“Priesthood in Action: Local Saints Cared for as Flood Waters Destroy Mexican City of Irapuato,” Ensign, Nov. 1973, 88–89
On Friday, August 17, Irapuato, Mexico, was a prosperous city of 180,000 people. By the evening of August 18, it was almost totally destroyed as flood waters smashed through the spillway of nearby Conejos dam.
In the midst of the resulting destruction and havoc, the activities of the local priesthood leaders shone forth like a beacon and brought comfort to the members of the Irapuato branch.
Although more than 120 adults and children died as a result of the flood with an additional 300 unaccounted for, there were no injuries and no deaths among the 154 branch members.
Situated in a valley approximately 175 miles northwest of Mexico City, Irapuato is surrounded by ranchland that is nourished by a high amount of rainfall. Two weeks prior to the flood, it had rained virtually nonstop, and the heavy runoff broke through three smaller dams above Conejos. In an attempt to relieve the pressure of the rising waters, local authorities opened spillway gates in the dam. But the pressure was too great and instead of a controlled flow, the gates were smashed, and in a few hours Irapuato was under six feet of water.
In what Mexico’s President Luis Echeverria described as “the most serious flood in our history,” more than 60 percent of the city was destroyed with damages estimated at approximately $40 million.
As soon as the flood threat was realized, Irapuato Branch President Octavio Arrendondo, 22, a two-year convert to the Church, directed local priesthood members to ensure the welfare and safety of the local Saints. Within 24 hours, all members had been accounted for and available food supplies had been gathered together in the house used as a branch chapel.
In Mexico City, Mexico Mission President Lester B. Whetten and his staff went into action to organize relief supplies and enlist the help of Church Health Services missionaries serving in Mexico. Branch members in the nearby cities of Salamanca and Celaya arrived in Irapuato with food cooked ready to eat and water boiled ready to drink.
Reporting on the flood and its aftermath, Sister Pauline Pace, San Jose, California, who with her husband Dr. Joseph L. Pace, serves as a health services missionary in Mexico, said:
“There are many stories of heroism: an old man who could not swim was helped from the water along with a few of his belongings; five people trapped behind an iron gate were rescued from the swirling water; and even a little girl’s cat was saved.
“When the morning came, the waters gradually began to recede and people were able to move around and assess the terrible damage. Nearly every family in the branch had lost all their clothing, furniture, and food.
“Branch President Arrendondo, and his counselor Raymundo Montoya, maintained constant touch with the members, and had them come to the chapel where meals were prepared.
“As health missionaries, we had driven for 20 hours to get to Irapuato when the call for help came. My husband and I were accompanied by Sister Bette Turnbull from Success, Saskatchewan, Canada, and Sister Marlena Brown of Spokane, Washington. We were joined by two other health services missionaries, Sister Linda Watson from Petersburg, Virginia, and Sister Barbara Bruce of Atikokan, Ontario, Canada.
“After setting up a small clinic at the chapel where members were given immunization shots and minor first aid, the health services missionaries reported to the military hospital and went to work helping care for the seemingly endless line of suffering people.”
Describing their arrival in Irapuato, Sister Marlena Brown said: “It seemed to me as though we had entered a war zone as we picked our way through the rubble-filled streets.”
Sister Brown went on to say, “On Sunday, the day following the flood, a meeting was held in the chapel and all the local Saints who could get there were in attendance. Although most of them had lost their homes and literally, their earthly possessions, there was a spirit of deep thankfulness and joy.
“One brother, the father of nine children who had lost his wife just two weeks earlier, now had lost his home and all means of a livelihood. Yet his faith was unshaken. He went among the members giving comfort and consolation. Here was no haunted look of fear, no terror, no panic, but a spirit of thankfulness and determination.
“As food and clothing arrived from other branches and from Mexico City, they were sorted by the members of the priesthood and the Relief Society, then dispensed to the Saints according to their needs. Surplus goods then were made available to other members of the community.
“The Saints had the necessities of life, and, even more important, an inner peace of mind and security.”
This sense of calm seemed to be in direct contrast to the rest of the city, said Sister Brown, where each day more than 150,000 people lined up to be fed from mobile food stations.
Sister Pace added that the massive cleanup job began almost immediately after the flood waters receded. Thousands of armed forces personnel moved into the city to mop up and clean the streets of the once thriving community. Fortunately, the city’s water system was undamaged, and electric power was soon back in service.
She spoke for the Irapuato Saints, saying, “It will be a long road to normal living, but man is blessed with great courage and resilience, and Irapuato will have a new birth.”