Saturday 30 January 1999
On the road back from 'Hurricane Hell'
victims rebuild their lives
By Lucy Carrigan (ABC Television's New York based Lucy Carrigan, from Clonacody, Fethard, reports from Honduras on the courage of a people who are rebuilding their communities after Hurricane Mitch)
From the air the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch is obvious. Rivers have burst their banks and vast expanses of land are covered with water. The rugged mountains’ verdant greens are scarred with the brown of mudslides. Grey rain-laden clouds cling to the mountainsides. Even in the arrival hall at the airport one sees evidence of Mitch’s wrath. Advertisements in the middle of the baggage carousels look like water-colours now, the images on the posters running into each other like a piece of experimental art. Watermarks on the walls are five feet high.
Devastation all around
Scenes of devastation are all around us as we travel the road from the airport at San Pedro Sula to the nearby town of El Progreso. A lone woman stands in a makeshift shelter in the middle of the road. It is hard to believe that she will sleep there as well. There is barely room to stand, the ground is muddy and the only protection she has from the night’s rain is the thin piece of metal over her head. We pass a cabana on the side of the road. It is surrounded by at least a foot of mud. "Bienvenidos" is written cheerfully on the rooftop. Inside is the remains of a bar, and a man who sits there alone in the darkness. Small children pee behind plastic-covered shelters. They are barefoot and barely dressed. Sexy advertisements for Coca-Cola rise up out of black fields of mud, adding a surreal touch to a very real situation.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Hondurans have lost everything. What little they had before is gone. Completely. Crops are destroyed. Corn has been washed away and livestock is gone, too. The banana plantation on which most Hondurans depend for their livelihood are out of action for at least a year, if not two or three. Banana crops lie rotting in graves of mud and water. It is an awful scene of devastation and destruction. Hollywood could not have done it better.
Everywhere we go we hear stories of incredible courage and strength. Guadalupe Ramos, a young Honduran woman, waited in her home until the water had risen to her neck before she agreed to leave her husband and go in search of higher ground. She couldn’t even swim! A young girl describes how she, her sister and her father fled the community of Guacamaya for the mountains when the little stream which runs through their community became a raging force. They spent three days and three nights up there with nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and nothing to so but wait, while the rain continued to fall. "Credible terrible" is how she described it. Truly terrible. Now their house has been swallowed by the mud and debris which came hurtling down from the mountains. Her mother jokes and says that she would invite us in, but her house is filled with rocks. Literally.
Reclaiming their communities
The people of Honduras work hard to reclaim what were once their communities. In Guacamaya, men, women and children armed with rakes, shovels and brushes dig out their houses, work on rebuilding primitive water systems and try to salvage the remains of their homes. Many participate in food-for-work programmes whereby they work for three days and in return get a sack of food which is supposed to feed them and their families for a week. At the moment it is their only source of income.
Most of the men here used to work for the banana companies. However, the future of the banana companies in Honduras is not clear. Rumours abound as to whether or not they will stay in Honduras at all, and on the kind of deal that will be struck. It is clear, though, that the banana companies have the people of Honduras where they want them. Any deal that is struck will be much more beneficial to the companies themselves than it is to the people of Honduras.
Hurricane Mitch has taken not only banana and grain crops, but home industries as well. In Guacamaya, the women’s group, Profehsac, which had started a micro-bakery and sewing industry, lost their stores of preserves, jams, pickles and breads. The house where they stored their sewing machines was flooded, so the sewing machines don’t work either. Yet they are incredibly resilient. Zoila, the leader of Profehsac in Guacamaya, holds a meeting for the women on her porch. They laugh and joke about the horrors of Mitch, and pass photographs around of their roadside stall, laden down with the fruits of their work. All of this is gone now, but they are determined to start again, and discuss ways in which to raise money for a brick-maker so that they can rebuild their homes.
Unfortunately even the rebuilding of their homes is not as uncomplicated as it sounds. As a reaction to Hurricane Mitch, the Honduran government passed laws prohibiting the construction of houses within 150 feet of any river or stream. In the Honduran countryside, water systems, where they exist, are not sophisticated, which ts why so many poor Hondurans lived on the banks of rivers and streams. These people need to have close proximity to water, yet they need to be safe. It is a dilemma that requires serious town planning, and no-one knows how long that will take. As, in many Latin American countries, around here, things happen slowly.
‘How lucky we are’
In the face of such adversity, it was really striking to witness the spirit and generosity of these people. My Spanish is not good at all, but over the week that I was in Honduras, I did begin to pick up words and phrases from here and there. One of the most frequent ones I heart was "que suerte," which means "how lucky." "How lucky it is that we did not lose our lives," "how lucky we are to have these black beans and rice," "how lucky it is to meet you," ‘how lucky it is that God takes care of us," "how lucky we are to have the future. . . " These people have been through hell. They face immense difficulties in the long and slow process of rebuilding their country. They have to overcome corruption and exploitation in many facets of their daily lives . . . and yet, they do believe that they are lucky!