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Battered by back-to-back hurricanes, Honduras braces for a long recovery

A man sits outside his family’s flooded home in Bajos de Choloma, Honduras, after Hurricane Iota. (Encarni Pindado)

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Blanca Costa crouched on a wooden cart with her three daughters under a highway bridge. It had been days since the second of two hurricanes roared through this Central American country, flooding their one-room home with muddy, chest-high water.

The cart was the one possession Costa was able to save when they clambered out. The three horses that pulled it, enabling her to earn money as a trash collector, were gone. It would take years, she said, to save enough to buy another one.

“I’ll just have to go on foot now,” said Costa, 40, one of about 100 people sheltering under the bridge. “But it will be more difficult.”

Scenes of flooding, devastation lie in wake of monstrous Hurricane Iota

Category 4 Hurricane Eta and Category 5 Hurricane Iota cut similar paths across Central America this month, a one-two punch that killed scores of people and displaced hundreds of thousands. More than a week after the second storm, vast areas of Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala remain flooded. Some areas are accessible only by boat. Remote communities are relying on food dropped by Honduran and U.S. military helicopters. Now a region that had already been hammered by the coronavirus and a deep economic contraction is facing a recovery that could take years.

“Honduras is facing probably the greatest catastrophe of its history,” said Carlos Madero, secretary of the Ministry of General Coordination of the Government, charged with managing the response. “We never thought and never imagined that we would have three emergencies of this magnitude in one year.”

The government has begun to sketch out a plan in three phases, Madero said. The most pressing is emergency and humanitarian relief for tens of thousands of evacuees who still need shelter, food, water and other basic necessities.

Phase 2 would involve rapid rehabilitation and repair of homes, roads and bridges. The storms destroyed or damaged more than 850 square miles of farmland, threatening one of the few economic activities that had remained relatively dependable during the pandemic. A third phase would address “sustainable reconstruction” amid what Madero described as “a change in the climate that will have a direct impact on us poor countries. . . . Honduras is the photographic example.”

It’s unclear how much the recovery will cost. Madero said the government is talking with the United Nations, individual countries and multilateral banks: “Once we have a sustainable reconstruction plan, it will be presented to the international community for support.”

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The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates the recovery of damaged areas across Central America will take at least two years.

No country has been hit harder than Honduras, where at least 3.7 million people, or more than a third of the population, have been affected. And no region of Honduras has suffered more than the flood-prone valley surrounding San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city and industrial center, where the storms caused the Chamelecón and Ulúa rivers to breach their banks, sending surges crashing into densely populated working-class neighborhoods.

“This has overwhelmed the city’s capacities,” Mayor Armando Calidonio said. “It’s difficult to confront this alone.”

Communities have been flayed and flipped inside out, houses burst open, their contents dumped in the middle of the road, leaving muddy piles of ruptured sofas, smashed televisions, broken fridges.

“We lost everything. Absolutely everything,” said Charlie Rodríguez, a vegetable vendor, one of 368,000 Hondurans who evacuated their homes for higher ground, according to the government. Many remain indefinitely crammed into schools or churches, around gasoline stations, under highway bridges or in trucks partitioned with sheeting to fit three families. The overcrowding has negated months of government warnings to stay physically distant during the pandemic.

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Rodríguez was hustling back from a brief visit to his apartment in the low-lying La Planeta district of San Pedro Sula. As floodwater from the first storm crept up the three-story building, he scrambled to the roof with his wife and three children and waited through the night for rescue. Just after dawn, a police boat guided by neighbors rescued them and five other adults and children. The family now bunks in the home of his wife’s employer, a grocery store manager, sharing space on the bare floor with some 10 strangers.

In the municipality of La Lima, the Rev. Fredy Valdiviezo, a Catholic priest, bumped along in a pickup truck past empty health clinics, derelict police stations and abandoned schools. The only visible life was goats, pigs and a few people poking through the refuse. The air was heavy with the smell of rot.

“The water went down, but there is nothing habitable; the houses are uninhabitable,” Valdiviezo said. “Everything is full of contaminated mud.”

The combined death toll for Honduras from the two storms stands at 91, but rescue workers expect the number to rise as communication networks are restored, the waters recede and bodies are discovered. On Monday, about 289,000 people remained incommunicado, the government said.

They included people of the bordo areas, riverbank agglomerations unrecognized by the government that lack basic services such as sewage or trash collection or street names.

Fredy Romero stood outside one such bordo, the Flor de Cuba community, cut off from the rest of the city when an improvised footbridge over the rushing Chamelecón snapped. Romero’s brother and nephews were somewhere in the community. Without electricity, he said, they had run out of phone battery power. He didn’t know what they were doing for food and water.

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Government shelters in homes and schools, already at capacity after the first storm, now house 15,000 people in San Pedro Sula, the mayor said, and 89,000 nationwide, according to the Permanent Contingency Commission of Honduras. Government-coordinated medical brigades have deployed rapid coronavirus tests and tried to isolate the positive cases, Vice Minister of Health Roberto Cosenza said. But evacuees have frequently refused testing, fearful of losing their last chance at a roof.

Seen from the air this week, large stretches of farmland remained a vast brown lake.

Cristiano Sanchez is contemplating migrating. “We had a manzana of cacao,” the farmer said — about two acres. “Gone. Rotten. Bananas? Rotten. Before this, we were doing well enough. But now? We have to start from zero.”

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