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The worst in living memory

Most hurricanes vent their fury and then quickly move on. But Hurricane Mitch did its destructive work slowly. Traveling northwest across the Caribbean, skirting Jamaica and Cuba, its winds reached a peak of 157 knots on Oct. 26 just off the northeast coast of Honduras, making it one of the strongest storms of this century. It stayed at this intensity for the next 24 hours before beginning to weaken.

But the emergency continued. On the morning of Oct. 28, the storm stalled just north of Honduras. Now the big danger was not the winds, but the rain, which increased in intensity and coverage, particularly in Honduras and Nicaragua. Altogether more than one meter fell, causing catastrophic flooding and mudslides in the two countries and leaving an estimated 10,000 dead, 9,000 missing and more than one million homeless and billions of dollars lost in material damage. Then the storm continued through Chiapas, Mexico, traveled back across the Caribbean, and dissipated over Florida.

Although the people of Central America are used to misfortunes, both natural and man-made, this one left them numbed. No other event in recent memory has caused such devastation in terms of lives lost and property destroyed.

Mitch was the final blow in a year marked by weather-related catastrophes. Just a month before, Hurricane Georges had left massive destruction and hundreds dead in several Caribbean nations, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Earlier, El Niño had caused record flooding and droughts in Ecuador, Peru and other countries.

After each disaster, and particularly after Mitch, national governments and the international community of agencies, charitable groups and private citizens quickly mobilized to care for the injured, the homeless and the hungry. At the same time, work began on long-term efforts to rebuild shattered lives and restore destroyed economies.

The IDB mobilizes. As reports on Hurricane Mitch started coming in from Central America, the IDB put together a team of project specialists who would go to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to evaluate the damages and determine priorities for Bank assistance. Arriving just four days after the storm had abated, the group, headed by IDB Central America veteran Andrés Marchant, found a city where more than 240,000 people were without shelter and where drinking water and basic services were largely unavailable.

By the time the team arrived, the Bank's country office, headed by Fernando Cossío, had already set up conference rooms in a hotel and assigned work tables by sectors: roads, social programs, water and sewerage, education, etc. Each afternoon, after spending the first part of the day visiting the stricken areas, IDB staff and representatives of other donor agencies met there to compare information and coordinate relief efforts.

Back in Washington, the IDB had already made small emergency grants to Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as to El Salvador and Guatemala. Preparations began on a $1 million grant to hire the consultants that Honduras would need to prepare its national reconstruction plan. Work also began to map out the long-term relief effort (see A future built on solidarity) in which the Bank would provide new loans to the affected countries, raise funds from the international community and assess the need for debt relief.

Several days after the IDB mission returned from Honduras, a second team left for Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There too, the hurricane had left a fearsome toll, particularly at the base of Casitas Volcano where mudslides swept away whole villages.

The shattering blow Hurricane Mitch dealt to Central America was not an isolated event. The isthmus has the dubious distinction of lying in the path of many tropical storms. In fact, the word "hurricane" probably comes from the language of the Taino people who inhabited the Caribbean area in pre-Columbian times. During the colonial period, maritime records of Spain and other European powers relate the enormous losses of ships to storms, many of them hurricanes. Over the years, hurricane losses on the open water declined as ships grew more seaworthy. But onshore damage increased as a function of demographics and changing land use. In 1950 the region's five countries had a population of 8.3 million. The Latin American Demographic Center estimates that by 2025 the region's population will swell to more than 55 million. Many more people are at risk today than decades ago, and many more will be at risk in the future. Moreover, large numbers of these people, for the most part poor, end up in the cities, where they must resort to building on precarious hillsides and in flood plains. Those remaining in the countryside convert forest into agricultural fields and firewood, thus reducing the absorptive capacity of the land and its ability to reduce the impact of heavy rains.

After Mitch, former Honduran Environment Minister Carlos Medina stated that extensive deforestation in his country had compounded the impact of the storm by some 30 percent.

Meanwhile, countries today have a greater lead time for warning their citizens of approaching storms (see article Lessons learned or lessons lost?). Modern communications have come a long way since 1909, when for the first time a ship in the Caribbean was able to provide advance warning on an approaching hurricane in order to help coastal preparations.
However, the usefulness of advanced warning is greatly diminished unless it has been preceded by long-term preparation that really makes a difference, such as discouraging building in high-risk areas, reforestation and creating agencies charged with emergency preparedness.
In Central America, these measures had not been taken, a fact that became tragically evident just three weeks after the United Nations celebrated World Disaster Reduction Day.

As the rebuilding gets underway, the countries are determined to learn from their mistakes and forge the framework for long-term development. "This is the only country we have," said Honduras President Carlos Flores, "so we have to pick it up, and we will."

 

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