their safety was our biggest first priority. To get everyone safe, out of that place. Immediately after we began assessing their needs. They needed clothes and somewhere for their families to sleep,” Claudia said.
Covid has hit the Honduran economy hard and many PartnerHero employees have parents, brothers, sisters and cousins who have lost jobs. Because of this, many who were living in San Pedro Sula, a bigger town with modern flood infrastructure, moved back to their family homes in smaller surrounding towns to save money and help their larger families stay afloat. These smaller towns, La Lima in particular, have been most impacted by the floods. As a result, the PartnerHero relief efforts have not only touched our employees but also their families.
Maurice said, “We Latinos are really close with our families. We have associates who live with their parents and siblings, their grandparents and cousins. They didn’t want to be separated from their families. We had one case that was a family of 15 that didn’t want to leave their hotel in Lima because they didn’t want to leave their family behind. We did everything possible to help them out - do you need food? Cleaning supplies? Let us know, we will support you.”
Claudia and Maurice have been floored by the PartnerHero response - from other associates living in Honduras to our Partners who have contributed to the GoFundMe fundraiser. “We created the Honduras Relief Channel in Slack asking people, ‘if you have food, diapers, PPE, clothes, please donate.’ We weren’t expecting a huge response because everyone was dealing with their own impacts of the storm. But people went personally to the supermarket to get packages of soup, diapers, water, everything. It was an overwhelming response from our associates. When I heard the partners wanted to help out, I mean, words cannot describe how meaningful that is.”
"People went personally to the supermarket to get packages of soup, diapers, water, everything. It was an overwhelming response from our associates. When I heard the partners wanted to help out, I mean, words cannot describe how meaningful that is."
The financial impacts of these storms will take years to recover from. “Here, and most places in Latin America, just getting a house takes years. Losing your house, losing everything you bought over the years, it's just devastating. We don’t have the same things that you have in first world countries. Insurance is very rare, only the wealthiest Hondurans can afford it. The financial situation is really precarious and the storm makes it much worse.”
“The financial burden this will bring to them is one thing but the fact that we’re helping them by finding places for them and their families to stay, by feeding and clothing them is a big deal. We’re giving them time to settle in with the news and are actively asking how they are doing. We are working around their needs from a scheduling perspective, knowing that the health and safety of their families needs to be their first priority right now. The emotional and financial support that we’ve given them is priceless. Unfortunately that's the harsh reality in our country. Most companies are just looking at the numbers. ‘Oh you missed 3 days? We have to fire you on the 4th’ is a much more common company response here. Our associates are so grateful.
"We’re giving them time to settle in with the news and are actively asking how they are doing. We are working around their needs from a scheduling perspective, knowing that the health and safety of their families needs to be their first priority right now. The emotional and financial support that we’ve given them is priceless."
One challenge with Tropical Storm Eta was that there were no evacuation warnings in advance of the storm. The Honduran government only issued an evacuation warning on Thursday November 5th, two full days after flooding began. In addition to providing immediate relief, Maurice and the Workplace Services team are working on how to better prepare for future storms - everything from coming up with our own standards for evacuating employees, better tracking of exactly where each associate is located to equipping each employee with redundancies for power and internet connection. Maurice explained, “it's a strange time with the pandemic. In the past we would say ‘come to the office if something happens, we can get inflatable beds and have enough power supplies to last weeks’ but because of Covid this approach is too risky for us. So we are trying to upgrade the associate home office experience and give them redundancy. For example, high capacity power supplies so if there is a power failure they can attach their computers to it and work for 6 to 8 hours. We’re currently testing international hotspots that can work from any country in case you have an internet outage. With these supplies our associates should at least be able to finish out their workday should they lose internet and power. We are building a software system that can identify where associates are. That was one issue with Eta: people have been moving so much during the pandemic that we didn’t necessarily know where everyone was. In the future, whenever we have not a natural disaster or even social unrest we'll be able to identify where our most vulnerable associates are. Two years ago we would have just said ‘come to the office.’ But that’s not the world we live in today. At this point we have to empower people wherever they might be.”
A popular hashtag that has emerged from these storms is #ElPuebloAyudaAlPueblo roughly translating to #PeopleHelpingPeople. It represents the incredible response individual people in Honduras and people around the world have provided in the face of this incredible need. “The People Helping People hashtag is not just for Honduras. It is universal. People helping people, the goodness, the willingness to help out even though you don’t personally know the person you are helping. By donating $5 or $10 you really make a difference. Thank you. In these situations you see that there is still goodness in the world. There are people who have made it their life mission to help people and make sure they have their basic needs met. Rebuilding a country, it's not something that is going to to take months. It's going to take years. After Hurricane Mitch it took us 5 or 10 years to get back on our feet. The continued support is needed.”
"The People Helping People hashtag is not just for Honduras. It is universal. People helping people, the goodness, the willingness to help out even though you don’t personally know the person you are helping. By donating $5 or $10 you really make a difference. Thank you"
“Thanks to everyone who shared the GoFundMe and all the associates who came forward and helped with donations, who helped put the kits together, brought hygiene materials, clothes and food. And other associates who contacted boats and helped out big time. I really want to thank everyone who came forward and helped out.”
We will continue raising funds for our Honduran colleagues through the end of the year via this GoFundMe campaign. Please consider donating and sharing with friends and family. One of our associates was interviewed for the BBC about her family’s experience with Tropical Storm Eta, you can see it here.
Cover photo by Nelson Jose Guevara