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Honduras Digging out

by Alex Wynter and Jean Milligan
With winds of up to 290 kph, Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America in October 1998. In Honduras, Mitch killed 6,000 people and caused an estimated US$3.6 billion in damage. The international community responded to calls for help, but will it also foot the bill for programmes to reduce the effects of a storm like Mitch in the future?

"Many of the people here lost totally everything,” said Rosa Suarez, vice president of the Honduran Red Cross. “When I say totally, I mean totally.”

In Honduras, between one and one- and-a-half metres of rain fell within 48 hours. The damage was considerable with 80,000 people left homeless, 60 per cent of road, bridges and water networks destroyed and 90 per cent of the two most important agricultural products – bananas and coffee – wiped out. USAID estimates that it will be two years before Honduras can begin producing enough food again to feed its population.

 

 

 

Red Cross relief

But beyond the statistics are the stories of people like Florentino Sanchez who lost his four children, wife and mother in the storm’s deadly path. In the town of Choluteca, south of the capital, there is no ambiguity about Mitch’s force. The scene was one of total destruction, at least in the band of settlements on either side of the river bank. Many homes were simply swept away, along with hundreds of their inhabitants. A little further from the banks, where the houses were left standing, the topsoil that the floodwater carried – countless thousands of tons of it – had been dug and bulldozed. Interspersed with stagnant pools and sprinkled with rubble and refuse, the area looked more akin to a war zone than a disaster.

And as is usually the case with flood, Choluteca’s parallel public and private water networks were terribly damaged. The supply – what was left of it – was heavily contaminated. In this case, probably more than most, the water and sanitation Emergency Response Unit was aptly named. As the Swedish and Austrian ERUs were off-loading their equipment at the Choluteca airstrip, staff at the city’s main hospital were preparing a special building as a cholera ward.

On the day the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) team from the Swedish Red Cross first arrived in Choluteca, they found a taxi on the river bed. The driver, dead inside, had simply not noticed the bridge wasn’t there any more, so clean are the breaks in the road at either end of its span. In the immediate aftermath of Mitch, a woman’s body was found washed up by the torrent at the exact spot where a tangle of water pipes for the ERU tanks now criss-cross the dusty embankment. A crude wooden cross marks the place.

“This is the fastest turn around of a water ERU I’ve ever been involved with,” said Bo Hakansson, the Swedish team leader. For the people of Choluteca none of this had come a moment too soon. Many of the homeless who used to live down by the river have moved a block or so up the bank, their old homes either in rubble, or buried in a hard sea of mud or gone altogether. They had no water supply other than that brought in by truck. The ERU installed by the Swedes supplied 15 per cent of Choluteca’s entire population – not the end of the problem, but a significant contribution and a vital breathing space for the Honduran engineers who grappled with the enormous problems of getting the old system working again.

Prevention is better than cure

“Unprepared” read the headline of the leading Honduran newspaper, La Tribuna, a week after the storm. The article went on to ask why, with four days warning, was the country caught by surprise. Water and food stocks were low, medical supplies and gasoline reserves were insufficient and no competent emergency plan had been established by the authorities.

It seemed government officials had long forgotten the lessons of the last major hurricane to hit the region in 1974, and ignored efforts to introduce disaster preparedness programmes into communities. But it is not only in Honduras where disaster preparedness efforts are overlooked or neglected. As Yasemin Aysan, director of disaster preparedness at the International Federation states, “Investment in activ-ities to reduce future disasters is still a small percentage of any national and international aid budget.” Yet according to the World Bank and the United States Geological Survey, economic losses for natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by US$280 billion if US$40 billion had been invested in preparedness, mitigation and prevention strategies.

Disaster preparedness programmes of the Federation in Latin America focus on assisting people to evaluate and map risks in their communities, to identify shared resources and establish strategies for evacuation, shelter management and safety at home. Twelve Latin American countries have been participating in this programme since 1995. The president of the Honduran Red Cross noted that those communities and Red Cross volunteers who had participated in the programme, coped and responded better to the disaster.

With the benefits so clear, why is preparedness underfunded? A major reason is that, contrary to large-scale disasters which make excellent television footage, successful mitagation turns a disaster into a non-event. “The media tends to focus on those stories where human suffering is most dramatic and tragic. It is hard to imagine a newspaper headline reporting the success of preparedness and mitigation in reducing losses after a major disaster. And even more unimaginable if funds started coming in to maintain this success!” remarks Aysan.

According to Rosa Suarez, there is a simple reason why Mitch was so destructive, “Too many people took the storm for granted. We went along the river in Tegucigalpa warning people to evacuate. But they have lived through hurricanes before and never had the river reached them. This time was different, and now they are gone.”

 

Alex Wynter and Jean Milligan
Alex Wynter is an information delegate for the Federation in Honduras.Jean Milligan is Federation editor of the Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.


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