Hurricane Iota barreled through the Colombian islands of San Andrés and Providencia with 160 mile-per-hour (260 kilometer-per-hour) winds on November 16, 2020, downing powerlines and trees and destroying streets and buildings. According to Colombian government officials, the Category 5 storm destroyed 98 percent of the homes on Providencia, leaving persons in need of shelter and basic necessities. One person was reported dead from the storm. Church officials reported no deaths among the membership, while dozens of Adventist families lost everything.
“The hardest hours were between 3:30 and 7:00 a.m. It was terrifying; the sound and the shaking was so strong that we thought we would not survive,” Adrian Villamizar, leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Providencia, said. He and his family took cover at their home. The island had never experienced such destruction before, he said.
Jonathan Gallego, president of the church in the Colombian Islands Mission headquartered on San Andrés, said Iota hit San Andrés on a lesser scale, but the brunt of the storm devastated Providencia. “Even though you see some walls standing, everything was destroyed,” he said.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Colombia and its GARSA Rescue team traveled as quickly as possible to San Andrés on November 18 to clear roads, remove debris, and begin assisting displaced people, Jair Flórez, ADRA country director, reported. “The team cleared 33 different areas on the island, and they stayed through November 23,” he said.
So far, 50 Adventist families have been affected and three churches destroyed in Providencia. In San Andrés, 30 families have damaged homes, and two churches were destroyed out of the eight Adventist churches that sustained damage.
Even though communication was not possible and reaching Providencia presented difficulties, the ADRA team traveled toward the island with a plan to distribute an initial 300 hygiene kits and 40 portable gas stoves on November 20. The ADRA Colombia team and Gallego arrived on a vessel with a team of pastors and volunteers to assist Providencia residents.
“After traveling eight hours on a ship to Providencia, we could not disembark because we got there at night, and the authorities did not allow entrance until daylight,” Gallego said. Besides, there was no way to get to the dock, he added. “I went ahead of the church team through a small boat to the shore and found a church member who is a counselor on the island.” He was able to ride on the member’s motorcycle to visit church members on the island that night.
“It was amazing to see the joy of so many church members who were overtaken with tears of joy when they saw us come with aid, because for days the power and cell phone towers were down,” Gallego said. “We prayed, sang, and heard miraculous stories of survival. They would all say they were only alive because of the grace of God.”
In addition to the humanitarian aid given to members and the community in Providencia, the rescue team shared 40 Bibles and hymnals.
Church leaders said the church and ADRA Colombia would continue assisting affected families in the days and weeks to come. As a first step, 1,300 hygiene kits and 500 portable gas stoves are scheduled to be distributed in Providencia.
Even though ADRA Colombia has an agreement with the Delivering Shipping Line S.A.S company, shipping supplies to San Andrés is complicated because space is limited, Flórez said. “We opened a new account at the national level to collect funds to assist the islands,” he said.