Sitting on the roof of his neighbor’s home – an overflowing river rising by the minute below – Julio Guerrero has one last wish.
“My only hope is to save my mother,” said Guerrero, 26, choking back tears over the phone from La Lima, Honduras. “If we aren’t rescued in an hour, then it’s likely we’ll die here.”
Guerrero is one of hundreds of thousands in Honduras who’ve lost everything they own due to flooding brought on by Hurricane Eta, which made landfall Tuesday on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as a category four hurricane before inching its way across Honduras and dumping as much as 40 inches of rain.
“We worked hard for everything we have,” said Guerrero, who works as a bank teller. “In the blink of an eye we lost it all.”
For the people of Honduras, the destruction left by Eta – bridges washed away, homes buried in landslides, lives lost in an instant – is all too familiar. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the country and cost an estimated 11,000 people their lives, making it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane ever.
Almost 22 years later, Honduras is yet to fully recover from Mitch, and the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has left the government with scarce resources to respond to Eta.
“In Honduras we have a saying that ‘it rains when it’s wet,” said Ismael Zepeda, an economist at the local think tank FOSDEH. “In the end it’s like having a double crisis without having a government that can respond to the first, much less the second.”
The total economic loss caused by Eta could surpass 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), said Zepeda. But the immediate concern is to save lives.
So far, official counts of fatalities from the hurricane have remained low. But rising water levels and a slow government response has left countless more like Guerrero vulnerable.
The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, issued a warning on November 5, a day after Eta hit, calling for the immediate evacuation of the Sula Valley area where Guerrero lives ahead of an imminent rise in water levels. But like other warnings issued by the government during this crisis, it came too late.
“The government didn’t call for an evacuation until last night,” said Guerrero. “But by then it was no longer possible to get out.”
The Sula Valley, home to over two million people and the country’s second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, is dotted with factories and banana plantations and considered the economic engine of Honduras. Nearly 400,000 persons have been displaced from their homes, according to CARE International, mostly from the valley, which has been hit hardest by flooding due to runoff from the surrounding mountains.
Those who managed to escape their homes before becoming trapped by rushing water have erected tents along elevated roads or found their way to makeshift shelters at schools and churches.
“[The hurricane] took everything from me,” said Sonia Madrigales, aged 60, who found refuge in a shelter along with her son and granddaughter soon after their house began to flood in the San Pedro Sula suburb of Villanueva. Many of her neighbors were not as quick to act. “As a poor person you say, ‘If I leave here, where am I going to go?’”
The center of Eta, which is now a tropical depression, headed back out to sea on Thursday evening. But the danger is far from over. Another five to ten inches of rain could fall in Honduras by Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As Honduras begins to rebuild a second time, many won’t be looking to the government for help.
“Here we’re pretty much at a drift,” said Guerrero. “Every man for himself.”