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After catastrophic Eta, millions of Hondurans brace for Iota

“This is already a humanitarian catastrophe,” a Red Cross official said. “This is a country that is already suffering a lot and that could suffer even more in the next few days. A lot of help is needed.”

A week after Hurricane Eta pummeled Honduras, millions are still evaluating the damage left behind, cleaning out their muddy homes — if they still have one — and mourning the loss of everything they bought in a lifetime.

But now Hondurans who have already had a rough year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a dengue epidemic are agonizing about the possibility of facing yet one more crisis: another major hurricane ravaging what’s left of their country.

Tropical Depression 31 in the central Caribbean Sea evolved into record-breaking Tropical Storm Iota Friday afternoonForecasters at the National Hurricane Center predict it will hit Central America early next week as a major hurricane carrying winds of 120 mph.

“We’re really worried,” said Gonzalo Atxaerandio, the Central America disaster and crisis coordinator for the Red Cross who’s based in Panama but traveled to Honduras last week.

“This is already a humanitarian catastrophe,” he added. “This is a country that is already suffering a lot and that could suffer even more in the next few days. A lot of help is needed.”

Residents wade through a flooded road in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta in Planeta, Honduras on Nov. 5.
Residents wade through a flooded road in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta in Planeta, Honduras on Nov. 5. [ DELMER MARTINEZ | AP ]

Worst disaster in more than 20 years

Eta, an “extremely severe” Category 4 hurricane with winds as strong as 140 mph, crashed into the northeastern coast of Nicaragua on Nov. 3. The powerful hurricane then weakened a bit to a tropical storm but still struck Honduras, spawning life-threatening flash flooding and landslides, mainly to the northern coast and the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula.

The torrential rain overflowed the Ulúa and Chamelecón rivers, turned streets into canals and submerged two-story houses. It demolished 23 bridges and partially ruined another 43, and wrecked 143 highways and eight schools. The gusts knocked down power lines and ripped off some building roofs.

The official government toll, still mounting, currently stands at 62 dead, eight missing, nearly 120,000 evacuees and nearly 3 million people “seriously affected,” about a third of the country’s population. Authorities say they have had no communication with 69 communities with a total population of about 100,000.

“Unfortunately, we expect those numbers to rise as we continue to make our way through the country,” said Atxaerandio, adding that 16 of the 18 Honduran departments got hit.

The natural disaster has become the worst to affect Honduras in more than two decades, since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Mitch killed more people, Atxaerandio said, but Eta’s storm surge proved to be “definitely higher,” probably because of an unusually intense rainy season this year, “so the damage is more extensive.” According to the government, for instance, the 43-foot storm surge caused by the Ulúa river was 13 feet higher than the one recorded after Mitch.

A man walks in knee-deep floodwaters carrying belongings in San Manuel, Honduras on Nov. 4.
A man walks in knee-deep floodwaters carrying belongings in San Manuel, Honduras on Nov. 4. [ DELMER MARTINEZ | AP ]

Weathering the storm in a two-story car wash for three days

One of the Hondurans affected, Yoselin Sánchez, 27, said she woke up Nov. 5, briefly stepped outside her home in La Paz neighborhood, in the city of La Lima in Cortés, and saw some puddles on the street.

“It was normal flooding,” she said, “like the one we see after a long night of showers.” She added they have a saying in her community: “Aquí no se escupe porque se inunda,” which roughly translates to, “If you spit, it floods.”

But a while later, the water started pouring in under the front door. Sánchez, her mother and her brother thought they could still stay and started lifting their belongings off the floor, but in a matter of a few minutes the dirty current shot up to their waists.

Her brother, Dennis, ran outside to move the family’s car to higher ground, while she and her mother packed whatever they could find. When Dennis returned, they each grabbed a bag and a dog — two terriers and a pitbull — and slowly trudged along a few streets until they got to where Dennis had parked his car, by the local police station.

They stayed inside the car for nearly the entire day. Then eventually moved to the station, where at least 10 officers had no information about how to help, she said. Sánchez and her mother crossed the street and found shelter in a two-story car wash, where they ended up weathering the storm with about 20 others for three days until they were rescued.

Some people drove by in tractors at about 3 a.m. at night, Sánchez said, and threw bags of food and other supplies to the roofs of the buildings. Thanks to that, people prepared baleadas — flour tortillas filled with mashed beans, thick cream, cheese and sometimes scrambled eggs. On Nov. 6, Sánchez ate for the first time since she got there.

A gut punch

Sánchez said she tried to get help on her own several times. She texted another brother, who lives farther south in San Pedro, and told him to come get them. Her brother borrowed a skiff and headed their way, but couldn’t get past a highway barrier of government officials who demanded he present “proper documentation” for the vehicle or pay them 3,000 lempiras, about $123.

“That was a gut punch,” Sánchez said. “It’s simply ludicrous to think my own government would do that to me, but it did.”

After a long odyssey, Sánchez and her family hitched a ride to downtown La Lima in a truck. Then they hitched another ride to San Pedro. On her way, she remembers seeing overturned cars and houses flooded to the brim.

She still hasn’t returned to her home, but her brother Dennis did and found everything drenched in mud. He still locked it, after he heard looters had been ransacking some properties.

She’s not sure if they’ll be able to make it up there to clean before the next storm arrives.

“We basically lost everything we had gained since Mitch,” she said. “People keep saying we should feel lucky we’re alive, and I’m definitely relieved, but it’s just sad.”

Sánchez, who works at a call center, and Dennis, who usually works on cruise ships, are the only providers in the family. She said “it’s been hard” since their dad abandoned them. They created a GoFundMe account to recover.

“I just wish we would’ve known we had to evacuate,” she said. “But nobody told us. This awful government knew we were in a risky area but didn’t warn us.”

A ‘clown’ and other government negligence

Hondurans have repeatedly complained their government’s negligence worsened the tragedy.

Many have reported nobody alerted them about the true danger or advised them to evacuate until they had “the water around their necks,” as Sánchez and others said. Others have pointed out that the Permanent Contingency Commission, known as COPECO for its Spanish acronym, didn’t cancel a national holiday until after the hurricane made landfall.

This year, the Honduran government pushed the Feriado Morazánico, a three-day holiday named after Honduran national hero Francisco Morazán and usually held in October, to November because of the coronavirus. But mere days before Hurricane Eta, local authorities were still encouraging people to travel to help boost the hard-hit tourism industry, simply warning them to drive safely through the heavy rains, Hondurans say.

COPECO didn’t cancel the national holiday until Nov. 2. It didn’t issue a nationwide red alert emergency until Nov. 4.

The population’s dismay comes after the controversial appointment earlier this year of Max González, an ex-reggaeton singer known as Killa, short for ‘Killa on the Beat,’ as the head of COPECO, the organization in charge of relief efforts. Since then, the hashtag #RenunciaKilla — or #KillaResign — has trended on social media and users have raised questions about his competence.

COPECO officials reached for this story declined to comment.

Carlos Trujillo, a 34-year-old restaurant chef, said he feels thankful Eta didn’t ram the capital city of Tegucigalpa, where he lives, with as much force as up north. However, he said he’s been watching the news and feels “helpless.”

“I can’t believe the government didn’t do more ahead of time for these people,” he said. “Nobody can believe it.”

Trujillo said Hondurans have no trust in their public officials, especially in González.

Sánchez, the woman from Lima, agreed: “He’s a clown.”

“I truly hope they do more with this next storm,” Trujillo said.

• • •

2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

Lessons from Hurricane Michael

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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