From Bloomington with love ... to a Nicaraguan sister city

Climbing across the dried-out mud flow that crashed down from the Casita volcano in the relentless rains of Mitch, Fidelia Martnez points to the one sign of human presence: a pipe across a shallow gully.

"That pipe is from the water system the people of Bloomington helped put in," says the relief volunteer from nearby Posoltega. "This place is lost, but let's hope those people help us again as we rebuild from this disaster."

At least 1,500 villagers perished in the mudslide when the outlying farm villages of Rolando Rodrguez and Porvenir were wiped away.

For Bloomington, Ind., the calamity had special poignancy. The Midwest university town has been Posoltega's sister city since the mid-1980s.

"A lot of people have gone back and forth to Posoltega for years, so this is something we felt personally," says Pat William, Bloomington's city clerk and a member of the town's international sister city group. "Like family, you want to do what you can to help."

Bloomington started its relationship with Posoltega when connecting with a Nicaraguan city was something of a political statement. That was during the leftist Sandinista regime, which the US government tried to undermine with an economic embargo and covert aid to antigovernment contras.

But over the years the relationship has deepened, to include periodic interchanges among officials and various aid programs with a long-term focus: safe water supplies, housing, schoolbooks.

So when Mitch hit, Bloomington made contact as soon as possible to find out what was needed. A rock concert was organized to raise money. A caravan of workers and supplies was dispatched.

In Posoltega, the emphasis is already on moving ahead: where to house permanently the hundreds of homeless families now in schools, tents, and other shelters, how to get small farmers producing again.

Outside the small city hall a few dazed people who lost entire families wander about, seeking some way to lessen their loss. Inside, officials expected to bring about a renaissance are talking of establishing gardens of quick-growing vegetables, a seed bank, and a tree nursery to replant damaged forests.

To implement these and other restoration efforts, large-scale international assistance will be crucial, says Mayra Maria Guevara, Posoltega's vice mayor. But the personal help from Bloomington and from people in "Italy, France, the US, and Mexico" will determine Posoltega's spiritual recovery, she says.

"This was a terrible blow," she says, as a knock on her office door signals more requests for help outside. "But without the expressions of solidarity, it would have been unbearable."

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