Originally created 11/28/98

Mitch survivor brings memories home



For one man, being home for the holidays has taken on a whole new meaning this year.

Didier Rubio returned to Augusta a week ago after witnessing the mass devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras. The tons of rushing water and mud that washed away whole villages almost destroyed his home.

For 16 months, Mr. Rubio ran a bed and breakfast located in the base of the mountains 30 minutes from Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras.

Mr. Rubio, who moved to Augusta in 1983 with his parents and two younger brothers, had been looking for a change in lifestyle when he moved to Honduras. An entrepreneur, he'd started a number of business ventures but was looking for a new opportunity.

"I guess I do my own thing and there was nothing happening here," he said.

His parents, who now live in Miami, owned a house in their native Honduras that wasn't being used. When their son asked if he could move there and start a business, they were pleased to have a family member looking after the place.

The perfect life

Mr. Rubio's inn, located on the outskirts of the town of El Valle de Angeles, or "the Valley of Angels," was a five-room bed and breakfast. With a staff of four people, he lived an idyllic life as an innkeeper, farmer and tour guide to the mountains and rainforest.

The house stood on La

leading to San Juancito -- a village with about 800 residents. Villagers knew him as "Teacher," because he once taught English in schools there.

With his inn full every weekend with travelers from all over the world, there wasn't a shortage of interesting company. He charged guests $15 a night for room and board.

"I wasn't making a killing because I really wanted to backpack," he said.

Backpackers were elated to find a place with hot water, private bath and washer and dryer after several weeks hiking across Central America. Mr. Rubio said many of his guests said finding the inn was a little surreal after hiking through rain forests and the rural countryside.

"I guess it was the perfect life," he said.Because October is normally the rainy season in the area, Mr. Rubio wasn't concerned about the steady rain that had been coming down for most of the month. He actually welcomed it because the previous year's season was so dry he had installed an irrigation system in his garden.

But without a telephone or TV, Mr. Rubio was unaware of the disaster looming over the country. About a week before the storm hit, he lost electricity and decided to take his 4x4 pickup truck into Tegucigalpa to run errands and see what was up.

Five miles out of town he saw buses backed up on the paved road because of massive mudslides. The alternative route to the city, a two-and-a-half-hour drive on dirt roads over mountains and farmlands, revealed a pastoral landscape flooded in muddy water.

Passing hurriedly across a bridge over the Choluteca River, which runs through Tegucigalpa, he knew it wasn't an average storm.

When he finally arrived in the city, he saw the destruction caused by the storm.

"It was the heaviest rain I've ever seen," he said. "It looked like a war zone."

The river, which was twice as wide as the Savannah River, had become clogged with debris.

"Mercedes-Benzes and Toyotas were flying down the river. There were dead bodies and bloated cows," Mr. Rubio said.

"We went to the mountains, and all of the barrios were gone that were built near the river. They dragged one woman out of her house, and her feet were wrinkled -- I guess because all of the water. She had been found in a closet with a child, I think her grandson," he said.

He started thinking about the horses and cattle at the inn and decided to head back to El Valle.

Back on the road, he had to leave his truck because all of the bridges were washed out.

He walked the 22 miles along what had been the paved road to the city. Trudging through waist-high water and past huge sinkholes in the mountain, he felt like the last person on earth.

Landslide

Arriving back at the inn -- muddy, weary and shell-shocked -- he received a welcome hug from Teresa, the housekeeper and his surrogate mother. The inn's lone guest had fled for fear of the mountain falling.

The loud groaning and creaking sounds he heard then were like those used for the sinking sounds the ship made in the movie Titanic. He heard people screaming and ran outside to find out what was happening.

"I looked to the left and saw huge trees that looked like they were marching down the mountain. It happened so fast -- it was shaking like an earthquake," he said.

Heading down the mountain, the landslide took a left-hand turn away from the inn, missing the home between 5 and 10 feet. It plowed through a neighborhood, taking out a two-story home and pool across the way.

It took about 13 minutes for the landslide to demolish the area.

Although people told him not to stay in the house, at that point, Mr. Rubio said he was too tired to leave.

"I didn't care. It was crazy ... insane. But people already thought I was crazy," he said.

After a couple of days cleaning debris, he got on a horse and road to see what was left of the village of San Juancito. His jaw dropped when he saw that the town didn't exist anymore.

"Even the crickets had stopped chirping," he said.

Homecoming

His experience in Honduras -- and returning to Augusta -- has been a life-affirming experience for Mr. Rubio. About a week ago he flew out of Tegucigalpa to Miami. He drove up from Miami with his mother last Saturday.

"My perspective is to enjoy life. Try to keep it simple. In El Valle, the life I was living was perfect, but all of that was gone in a second," he said.

Being near his brothers, Coco and Jason, who both live here and run The Soul Bar on Broad Street, provides a safe haven.

And he's had an outpouring of support from old friends who have offered room and board, employment and even a car.

"This is what life is about -- true friends that really care about you. A support unit is very important, and I have a lot of people who care about me here."

But he stressed how lucky he is compared to many people still living in the wrecked Third World country.

"I had the opportunity to leave with a visa -- a lot of people can't. I've been lucky all my life. This has been the most incredible experience I've ever had. It's definitely another jolt that's putting me on another road, and I'm taking it," he said.

With the tourism industry in Honduras gone, he said he's not sure when he'll return. He had planned to open a restaurant in Tegucigalpa and may try something here.

Even so, "every day I think about Honduras. Honduras is destroyed."

Hurricane damage

As of Nov. 10, the National Emergency Committee of Honduras reported there were 6,600 dead, 8,052 missing and 11,998 injured because of Hurricane Mitch. About 2 million people were left homeless.

The infrastructure -- including roads, bridges and water systems -- was devastated. The incidence of disease has already reached epidemic proportions.

To track disaster relief progress, regularly updated Web sites include www.info.usaid.gov and www.disasterrelief.org, which has links to worldwide relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Doctors Without Borders.

Didier Rubio is organizing a local relief effort specifically for Valle de Angeles and the people of San Juancito. For information, contact the Soul Bar, 984 Broad St., Augusta, GA (706) 724-8880.

Margaret Weston can be reached at (706) 823-3217.