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Lessons learned or lessons lost?

It may have been the worst storm to hit Central America in living memory, but for Bruce Baird and many others, Hurricane Mitch provoked a vivid case of déjà vu.

Baird, a U.S. citizen who is today an expert in flood disaster prevention and relief, was leading a filmmaking expedition in Honduras in September 1974 when a freak storm hit the country's northern coast. Hurricane Fifi baffled meteorologists by "stalling" over Honduras, where it dumped 25 inches of rain in 24 hours and caused flooding and landslides that killed an estimated 8,000 people.

"Whole villages were swept away," recalls Baird, who now works for the Office of Emergency Services of the State of California. "The Sula valley turned into a giant lake." Baird worked on Fifi relief efforts as a volunteer, and was later awarded a training grant by the Organization of American States to spend a year in Honduras documenting disaster response and hazard mitigation efforts.

"From the start, there was a debate between what you might call the ostrich group, who thought Fifi was an aberration that would probably never happen again, and those who thought it probably would," says Baird. Twenty-four years later, the latter group was proved tragically right. Hurricane Mitch, like Fifi, "stalled" over northern Honduras. It deposited at least twice as much rain as the earlier storm, producing more flooding and landslides further inland than those caused by Fifi, and it killed more people.

The parallels between these two storms, and their relative proximity in time, are a stark example of the importance of including prevention and mitigation efforts during reconstruction after a natural disaster. According to Baird, in the months following Fifi, officials inside and outside Honduras called for all kinds of mitigation efforts that would reduce mortality and physical damage in the event of another severe storm. The United Nations and other international organizations funded several hazard mitigation pilot projects, including one that helped subsistence farmers on steep slopes to plant trees and choose crops that would restore fertility to their eroded land while making landslides less likely in the future.

But in the rush to put export-oriented agricultural plantations back into production and repair critical bridges and roads, comparatively little attention was ultimately paid to prevention activities, according to Baird. "There were lots of projects, but no coordinated program," he says. "Because efforts were so ad hoc, a unified national mitigation strategy did not develop."

As a result, too many houses were rebuilt along the shores of rivers that had earlier swept them away. Too many bridges were rebuilt without the structural features needed to withstand another large flood. Too many slopes that were already unstable because of deforestation continued to be intensively farmed. Although Mitch would have been a hugely destructive storm no matter what precautions were taken, Baird and other disaster experts believe the loss of life and property would have been greatly reduced with proper mitigation measures.

Protecting investments. Disaster planning is not a luxury that only industrialized countries can afford. According to Caroline Clarke, an IDB specialist who has studied disaster prevention in developing countries, "it comes down to thinking about the safety of the investments you are going to make during the reconstruction period, before you actually start work." Buildings and facilities that were damaged can be moved to lower-risk areas or left in the same place¯with stronger structural protections. It may be safe to rebuild some bridges on the same spot, for example, so long as the pilings are protected with bundles of rocks that can effectively prevent "scouring" or undermining of the bridge's foundation during a bad flood.

Some of the most effective mitigation measures are within the budgets of local communities. Baird says that every flood- prone Central American village should designate a nearby building or high ground feature as a safe haven. If necessary, simple platforms or berms can be built inexpensively with local manpower--a strategy that has saved countless lives in flood-prone Bangladesh, for example. "Sometimes all you need to survive is three to six feet of elevation," says Baird. In a similar vein, Clarke says that villages can set aside land closest to rivers for community gardens or "green strips" where building is prohibited.

Baird also advocates creating a locally based emergency information broadcast system that can reach even the tiniest hamlets with up-to-the-minute weather information. "There are dozens of radio stations in rural Honduras and every family owns a transistor radio," says Baird. "It should be possible to develop a low-cost procedure for using this existing infrastructure to let villagers know when they should evacuate."

Since more than one million people were displaced by Mitch, governments in the affected countries are under enormous pressure to find new locations for residential areas to prevent people from rebuilding on dangerous land. Clarke says government grants for the purchase of land, relocation and basic construction can be conditioned to act as incentives that keep people out of dangerous areas.

Local communities, however, generally need help in evaluating risks and identifying low-cost mitigation measures. That is where government support, in the form of detailed hazard vulnerability assessments conducted by professionals, is essential. Both Baird and Clarke believe such studies should be carried out with each village, town and city through a coordinated, national effort, so that all key reconstruction investments are made with a view to reducing risk.

"If you build levees at one point in a river, it's going to affect the volume of water during a flood at some point downstream," says Clarke. "It is critical to coordinate efforts."

The degree of success this time will depend largely on the region's governments, their reconstruction agencies, and the international donor community. Baird and Clarke say they are impressed with the efforts of individual governments to date, and they applaud plans to strengthen the resources of CEPREDENAC, the body that since 1988 has been working to coordinate disaster mitigation planning among Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. "Honduras and much of Central America will remain flood-prone," says Baird. "It's up to all of us to make sure the damage is never this bad again. This is an opportunity for the countries of Central America to set an example in disaster mitigation for all of Latin America."

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