Central America faces long haul

Thousands of people are still displaced in Central America after hurricanes Stan and Beta roared through in October.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | November 10, 2005

Thousands of people are still displaced in Central America after hurricanes Stan and Beta roared through in October.

While the immediate relief phase has come to an end, said one Lutheran World Relief (LWR) representative, the long-term recovery is beginning. Hurricane Stan tore through Mexico's Yucatan peninsula in early October. Later in the month, Hurricane Beta struck Nicaragua. Both storms also had an impact on many other Central American countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize. The storms dropped heavy rains in mountainous regions, causing landslides and serious flooding. High winds also destroyed homes.

Many relief organizations already working in the region shifted their focus to disaster recovery, including LWF, Action by Churches Together (ACT) and Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). The organizations are providing needed supplies to the thousands still living in shelters.

"We are working with our partners in El Salvador and Guatemala," said Michael Watt, LWR's regional director for Latin America. "We're helping to provide food and water to the shelters, as well as medicine."

Watt said LWR and its partners are also working in Nicaragua and the Honduras where assistance includes providing water purification tablets and supporting efforts to help rehabilitate wells contaminated by floodwater.

Jean Waagbo, LWR's associate director for Latin America, said another serious long-term impact is the damage done to crops in the region. "The coffee crop was severely affected," she explained. "There was also a loss of livestock. Some farmers lost 30 to 40% of the crops in the coffee region. Now they won't have a decent harvest until next year."

Watt agreed. "Floods don't just affect people, it affects crops and animals. If someone lost livestock, that's a critical part of family income. Families also lost their crops on which they depend."

Another challenge for relief agencies working in Honduras and Nicaragua are the tiny communities along what is called the Mosquito Coast. The east coast of the two countries is sparsely populated by smaller communities of indigenous people, said Watt. "The communities are scattered in dense and difficult to access jungle," he said. "It's a generally inaccessible region, and it has a very low economic standard. They are some of the more vulnerable communities given their difficult access to emergency supplies."

The cost of providing immediate aid to these areas is significantly higher than other communities because of the limited access, and that's the challenge, he added. Adding to the communities' vulnerability is that many near the border of Nicaragua and Honduras were already suffering due to crop destruction by rats. "This led to a critical food crisis there, we were responding to that area before Beta struck."

Both Watt and Waagbo agreed that the best way to help LWR and other agencies in Central America is through monetary donations. Monetary donations allow relief supplies to be bought more locally - which Waagbo said both supports the local economy and makes it easier to transport the supplies to the areas in need. The funding also supports the high costs of transportation to areas like the Mosquito Coast.

"It may not sound very glamorous to purchase chlorine tablets and then transport them out to a remote region - but a lot of funding is needed to provide that transportation," said Waagbo. "There's no other way to secure safe drinking water out there. It's an important way to serve these people."

The two also agreed that LWR's relief work is only a drop in the bucket compared to the needs. Other agencies are continuing to provide supplies and aid. Some, like ACT, say that the long-term recovery for devastated businesses will be challenging.

Representatives from ACT said in some countries like El Salvador, small businesses were already closing up shop before the hurricanes because the goods they produced were being bought more cheaply outside of the country.

The long-term economic impact on the many hurricane-affected countries is still being determined.

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