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Hurricane disaster called 'catastrophe without dimension'

BY PJ HELLER | TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras | November 3, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Nov. 3, 1998) -- Rescue workers Tuesday continued

the grim task of recovering bodies from the mudslides and floods caused by

former Hurricane Mitch. Officials said the storm's death toll in Central

America could reach more than 7,000.

At the same time, officials in Honduras and Nicaragua were struggling to

recover from the devastation of the storm. Both nations are among the

poorest in the hemisphere.

"Eighty-five percent of the country has been destroyed," reported Julio

Enamorado, vice consul at the Honduran Consulate in New York. He said it

could take 40 to 50 years before his impoverished country recovers.

Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse pleaded Monday night for

international aid and announced he was suspending constitutional liberties

to combat looting.

"There are corpses everywhere, victims of landslides or of the waters,"

he said in a nationally broadcast speech. "The most conservative

calculations of the dead are in the thousands, not in the hundreds.

"I ask the international community for human solidarity," he said.

Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman said the flooding and mudslides were

his country's worst natural disaster since a magnitude 6.2 earthquake

killed 5,000 people in 1972.

President Clinton on Monday said the United States was "determined to

help" and would do what it could to help the people of Central America


"We have provided over $2 million in funding for food, medicine, water

and other supplies," Clinton said. "Two airlifts already have arrived with

sheeting for shelter and food. Another airlift will take off today."

Members of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International in the region

described the situation in Central America as "a catastrophe without


"Almost everything is damaged or destroyed and it will be difficult to

recover from such a tragedy," they said, echoing the sentiments of many

government officials.

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua told the Miami Herald: "I

have seen earthquakes, droughts, two wars, cyclones, tidal waves, but this

is undoubtedly the worst thing I have ever seen."

Enamorado said Monday afternoon that the death toll in Honduras had

risen to 2,000. By evening, Dimas Alonzo, chief of operations for Honduras'

National Emergency Committee, said that "more than 5,000 people" probably


"We will never know how many people died," Alonzo said.

The death toll was expected to climb steadily as rescue workers made

their way to villages and towns at the foot of the Casita volcano in

northern Nicaragua, where some 1,500 people may have perished when a wall

of mud and boulders came crashing down on them.

More than 1,300 deaths have been confirmed in Nicaragua; more than 2,000

people are listed as missing. Another 148 people died in flash floods in El

Salvador and at least 100 died in Guatemala, including 11 people, 10 of

them Americans, killed when a plane operated by the Living Water Teaching

Mission crashed in the rain on Sunday. One storm-related death was reported

last week in Mexico.

Relief efforts were hampered throughout Nicaragua and Honduras because

many of the towns affected are in remote rural areas and are difficult to

reach. Roads and bridges were washed out, making travel by land nearly

impossible. Helicopters were being used to bring in relief supplies and

bring out the injured.

"The government (of Honduras) hasn't been able to really evaluate the

damages caused by this hurricane," Enamorado said. "We have a lot of

infrastructure damages. Houses, bridges, roads have been destroyed all over

the country."

"Honduras is mortally wounded, but not about to expire," Flores said in

his address. "We will get back on our feet."

Reports said that more than 1 million people were homeless in Honduras.

Telephone, electric and water utilities were barely functioning, the

reports said. Schools were closed indefinitely. Widespread looting was

reported in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where water levels earlier

had risen to the third floor of some buildings.

"More than 70,000 homes were destroyed. One million people are homeless,

and all shelters, stadiums, and public facilities are full," wrote Mario

Gutierrez Minera, editor of Honduras This Week. "Probably at this moment at

least 5,000 peoples (sic) are in a treetops of (sic) for protection."

"It can't get much worse than this," he said.

Radio America reported that a morgue at the "Hospital Escuela" could not

handle the number of bodies being brought there.

Flores issued what he said was an "urgent and anguished appeal to the

international community, to all countries, to international financial

organizations and to aid organizations so that they heed this SOS.

"Our capacity for suffering and pain was never before put to such a hard

test," he said.

Even before his appeal, relief efforts were being mounted on an

international scale. The eight Honduran consulates in the U.S. were

collecting food, medicine and money to help in the relief efforts. The

French government sent a shipment of medical supplies to Honduras.

A national relief operation was being formed through the efforts of the

Honduran Red Cross and the Permanent Contingency Commission. The Salvation

Army was also setting up relief operations. Faith-based organizations were

collecting donations to ship to stricken areas. TACA International Airlines

said it would donate its services by providing free shipping to Honduras.

ACT issued an appeal for $250,000 to assist the Christian Commission for

Development (CCD - Comision Cristiana de Desarollo), an ACT member and

longtime Church World Service partner.

CCD is working with the Honduran government to serve on a national and

departmental emergency committee, and has been assessing needs and damage.

CCD has requested emergency appeal funding and support from ACT to provide

for the short-term needs of 12,000 of the most vulnerable families affected

by the hurricane who live in the coastal regions of Honduras, including La

Moskitia, Quimistan and Santa Barbara. The relief program is expected to

last through February.

Emergency assistance will include blankets, medicines, medical supplies,

personal hygiene items, food supplies, tents, clothing, generators, water

containers, cooking utensils, cots and construction tools for cleanup and


Church World Service supported the appeal by directly issuing $40,000 in

blanket fund monies to CCD. CWS is also seeking $40,000 in denominational

support for the appeal.

At least one faith-based group, the Assemblies of God's HealthCare

Ministries, said it was sending a medical team to Honduras. That team

reportedly was stuck Monday in El Salvador. Other groups were expected to

send in other relief teams.

Among the other groups offering assistance or collecting donations

include Baptist World Aid, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, United Methodist

Committee on Relief and Mercy Corps International.

That relief will be sorely needed in Honduras and Nicaragua, both of

which are among the most impoverished nations in the hemisphere.

"In Honduras, we don't have the necessary structure to withstand a

calamity of this nature," said Luis F. Bueso, an eyewitness to the

disaster. "The houses of the lower class in Honduras are built of

cardboard, clay, plastic bags, mud, adobe, stones and wood, and were

located on high-risk zones like hills or river sides.

"Among the population of developed countries, it will be hard to

conceive of our situation, mostly because they are used to the contingency

plans of their countries, where they have sufficient structure with

transportation, equipment, food reserves, medicines, qualified personnel,

shelters, etc," he said.

"Here in Honduras almost nobody can afford to pay an insurance policy.

Therefore people who lost their possessions have lost them for good."

Mitch wreaked its havoc over Central America last week. By Sunday

afternoon, it had dissipated but many in the region still feared it might

regenerate over the Pacific or the Gulf, then turn back toward land. As it

moved across Central America, it dumped up to 4 inches of rain an hour on

the region.

At one point, Mitch was ranked as the fourth most powerful Atlantic

hurricane this century, packing winds of 185 mph.

Survivors of the storm say the devastation is beyond comprehension.

"It is such a tragedy I can't think how to explain it," said Mike Hines,

a missionary in La Ceiba, Honduras. "The need is absolutely desperate."

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Should we be listening to hurricanes?

Will storms change climate debate?

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