Still Reeling from Eta, Honduras Slammed by Second Storm - An Inter-Hurricane Chronicle
In early November, Hurricane Eta pelted Honduras, an economically shipwrecked, highly unequal country perforated by political corruption. In Sula Valley, the country’s economic motor and epicenter of the wreckage, Eta destroyed a significant share of crops and wiped out entire communities. The poverty that once reigned in the area turned to misery with the passing of the storm, compounding the damage of years of state abandonment and corruption. Meanwhile, an even stronger hurricane clouded the horizon as Iota drew near.
The old yellow-eyed man wrinkled his nose and deeply inhaled atop his bicycle, which he had loaded with a bundle of kindling. “The sun stings, you can feel it on your skin. It’s a sun of the rain,” he said, sensing that the flooding had yet to come to an end, that the torrent that laid waste to his home lurked nearby in the clouds. He pedaled off down the dirt road connecting the hamlets of Bajos de Choloma, his premonition trailing in his wake.
Along the side of the road, a family peered through the doors and windows of a grey brick shanty that had been filled with mud from wall to wall. The home was once flanked by green fields densely seeded with crops now rotting underneath stagnant water. The ground could barely take in more water. Hurricane Eta’s storm clouds dumped water for three days as if there were no tomorrow. A week after the flooding began, the ground absorbed the water only sip by sip.
A bad omen lay below the surface of the stinking, muddy water lining the streets: a thriving mass of yellowish mosquito larvae.
Tributaries of the Chamelecón and Ulúa Rivers cut through Bajos de Choloma at the southern end of the municipality of Choloma in the sprawling Sula Valley. Los Bajos, as the place is known, is a constellation of 24 rural hamlets home to around 40 thousand people who used to work in now-defunct factories and maquiladoras nestled in nearby industrial parks, cultivate sugar cane or grass-based biofuels, work on palm oil plantations, or look after livestock — either their own or someone else’s. Eta drowned many of the cows and pigs and wreaked havoc among the chickens; the sown fields, which stretched as far as the eye could see, are now swamplands. The rows of sugar cane, which were ripe for picking, have rotted on the stalk, engulfed in impenetrable mud.
The street connecting the hamlets of Bajos de Choloma now strings together sullen scenes: massive lagoons, sliding mud, overflows crossing the street to connect with the Chamelecón River. In front of one overflow, a group of teenagers stood watching cars sputter as they attempted to cross to the other side, speculating on their success. One of the teens had been preparing for two months’ work cutting sugar cane from sunrise to sunset for $78 per week, the busy season for day workers in the sugar harvest. Neither he, the drivers, nor the workers in the sugar processing centers will see a penny this year.
Bryan Canales, a smiling 21-year-old who, until a few days ago, worked in a textile factory, and his father-in-law Óscar Flores, a 51-year-old bricklayer suffering from a nagging, dry cough, had just cleaned their houses in the hamlet of La Bueso. Housecleaning is a euphemism for scraping away the thick layer of mud lining the floors of every home in the area to prevent it from hardening and requiring pickaxes and hoes to dislodge.
In better times, the house of Óscar, the coughing bricklayer, had a spacious yard with a metal-roof pavilion with a firepit for cooking, but the storm jumbled everything together: the mattress and the pavilion roof, bits of plastic, a toy gun, the walls and the yard, reeking sacks full of festering clothing, something looking like a ventilator. After the storm, everything had turned the same color and scent. The house had contained so much yet so little.
When the rain began, Óscar took shelter with his son-in-law Bryan, whose family has a larger house with sturdier walls and two plants. When the waters began to rise on Wednesday, November 4, several relatives and neighbors joined them. As the currents reached waist-level, a dozen people moved to the second floor. With the water climbing the stairs, they began searching for a place to poke a hole in the ceiling and climb out. They stayed there Wednesday night, Thursday, and Friday, with no food and hardly any water. Then a raft appeared, floating between the rooftops, but rather than rescuing them, the riders took their pictures and left. “I hope the mareros took their raft and drowned them,” said Óscar, embittered but serious. Gangs control La Bueso and large portions of the surrounding hamlets of Los Bajos. At 11:40 am on Saturday, rescue boats finally appeared. After navigating through rooftops, treetops, and electric cables, they reached dry ground. “I cried when I saw land,” remembered Bryan.
Nine days after the waters began to rise, some of the hamlets in Bajos de Choloma remained flooded. In Davis, for example, one could only enter by submerging their legs to the knee in a pit of mud. In others, including Lupo Viejo, Protección, Poza del Riel and Tibombo, the only way in was by air. As of press time, hundreds of people remained stranded there waiting for helicopters, according to the Municipal Emergency Committee.
As opposed to the green, measured poverty of the rural hamlets in Bajos de Choloma, the municipality of La Lima is dry and grey, with crude clusters of homes where any attempt at beauty has been shunned. The water tore through the town along the crumpled asphalt, climbing to the rooftops, swallowing up dogs, cars, houses, mattresses, horses, street carts, shops, people. In times of shipwreck there are those who find a way to the rafts and those who are left braving the currents, like Santos Ortiz, 51, who looked over 70 as he waded through the filthy mud pools in Colonia Canaan.
The demon of misery wreaked havoc inside Santos Ortiz’s hardboard shack. The mud swept away everything, in the most literal sense of the phrase. Ortiz lost no chickens because he had none, just as the pigs struggling to escape the mud outside his house were not his. Ortiz, a bricklayer’s assistant, had few material possessions left after Eta: a pair of canvas work trousers, a hand-me-down white shirt, a pair of sandals, a hat. But poverty works to hide its true depths; there is an entire realm beneath the foothold of abandonment where Ortiz stood. One notch lower than Ortiz was María Amparo, who is just as poor, who likewise lives in a cruel, mud-caked shack, but who cares for eight small children—some of them hers, others from her sister who died from a treatable illness, and others yet from a daughter who died from a stray bullet in a gang shootout. One of María Amparo’s (grand)daughters is Larissa, who has spent each of her eight years barefoot and wields a surprising vocabulary, endlessly chatting and performing somersaults to impress whomever will lend her an eye. She would pose for pictures and bat large, honey-colored eyes as her (grand)mother recalled that she won every award in school for her smarts, but that she could no longer show them because the currents had swept them away. Underneath them in the rungs of poverty are others: the house with the disabled, elderly woman, or the other house with the child whose feet had been consumed by fungus.
The children run barefoot through a world torn to shreds, everything around them reduced to nothing—yet again.
Honduras is poor—very poor, per its own official figures. Six in ten Honduras live below the poverty line, and four of those six live in what academics call ‘extreme poverty.’ That is, they merely survive. Honduras is an unjust place; after Brazil, it is the most unequal country in Latin America, which is in turn the most unequal region in the world. The poorest 20 percent earns approximately four cents of every dollar earned by the richest 20 percent, yet one would be hard-pressed to find those four cents in the Colonias Canaan, Los Ángeles, or 23 September in the municipality of La Lima. In the wake of the storm, residents of these communities took to the boulevard leading from La Lima to San Pedro Sula to beg.
A refugee camp formed in the median separating the sides of the highway. Shacks of sticks and plastic appeared, children played with trash, and families treasured the food donated by churches.
Similar scenes unfolded throughout Sula Valley: in Barrio Rivera Hernandez of San Pedro Sula, Baracoa, Bajos de La Lima, Colonia Planeta, the hamlets of Calán, Cedros, La Uva, Paleto, Las Cruces, La Danta, Potrerillo; the list goes on.
In the highway median outside her tent, a woman saved bits of rice someone gave her for later, explaining that in Colonia Santa Marta “things were far worse.” It’s unclear how things could be worse.
Pandemic Meets Reggaeton Artist
There once was a pandemic. Actually, it’s still there, unrelenting, like no other illness in the past century. These days in the Sula Valley, though, nobody seems to take note. A greater threat fell from the sky, reducing social distancing to an afterthought and relegating masks to the past.
In Baracoa, a sector of Puerto Cortés nestled along the bank of the Chamelecón, there is a school-turned-shelter with the omnipresent, ever-Honduran name “Francisco Morazán.” From the hallways to the basketball court, the shelter is bursting at the seams with people. On Sunday, November 15, the tally reached 808 people, a decline from more than 2,000 just a few days prior. Everyone is coughing—the many newborns, the kids chasing balls, the elderly. Kids packed in corners spit on the ground, coughing. A woman gasps for air in a plastic chair. People from different colonias mix together, share everything, take each other by the hand, sweat together.
The seven employees of the Honduran Permanent Contingency Commission (COPECO) running the shelter had never seen a Covid-19 test, but they knew that results from tests administered in the public health system tend to drag out at least two weeks before producing results, rendering them functionally useless. The employees were the only people wearing raggedy, damp surgical masks. There was no hand sanitizer in sight.
“You have trust in God,” says a surprisingly upbeat man. “People from church came yesterday night, and we held a service on the basketball court, with a special prayer—so beautiful—to ask God to bring this all to an end.” Longshot as it may be, the prayer is more than the authorities from the municipality of Puerto Cortés, Department of Cortés, or Honduran government have offered. The entire food supply is donation-based, the COPECO employees admitted. “People are sleeping on the floor with their children. There are no mattresses or blankets,” said an employee who preferred to remain anonymous.
In dozens of shelters like this one, COPECO employees make do with nothing.
Official infection statistics are almost pure speculation, but the department of Cortés is leading the way: three in ten Hondurans infected with the virus are likely from here, according to government figures.
When the pandemic paralyzed worldwide economic activity in March, the Honduran economy shut down.
“It’s worrisome that, while Eta has derailed all productive activity in the country, infection prevention measures have fallen by the wayside,” said César Castillo, an academic with a long, winding title: research coordinator at the Honduran branch of the Latin American Department of Social Studies (FLACSO). “This could morph into something much worse, because there’s no longer any way to put preventative measures into place,” he continued. 51 percent of businesses in the formal economy have closed or will soon close, according to the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, and by the time Eta arrived the pandemic had already led to a contraction in gross domestic product of between 10 and 12 percent.
According to Castillo, 70 percent of Honduran economic activity took place in the informal sector prior to the pandemic, from the sale of baleadas and other typical street food to fruit, vegetables, pirated CD’s, clothing. None of these transactions are registered in official economic figures. By the time Eta arrived, at least one million people lost their jobs, he insisted.
Then there’s the corruption.
Since March, the government put COPECO—not the Ministry of Health—in charge of responding to the pandemic. In that span, three different COPECO commissioners have come and gone. The first and second were dismissed amid corruption scandals involving mobile emergency response centers costing millions of lempiras. The centers were revealed to be significantly overvalued and commonplace tarp tents. In the place of the first two directors, the president appointed a reggaeton singer known by his stage name “Killa.” Killa has all the experience in pandemic response that one might expect of such an artist: none.
After nearly eight months of economic shutdown, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández—who is in his second term despite explicit and repeated constitutional bars on reelection—had been preparing to completely reopen the economy and remove all remaining movement restrictions. They had decided to do so during the Festival of Morazán, a weeklong national tradition that normally takes place in October but which the government had decided to move to Monday, November 2 due to the virus.
By that time, four days had passed since the U.S. National Hurricane Center began sounding the alarm as Eta formed in the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the president stuck to the festival schedule, even encouraging people to leave home and vacation around the country. That very night, he suspended the holiday week. Over the next two days, Eta flooded Sula Valley.
To pull away from a crisis, a country’s economic engine must be firing on all cylinders. Sula Valley is that very engine, with the highest population density in Honduras, 80 percent of industry, and home to the banking industry and most fertile lands. An engine sputtering in a pool of mud.
To compound the economic devastation, all Honduran deportations from across the world arrive in Sula Valley, according to Amelia Frank, a U.S. anthropologist based in New York who is writing her University of Michigan dissertation on the effects of Honduran deportations. Last year alone, more than 100,000 Hondurans returned on deportation flights. Furthermore, almost all Honduras attempting to escape the country from any of the 18 departments pass through the same city. The San Pedro Sula bus terminal has been the launching pad for every migrant caravan since 2018.
As in the case of Hurricane Mitch 22 years ago, Amelia believes this newest set of calamities, from the pandemic to this year’s hurricane season, will rearrange the country’s population map, spark further urban concentration, consolidate gang power, and compel Hondurans to leave the country en masse. “The government is content with poor people dying. They’re uninterested in saving the lives of the poor. They see the youth as threats. There are no programs, nothing,” said Frank. Sadly, the facts seem to agree.
Just before 11 at night on Sunday, November 15—after a week of stinging sunshine from a “sun of the rain,” per the premonition of the old man with the yellow eyes—the sky drizzled on the laptop on which I am now writing. Grey rain clouds hung over the sprawling, fertile, ferocious Sula Valley.
Yet another horror was forming off the Atlantic coast: Iota was predicted to arrive Monday, November 16, in the form of a hurricane, along the Central American coastline, dumping more rains on northern Honduras.
The evacuation of all of La Lima began on Saturday, two days before the storm. The mayor, Santiago Motiño, announced that Thursday that he would give people three days to leave on their own before deploying the police to finish the job. He had met stubborn defiance, he complained, in a municipality that was home to 90,000 human beings. The residents of La Lima have been spilling out wherever they can since Friday. Of course, the evacuation order did not come with transportation guaranteed, nor with shelters, food, directions, nor anything resembling a plan. It was an utter free-for-all where the refrain that “material things can be recovered, but not human life” rang out from the lips of those with a roof over their head and a warm meal to pack for the road.
Off went caravans of people, hundreds of cars carrying mud-caked refrigerators, dogs, clothing—everything that Eta had left recognizable.
In the highway median, the neighbors from La Lima say that the road has saved them from further hardship, that they have no way to move, nowhere to go, and no intention to do so.
Under the direction of reggaeton artist Killa and after studying the coming storm, COPECO issued an official statement on Friday, November 13. “It is important to develop a family emergency plan so that families can plan their evacuation route and establish meet-up points in case of separation. It is recommended that cell phones remain charged,” the commission stated. “In light of the red alert, the population should prepare an emergency bag with personal supplies such as prescribed medicines, first-aid kits, a radio with batteries, clothing for three days, blankets, flashlights, face masks, hand sanitizer, personal documents, waterproof matches, water, and non-perishable food.” Then, a final word of encouragement: “In case of an emergency, call 911 or search for information on the COPECO website.”
Meanwhile, Iota touched land in Central America at Cabo Gracias a Dios (“Cape Thank God”). There, along the Caribbean coast, the hurricane had reached Category Five, surpassing Eta in its terror.
*Translated by Roman Gressier
FI name: November 2020