Hurricane Mitch, Honduras, A Baseball Memory
By Donald Dirnberger (Antigua 1977-79)
The year was 1998. Hurricane Mitch was the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, causing over 11,000 fatalities in Central America, with over 7,000 occurring in Honduras alone. Due to the slow motion of the storm and catastrophic flooding. It was the deadliest hurricane in Central America, surpassing Hurricane Fifi-Orlene, which killed slightly fewer people there in 1974. The thirteenth named storm, ninth hurricane, and third major hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic hurricane season. Mitch formed in the western Caribbean Sea on October 22, and after drifting through extremely favorable conditions, it rapidly strengthened to peak at Category 5 status, the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. After drifting southwestward and weakening, the hurricane hit Honduras as a minimal hurricane. Mitch drifted through Central America, regenerated in the Bay of Campeche, and ultimately struck Florida as a strong tropical storm. It then became extratropical and accelerated northeastward across the North Atlantic, before dissipating on November 9. At the time, Mitch was the strongest Atlantic hurricane observed in the month of October, though it has since been surpassed by Hurricane Wilma of the 2005 season. In addition, Mitch is the eighth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record.
Honduras, the island of Utila in the Bay Islands was the birthplace of my mother. My father met her when he was in Honduras in the early 1950’s building banana plantations for the United Fruit Company. My older siblings tell me I was probably conceived in Honduras but was born in Vista, California. In November 1998 the call went forth from the Peace Corps for former volunteers with certain skill sets. They were needed to do disaster recovery work. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer on the island of Antigua, West Indies, Easter Caribbean I answered the call. Completed the paperwork along with the medical and dental exams, the standard immunization shots, will and next of kin notification forms. I had never been to the land of mother’s birth. She had died in 1997 of cancer. This would be my way of honoring her.
January 2, 1999 my flight landed at Washington National Airport. We had a week of in-service training and meetings before we were to be flown to Honduras. Our official designation was Peace Corps – Crisis Corps Volunteer. Our charge was to render aid and assistance to the people of Honduras in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. During our week stay in Washington, DC we met the Ambassadors of all five Central American countries. The Vice President – Al Gore. Had a dinner meeting with The Second Lady – Tipper Gore. A host of state department officials along with US Military experts who were currently doing the major response.
A week later our plane landed in Tegucigalpa. If you have never flown into the hills of silver the pilot said it best when he announced our landing approach. We will be heading west, bank left until we are facing east. If you look out your windows one side will be able to count the people on the streets, on the other side you will watch the clouds. They will stop the traffic at both ends of the runway until we land. I would later learn this airport is rated in the top ten of the most challenging for a pilot. We would also learn that a C-130 landed long down the runway and end up in the ravine. Luckily our pilot nailed it perfect.
We would spend the next six plus months doing our recovery work as a team. There were nine of us. A Registered Nurse, Dental Hygienist, Mental Health Specialist, Water and Sanitation Engineer, Master Carpenter, Construction Specialist, Community Relations Specialist, and myself the Community Business Development Liaison (jack of all trades). I would be not only the quarter master but the pay master, semi-driver, dump truck driver, skid loader operator, carpenter, teacher, trainer, government liaison among others.
The resilience of the people of Honduras is remarkable. By the time we arrived they had with the assistance of nations from around the world begun the recovery and rebuilding process. I spent my time assisting from one coast to the other. I was to make sure that the team and our indigenous volunteers, which we hired and trained to do our jobs along side us, had the materials, equipment, and money to finish the task at hand.
On one such trip to a city on the western side of the country, Choluteca I encountered a young Honduran woman who would be my translator-liaison there. Xiomara, we spent several weeks together and developed a relationship of boyfriend girlfriend. One day she asked me if I would like to accompany her to her home town the coming weekend. I did not have plans as the team was on the other side of the country working on another project and would be back the following week. I said I would love to see her town. We had spent many an hour talking about what we enjoyed and did in our lives. She knew of my being a baseball/softball umpire, basketball referee among other things. Little did I know what would transpire.
Friday, we took the bus which followed the CA 3 Highway south towards the Nicaraguan border. We got off at a small crossroad and hiked several miles to her hometown of San Juan. The road was passable for 4 wheeled vehicles and bikes. Oxen drawn carts and wagons also made the trek. We arrived just before the noon time meal. She asked if we could stop in the local market and buy some items for the meal. Knowing the custom of never bring someone home without gifts or food in a Latin American country I nodded my agreement. When we turned the corner to the market my eyes about jumped out of my head. Before me stood a beautiful red brick stadium. I asked who plays there. She replied our teams. We have a game tomorrow against the Nicaraguan team from across the border. Her smile did not tell me all.
We were in the market only a couple of minutes when her brother joined us. News travels fast when you are in a small town. He was excited to meet the gringo boyfriend of his sister. He told me he was the shortstop on the team that was slated to play tomorrow. There was only one problem neither team trusted the umpires. Xiomara looked at me and said he umpires. And that is how I came to umpire in that most beautiful red brick baseball stadium. The grass was cut with machetes, the red clay dirt infield was immaculate, there was no trash anywhere, the foul lines were pure white, and in the outfield on two flag poles were the flags of each country.
I looked to my host and said I have no gear with me. Her brother said we have some old catcher’s gear which should fit you. Please do us this honor. In short order the gear was handed to me and I tried it on. I would have to wear it on the outside of my clothes. They even had a baseball cap, navy blue. A clicker was found, a brush, a ball bag, a dozen baseballs (sadly no MBL mud to take the sheen off), a pencil and a pad. We were set for the big day tomorrow.
The afternoon meal was a simple fare. The evening meal about the same. We did spend time talking with her family and friends who stopped by to chat. The generator was shut down at 10:00 pm and would not come back on until 6:00 am. So, by candle light and mosquito coils with the coal pot burning low we went to bed.
The game was to be played in the afternoon starting at 1:00 pm. There were no lights on the field. It would be best to start early and get the game in. This was in the spring time and the rainy season would be starting shortly. The details of the game remain with me to this day. I had two fellow umpires. The first base umpire was from Honduras. The third base umpire was from Nicaragua. They had tried to balance the playing field. There were no biased calls or home team favoritism. Umpires and sports officials the world over seem to be cut of the same cloth. We are the ones who keep integrity and honesty in the game. Afterwards along with the players of the teams, friends and fans we were all feted to a BBQ of such foods that I felt at peace in this place, this country of my mother.
Later I would spend three weeks on the island of Utila where my mother was born. They to have a baseball field built I learned by a man who married a sister of my mother. He was called the angel of Utila. But that is another story.
Donald Dirnberger (Antigua 1977-79 & Crisis Corps Volunteer in 1999) is a sports official who began his career at the age of sixteen and has called as he sees them ever since. Among his gives back is to the Special Olympics, County and State, Basketball Games each year since his college days, Unified Softball Leagues, Native American Basketball Tournaments as well as several other disaster recovery trips to the Caribbean. He resides in Colorado where he is an author as well as a sports official. This story appeared in the October issue of Referee magazine.