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Rebuilding Honduras After Hurricane Mitch

March 4, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLES KRAUSE: Hurricane Mitch was a storm of biblical proportions, the most destructive natural disaster in Central America’s modern history. For five days and five nights, there were torrential rains, flooding, and mudslides. And by the time it was over, Hurricane Mitch had caused extensive damage in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. But it was Honduras — already the poorest country in Central America, and one of the poorest countries in the world that was hit hardest.

At the time we were there, fully three weeks after the storm, forensic teams were still searching for bodies buried in the rubble. Since then, the official death toll has climbed to 5600, while there are still many people missing. In Tegucigalpa, the capital, drinking water was scarce, and it’s still scarce because the city’s sewer and water systems were so badly damaged. It will be years before they’re completely rebuilt. The storms also knocked out two-thirds of the country’s roads and bridges, complicating the relief effort and paralyzing the Honduran economy. So last November, U.S. Ambassador James Creagan told us rebuilding the highway system was a top priority.

U.S. AMBASSADOR JAMES CREAGAN: The roads are critical. That’s the immediate reconstruction need, and we will be helping to do that. Temporary bridges, fords through streams, that are good until the rainy season next June, and working on the roads themselves. It’s amazing that — you may have seen the North Coast – but there are areas where 30 or 40 kilometers of road have simply disappeared.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Finance Minister Gabriella Nunez told us Honduras had been set back 25 years.

GABRIELLA NUNEZ, Honduran Finance Minister: I would say we lost the whole country, not only the economy side, but the psychological situation with everybody in this country. So I would say we have a lot of job, a lot of work to do in the next maybe 15, 20 years.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Beyond the highways, the bridges and the infrastructure that were destroyed, fully one-fifth of the Honduran population — nearly a million four hundred thousand people — were left homeless. For weeks, many of them were stranded, dependent on airborne relief missions for their food and water. Others were living in makeshift camps along highways near their homes, which were still too damp and caked with mud to re-inhabit. But the largest number of homeless were living in schools that had been converted into temporary shelters. Cramped and primitive, the schools felt like refugee camps and Honduras itself felt like a country that had lost a war.

Hurricane Mitch wiped out 200,000 homes, and much of the money to rebuild them will have to come from international lending institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Within days after the storm, Enrique Iglesias, the bank’s president, was meeting with Nunez and the other Central American finance ministers trying to assess what would need to be done. Iglesias said that in all his years, he’d never seen a natural disaster more destructive than Hurricane Mitch.

ENRIQUE IGLESIUS, President, Inter-American Development Bank: It affected and destroyed the fiscal infrastructure and at the same time destroyed the economic infrastructure — the plantations of bananas, of coffee, of agriculture and in general, damages that will take four or five years to really be revealed. So it is a catastrophe of major proportions in lives and in economic infrastructure, which is even sadder because this region has been for years subject to all kinds of problems. We have there dictatorships, we had there wars, confrontations for many, many years. When they started in the last 10 years to reveal their democracies, their economies, and we were starting to look, the thing was coming in the right direction, they had this catastrophe, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Concern about the potential political impact of Hurricane Mitch was based on Central America’s history: the Somoza Government’s failure to rebuild Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, after the earthquake there in 1972 led directly to the Sandinista Revolution seven years later, and in 1974, three months after the last major hurricane hit Honduras, there was a military coup.

So in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, Honduras’ current president, Carlos Flores Facusse, became directly involved in virtually every aspect of the relief effort. He visited shelters for the homeless and met with a host of international visitors, like International Monetary Fund Director Michel Camdessus. Indeed, since November, Flores has been widely praised for his handling of the crisis and for acting to forestall the kinds of bottlenecks and corruption that many observers were initially concerned about. The U.S. was particularly worried and has been particularly pleased.

JAMES CREAGAN: We try to think about it in U.S. terms and try to think about dead and homeless in U.S. terms where you might have 20 to 40 million homeless, that kind of thing. It’s really big and it will be tough, but there’s a dedication on the part of Hondurans and I’ll tell you, I have been impressed both by the Honduran public sector and also by the Honduran people out there.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Nowhere was the damage and the task facing Honduras more evident than in the Sula Valley, where U.S. fruit companies own vast banana plantations and where 70 percent of the Honduran economy comes from. We overflew the valley with Jose Molina, vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce, who told us the business community in San Pedro Sula was anxious for the world to know the extent of the damage and what it would take to rebuild.

JOSE MOLINA: See all these bananas are starting now to turn yellow, so all the crop is completely lost. You see that there’s so much destruction here, that there’s so much water still in these areas, because the two rivers converged, and the rivers, I believe, still go on into areas where crops were being planted, or where they had cattle.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Although most of the Sula Valley is used for agriculture, there are also factories called Maquila plants that manufacture mostly clothes for export to the United States. At the Continental Industrial Park, ten of those Maquila plants were flooded, and their workers left without homes and without jobs. In the days and weeks after the hurricane, without money and without shelter, the unemployed became increasingly anxious, forced to pick through mounds of discarded clothing, trying to find anything at all that was salvageable.

(Speaking Spanish) One woman told us, “We’re all in need, and we’re all desperate.” So far, though, the kind of social explosion that many feared would take place in the aftermath of Mitch has not occurred. But there is growing evidence that thousands of Hondurans have simply given up.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, in recent months more and more Honduran refugees have been caught trying to make their way illegally into the United States. The need to rebuild Honduras and to reactivate the economy quickly was recognized by Honduran and U.S. officials early on, both to avoid a political upheaval and the outflow of refugees that’s now apparently begun. There was also a recognition that rather than just rebuild the country as it was, Mitch and the destruction it caused offered a tragic but long overdue opportunity for change.

Last November, we talked to Luis Consenza Jiminez, who heads a Honduran foundation which promotes private enterprise.

LUIS COSENZA JIMINEZ: I think we have two choices. One is to rebuild the country as it was before the hurricane and the other one is to seize upon this opportunity and transform it into a country which is more equitable, in which we have greater opportunities— everyone has greater opportunities. We do need international support obviously. But by and large, I think it’s a task that falls upon our own shoulders. It’s a question of whether we will have the will and determination to carry it through and seize upon this opportunity, as I said before, to make a difference in this country.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Cosenza and others were saying last November that one of the most critical choices Honduras would have to make concerned deforestation, which contributed directly to the flooding and to the high number of people who lost their lives during the hurricane. That’s because as more and more Campesino families have moved from poor, rural areas to Tegucigalpa and other Honduran cities, they’ve cut down trees to build shacks, then built those shacks on desolate mountainsides or on flood plains along unprotected riverbanks.

LUIS COSENZA JIMINEZ: They end up living in areas that are very susceptible to flooding and we run into the problems that we have over here, so in a way, we have a double problem if you wish –deforestation on the one side that increases the possibility or probability of mudslides or large floods — and on the other hand, we have — because of our development — we have people moving into the cities and having to live in areas which are really not suitable for living. So we have both effects combined and, therefore, we run into the destruction that we recently had.

CHARLES KRAUSE: At the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique Iglesias told us there were also a host of other changes the reconstruction effort would have to address.

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS: Let me give you some examples. They have a lot of infrastructure, bridges, roads. Maybe they will have to study the new routes, or new technology, so that if something happened in the future, they have learned from the present crisis. In the case of housing where they had a tremendous problem, maybe the techniques of housing construction will be different in different places with different structures. And then the environmental problem, everybody agrees that this disaster was widely, widely amplified because of environmental problems, deforestation. So let us try to make of this a major issue. The world has to help in these countries to do that, because not only are we defending the economy here or the social problems; we are defending the new democracies that took so much time, so much people dead, so much sad history behind, to endanger it now. So it’s important for many, many ways.

CHARLES KRAUSE: When President Clinton arrives in Honduras, he’s expected to visit a new bridge and to see other examples of what’s been done with the millions of dollars the United States has so far donated toward the rebuilding effort. The President will also be told that Honduras is slowly beginning to claw its way back to life. But the task ahead would be daunting even for a developed country with far more economic and human resources. So aid officials will undoubtedly tell the President that Honduras will be dependent for many years on the goodwill and generosity of the international community and, most importantly, the United States.