Neri Benitez was working shifts as a baggage manager at San Pedro Sula Airport when it was flooded by Hurricane Eta. It was flooded again this week as Hurricane Iota hit.
“I had lost my job seven months and three days after I was called, this flood happened,” said the 50-year-old man. “We have a family and children. How will we feed them? ”
Just two weeks after Hurricane Eta brought widespread flooding and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, Honduras was hit by a second hurricane, leaving behind a level of destruction that competes with the worst natural disasters in region.
The unprecedented double whammy comes at the height of the Covid-1
About 2.9 million people in Honduras have been affected by Eta, according to the country’s emergency response unit, including many like Benitez, whose homes have been flooded to the rooftops. That number is expected to increase significantly after Iota made landfall off the north coast of Nicaragua on Monday as a Category 4 hurricane before sweeping through Honduras the next day like a tropical storm with torrential rain and strong winds.
The second, much larger storm destroyed many areas largely spared by Eta and increased flood damage in the already affected areas.
“This time it was worse than Eta,” said Norma Amador, 54. Along with Benitez and many others on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula in La Lima, she had gathered along the highway that crosses the city, with nowhere else to go. “The water got higher and had more power.”
At least 90% of La Lima, home to 40,000 people, was underwater on Wednesday. Thousands were still recovering from the jamming of their Eta roofs, causing nearby dams to fail and flooding neighborhoods so fast that there was no time to escape. Many had waited days to be saved.
Others died or disappeared in the floods. According to official tolls, less than 100 people have died as a result of the hurricanes, but the water from Eta has not yet completely receded in many areas when Iota hit, and hundreds are still reported missing. The government is too tired to make an accurate census.
Severely criticized for not ordering the evacuation of high-risk areas before Eta, the government issued an order days earlier this time. Most residents in already flooded areas needed a little persuasion to evacuate before Iota struck. However, in areas where the water had not risen so high, some decided to take a risk and stay behind.
“The water was rising on the roof,” said Ingrid Sanchez, 25, who was rescued with her two young children from the top of their house by firefighters who reached them by boat. The thieves had been robbing many abandoned homes in the city since Eta, which made Sanchez, who sold fruit outside her home, fear she would lose what little she had. “It’s really hard to progress in this country,” she added, clutching her pajama-clad children.
Moving forward in Honduras is likely to be much more difficult for years to come. The pandemic had already plunged the economy deep into recession. Preliminary estimates of Eta’s economic loss range from 10 to 20% of GDP, or approximately $ 2.5 to $ 5 billion (£ 2-4), and Iota’s impact could double that figure.
The valley around San Pedro Sula – the country’s economic engine and home to about 2 million people – is the most affected area in the country. Much of the valley, like La Lima, is under water.
Honduras last suffered a natural disaster of this magnitude in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch – the worst natural disaster in Central American history and one of the deadliest Atlantic storms ever – devastated much of the country’s infrastructure.
Then the international community rushed in with billions of aid. This time, global attention – and depleted funding – is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, and there is a lack of US leadership to mobilize support. Honduras is unlikely to get anywhere near what it needs to recover.
In the years after Mitch, Hondurans migrated to the United States in significant numbers for the first time, leading to significant growth and reliance on remittances. Many of the migrants who arrived in the United States during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane later received temporary protection status (TPS), which allowed them to live and work legally in the country, but was attacked by the Trump administration.
Guatemala, which was much less affected by the hurricanes, has already demanded a TPS for its US citizens. Honduras is expected to make a similar request for those not covered.
Since 1998, migration from Honduras has continued to increase. Last year, more than 250,000 Hondurans were captured on the southwestern border of the United States, more than twice as many as the previous year.
Many whose lives have been hampered by recent hurricanes are already considering migrating, including some who have started organizing caravans through social media.
“We lost everything in our homes,” said Carlos Pineda, 22. “How are we going to get it back?” No work. The best way is to migrate. “