SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - Honduras, still staggering from getting severely hit by Hurricane Eta earlier this month, is bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Iota.
Iota made landfall Monday night as a category four storm off the north coast of Nicaragua, the second time a major hurricane has hit the same spot in the last two weeks. Now, it’s working its way into Honduras.
“We’re frightened,” said Roman Murillo, one of hundreds of thousands who lost everything in the flooding caused by Eta in the early days of November. “We’ve had nightmares. It’s indescribable what it’s like to see death and not be able to do anything about it.”
Some 2.5 million people in Central America were affected by Eta, including 1.7 million in Honduras, according to the Red Cross. Iota is a much larger storm and expected to impact a broader swath of the region and raise the number of affected exponentially.
The unprecedented double blow of Eta and Iota could leave a level of destruction that far surpasses that of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 – the most destructive and lethal hurricane to hit Central America to date.
Although the eye of Iota is projected to continue on toward the Pacific Ocean instead of hooking back into the Caribbean like Eta did, the northwest region of the country surrounding the city of San Pedro Sula, home to some two million people, is expected to receive 20 inches or more of rain, making it likely to once again suffer the most flooding.
But this time, the conditions are much worse than before the first storm hit at the start of November.
There is still standing water left by Eta in many parts of the area, including as high as the rooftops in some. The levees that were built following Mitch were damaged or destroyed. And the land is saturated, elevating the risk of mudslides.
In anticipation of the destruction, the government – heavily criticized for its inaction ahead of Eta – has declared a red alert and ordered evacuations of vulnerable areas. Entire neighborhoods like Murillo’s have been abandoned in favor of higher ground and people with sufficient resources have feverishly stocked up on essentials.
As a watercolor artist, Murillo, 41, has spent much of his life learning to master the flow of water. But as the floodwaters filled his home – forcing him and his family onto the rooftop - he gained a newfound perspective of its strength.
“I had only seen the power of water in my work,” said Murillo, referring to the ability of art to touch the soul. “But now I see it has another power that must be respected. Water is powerful, and it paints too.”
When the water finally receded, Murillo returned to his home in a San Pedro Sula suburb to find it filled with mud and painted brown. Everything he and his wife had worked on for over twenty years was destroyed or washed away, save for a few things that could be rescued. Among them were several paintings that he had been set to present in an exhibition the same day his house was engulfed in water.
At the home of his aunt where Murillo and his family are staying until they can get their feet back on the ground, he cut away the plastic he’d wrapped around his paintings – caked with mud and dripping water – to protect them en route to the gallery.
“Maybe my colors won’t be as alive,” said Murillo to VICE World News as he sliced through the plastic with a razor blade. “But the watercolor is going to have all the intensity that the water had.”
One by one, he revealed the portraits that had floated inside his home for days – a pensive woman holding her baby wrapped in a blanket, a colonial church rippled by the water, a seated ballerina in a pink tutu – until he revealed a prophetic scene of the capital Tegucigalpa on a rainy day and now, covered with mud.
Hondurans migrated to the U.S. in significant numbers for the first time following Mitch in 1998, and in the year before the pandemic over 250,000 were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border, more than double any previous year and surpassed only by its much more populated neighbor to the north – Guatemala.
Many of those who’ve lost everything are already talking of migrating to the U.S. Others like Murillo, however, are determined to rebuild what they’ve lost.
“I’ve lost everything minus the will to fight,” said Murillo. “Even with just a pencil, we’ll start over again.”
Earlier in the year when wildfires were raging across the country, a painting by Murillo went viral that captured the impotence felt by firefighters battling the flames, as well as first responders attending to the pandemic, forcing many to reflect on the dual crises. With this latest disaster, he hopes to be able to do the same.
“I don’t have any paper,” said Murillo. “But as soon as I get some, we’ll see what I can do.”