TEGUCIGALPA , Honduras - A week after Hurricane Iota passed through Honduras, leaving widespread destruction in its wake, lingering rainfall is forcing even more people from their homes as new areas are flooded and hills and mountain sides collapse.
An estimated half a million people across the country were displaced from their homes, according to CARE International, and the consequences of continuing rainfall means that number continues to rise along with the fear of what might come.
“The rain hasn’t stopped for days,” said Maribel de Dios, 41, who fled to a shelter along with her husband and six children before their mountainside home was buried in a landslide following Iota. “We’re still at great risk.”
Iota was the second major hurricane to hit Central America in just two weeks, an unprecedented double blow that affected roughly 7.2 million people across the region. Although both hurricanes made landfall off the coast of Nicaragua, Honduras was the hardest hit, with about four million people affected.
“We’re afraid that there could be another landslide that’s even bigger. The land keeps falling,” said de Dios, who lives in the town of Belen Gualcho in the country’s west, which has been left completely cut off due to landslides that buried roads and flooding that washed away bridges.
In the valley surrounding San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras and the country’s economic motor, the rain has flooded several communities for a third time this month, making it impossible for many to return to what’s left of their homes and begin clean up and reconstruction.
Tens of thousands have found shelter in schools and churches, often packed to the brim and with conditions that are lacking in hygiene or protection for vulnerable persons.
“For me the situation [of the shelters] isn’t normal,” said Leonardo Pineda, executive director of a local nonprofit in San Pedro Sula that has been trying to fill the enormous gaps in services left by a lack of government help. “A shelter in a normal place would have a place to get dressed, a place to cook three hot meals daily, a place to bathe, security so that the children don’t have any problems with adults, but that doesn’t exist in Honduras. Here, it’s a case of ‘save yourself if you can and however you can.’”
Several rapes and other crimes have been reported in the shelters, leading many to decide to wait it out for the water to recede living alongside the highways or under bridges in makeshift housing forged with rope and sheets of plastic. Those with sufficient resources to rent somewhere else have found a pre-existing housing shortage exacerbated by the crisis.
“Rents that were at $650 per month have gone up to as high as $2,000 a month,” said Carmen Cruz, 42, whose home in a San Pedro Sula suburb was flooded and then partially engulfed in mud by a landslide. Due to the housing shortage and opportunistic rising of rents, she and her family have found no other choice but to dig out the mud inside and continue living in the damaged house despite the ongoing threat of more landslides.
The repeat flooding in the valley is due in part to the destruction of levees that were built following Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and was, until now, the worst natural disaster in Central American history. Preliminary estimates by economists put the total economic loss of November’s back-to-back hurricanes as high as $10 billion, much more than enough to surpass that of Mitch, though the death toll is drastically lower.
The persistent rainfall of the past few days has shown that without the levees it doesn’t take a hurricane to flood many communities. Although the dry season is on the horizon and will provide some relief, those communities are essentially uninhabitable until the levees can be rebuilt, which could take a year or more.
Experts say that a lack of housing could be a major driving force behind people’s future decisions whether to stay in Honduras or to migrate and seek out a better life abroad, as well as increase the number of people living in poverty in what already is one of the hemisphere’s poorest nations.
“If there isn’t support from the state and the international community for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of their homes, then we will see many of these people fall into poverty if they weren’t already,” said Maite Matheu, country director for CARE International.
Many who have been displaced from their homes have relied upon the goodwill of others for food, clothing and other basic necessities. But with the difficult economic situation in the country due to the hurricanes as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that support promises to run out soon.
“We’ve seen a lot of solidarity from the community,” said Matheu. “But that’s not going to last very long. After a month what’s going to happen to these people? It’s a big worry.”