From the Field

October 1, 2006
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The author, with the unfinished clinic in the background, utilizes the Magellan eXplorist 100 GPS unit at one of the property corners.


In January 2006, I was presented with a great opportunity to use my surveying skills for a medical aid mission in Central America. Rescue Task Force (RTF), a non-denominational international relief organization that provides disaster relief and medical aid around the world, scheduled a two-week trip to the Indian village of Sih Honduras on the Honduras-Nicaragua border. Because I was acquainted with one of the long-time team members of RTF, I was asked to volunteer my surveying expertise for the mission. The trip included one boat carrying medical supplies and equipment to staff a full-service medical clinic in Sih Honduras, a village so remote that even the most basic medical care is nonexistent. My job was to survey the property for the clinic.

The resident clinic construction foreman walks the clinic boundaries with the author.

Hurricane Damage in Honduras

After Hurricane Katrina struck the United States, Honduras and Nicaragua were directly hit by Hurricane Beta and Tropical Storm Gamma in the fall of 2005. The Moskito region, where the village of Sih Honduras is located, met with doubly destructive forces: the wind and rain from the storms, and the subsequent flooding from the overflowing rivers. Beta and Gamma were every bit as destructive as Katrina, but due to the remoteness of the Moskito region, limited assistance was available to the area's inhabitants. Following the storms, Rescue Task Force dropped supplies to the stranded Indians with the help of the Honduras military and private helicopters.

We arrived in January, the region's usual dry season, to provide more aid. Normally during this time, the ground is dry and the temperature is hot. This year, however, daily thunderstorms kept the rainforest filled with mud. The villages and fields of the Moskito region were all saturated, and the designated land for the medical clinic was knee-deep in muck.

The survey plat for the Wendell R. Cutting clinic in Sih Honduras.

Traveling to the Village

It took two days by local air taxi to get from the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, to Puerto Lempira, a city at the edge of the rainforest. Because the planes are so small, weight is important. After discarding and repacking, I managed to reduce my personal equipment down to 25 pounds for two weeks-and I still could have done with less. Any weight saved on personal items meant more weight available for medical supplies.

When our RTF team arrived in Puerto Lempira, we found a town of dirt streets and shacks at the edge of the rainforest on the Caribbean Sea. Inaccessible by land, Puerto Lempira is five miles past the end of the world. There is no cell phone service, no use for my watch and only six hours of electricity available a day.

From Puerto Lempira it was another 60 kilometers by small boat, then by dugout canoe, and finally by foot through the mud to Sih Honduras, located on the Coco River. Although I have worked in areas ranging from the Middle East to the wetlands of North Florida and South Georgia, I can't imagine anything more remote than Sih Honduras. The people have so little and want so much to care for their families that the first step, like providing basic medical services, is incredibly important.

A local construction crew, neighborhood boys and Rescue Task Force volunteers gather at the front of the clinic building.

Surveying for the Clinic

The Perez family, who are major landowners in Sih Honduras, granted the title to the land for the clinic and the surrounding area to RTF, which then leased the land back to the community for $1. RTF provided the building and medical equipment for the clinic; the government of Honduras provided the doctor to staff it.

To complete the land transaction, a survey and legal description was needed, which I was happy to provide. Because I was required to travel light and didn't know what to expect, I brought along a Magellan (San Dimas, Calif.) eXplorist 100 GPS unit.

I used my Magellan to navigate through the swamps and then to establish the survey boundaries of the clinic. With the WAAS correction signal, which was available, the position obtained was ± 3 meters. Using offsets, I obtained latitude/longitude for the beginning point, which was a large tree. From there, with a Moskito Indian supervising, I waded the clinic boundary and obtained latitude/longitude values for the other boundary points and ties to the Perez family house, Puerto Lempira and the sandbar where the Coco River enters the Caribbean. I converted the latitude/longitude values to the UTM Zone 17 used by the the Honduran military.

While working on this survey, I felt connected to the surveyors who surveyed the western United States before the Public Land Survey System had been extended or monumented. My experience seemed somehow similar to their mineral surveys of the western states on public lands in the 1880s.

Providing Medical Aid

When I wasn't surveying the new clinic property, I was busy setting up the pharmacy, helping pull teeth and cleaning medical instruments. For three days straight, our group's doctor, dentist and veterinarian worked dawn to dark while the locals packed the makeshift clinic.

In this remote part of the world, diseases that we don't even worry about-such as worms, parasites, malaria and pneumonia-are horrific. Among the 16 team members on the medical mission, three contracted malaria despite their use of preventative medicine.

Our trip into this remote area of the jungle provided temporary help to the villagers. However, the opening and staffing of the clinic will make a permanent difference in every aspect of life in the area.

Planning for Next Time

Because I didn't have any material with me to use for setting markers, my goal is to bring supplies and set permanent markers on my next visit to Sih Honduras. Although I have surveyed for more than 30 years, I am not yet sure which method I'll use, but I will use the lightest and most easily carried equipment. One skill I have developed over the years is the ability to use minimal equipment (often field rigged) to complete a project. More often than I care to admit, I am out with clients and need to obtain additional field data or set corners, but I cannot because I am several states away from my office, without my equipment, vehicle or field clothes. It's amazing how my trip to Central America taught me that it is still possible to finish a project properly using the tools at hand.

Another plan for my next visit is to find a way to map the location of the villages and family camping area for the Moskito Indians. The area is currently unmapped and as a result, transportation is limited to boat and dugout canoe. I entered the GPS coordinates for our route into Google Earth, but I could only trace faint areas for the rivers on the imagery. Even among the Hondurans, this area is largely unknown.

When I return to Sih Honduras, I will have a ready-made GIS workforce in place. Although most modern conveniences (like electricity) are not available in the village, several of the young Indians were interested in watching me transfer the coordinates from the GPS receiver to a field book. The more adventurous young men of Honduras travel to the coast and work in fishing boats and as a result, know what a GPS receiver is and how to use one. I am excited to work with them more and help them to map their village.

Mission Success

RTF's trip to Sih Honduras was definitely a success. In just three days, our team treated hundreds of patients who had never seen a doctor or dentist, and evacuated two patients with life threatening diseases.

The clinic opened as soon as the ground had dried enough to allow finishing the floors and installing the doors and windows. Eventually, the additional land will house other facilities such as schools and orphanages that will change life in Sih Honduras for the better.

Having experienced living in remote areas of the U.S. and the Middle East, I am humbled by the opportunity to share my skills and time with others. In all of my 30-plus years of surveying, my most important survey involved using the most basic equipment in a place I never thought I would visit. I look forward to providing additional time and resources to Rescue Task Force when needed, and plan to return to Sih Honduras in January 2007.

Sidebar: Rescue Task Force

Rescue Task Force (RTF) is based in El Cajon, Calif. This all-volunteer organization, which is run with an overhead of less than 2 percent, was the first relief organization into Iraq, and among the first into Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, and tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Sri Lanka.

RTF named the Sih Honduras medical clinic after the late Wendell R. Cutting, a congressional aide who volunteered as RTF's vice president. Cutting helped deliver more than $30 million worth of medical supplies, food clothing, household supplies and disaster relief materials to people in the United States and around the globe. Learn more about RTF at www.rescuetaskforce.org.

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