Magazine article The Christian Century

After the Storm

Magazine article The Christian Century

After the Storm

Article excerpt

When I moved with my family to Tegucigalpa two years ago, we assured our friends that compared to the other places we had lived in Central America, the Honduran capital was a tranquil and relatively safe place, exempt by its location from earthquakes, hurricanes and the other natural disasters that plague much of Central America. And then came Hurricane Mitch.

As hurricanes go, Mitch was a sucker punch. Rather than the hit-and-run frenzy of normal Caribbean hurricanes, this storm--the fourth largest of the century--moved just off the Honduran coast and then stalled. For days it pumped rainfall, as much as four inches an hour, over Honduras and northern Nicaragua.

In our mountain neighborhood just outside the capital, we watched helplessly as several neighbors' homes washed away in the storm. The house below ours filled with mud to the eaves. For three days our community was isolated, the road washed away, until finally a neighbor and I waded a river and rode our mountain bikes over mudslides into what remained of Tegucigalpa.

What I witnessed there both depressed me and gave me hope. I was left in tears by scenes along the Choluteca River, where entire neighborhoods were taken by surprise and well over 1,000 people died or disappeared. Many of those who died had just days earlier offered their extra clothes or food for victims of Mitch on the north coast, never imagining that they would soon become victims themselves.

I was given hope by those who led the homeless to shelter, comforted the mourning and fed the hungry. Many of those who rescued others had just watched their own homes flood or be jerked away by the violent currents. For all the stories of terror that the international press has relayed so well in the days after the storm, this disaster also produced thousands of untold stories of heroism and sacrifice.

Like all disasters, Mitch served to magnify existing contradictions of class. Before the rainfall lessened, a wealthy neighbor of mine--a retired army colonel who spent time in prison for drug trafficking--wanted people on our street to form an armed militia to protect us against a poorer neighborhood down the hill. "When food gets scarce, it will be the law of the jungle around here," he proclaimed, "and we need to prepare to defend ourselves."

No one in the neighborhood signed up for his militia, despite his offer to teach us how to shoot straight. Yet his fear is shared by many wealthy people. The government's imposition of a strict curfew and suspension of constitutional rights emerge from a fear that the poor might grow desperate enough to cross the tiny but deep chasm that separates the classes.

The storm also demonstrated the environmental problems caused by injustice. Most of the damage done by Mitch was caused not by the storm's winds, but by its heavy rainfall. As such, it was far from a simple "natural disaster." A major factor contributing to the swollen rivers and flooded towns is the systematic deforestation of the region's mountains. Without the trees, the mountains can no longer act as a sponge to soak up moisture. Yet as long as regional elites monopolize rich farmland and refuse to allow meaningful agrarian reform, peasants will continue to be pushed onto marginal hillsides, practicing a slash-and-burn agriculture that provides the environmental foundation for a disaster like Mitch.

Mitch also blew the shroud off one downside of structural adjustment. After six or seven years of continual reduction and privatization of the state apparatus--measures prescribed by international financial institutions--the government is weaker and more easily overwhelmed by such a massive challenge.

Yet Mitch would have been overwhelming even for a country with a strong central government. The storm was a disaster unparalleled in this hemisphere's modern history. In Honduras alone, 60 percent of the country's infrastructure was twisted or washed away. …

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