Mitch Aid to Focus on Better Housing: Pattern Change Could Prevent Future Disasters
Barber, Ben, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Aid experts fear the havoc left by Hurricane Mitch could spark new upheavals in Central America unless a $6 billion aid program can create better housing and livelihoods for the poor, living on unsafe hillside and riverbed shanties, who died by the thousands this fall.
Andrew Natsios, head of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance under President Bush, said this is the time to change ancient patterns that contributed to the disaster.
Aid officials say the survivors will be helped to build stronger houses that can withstand future storms in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, where 10,000 died and 10,000 remain missing.
A $300 million U.S. relief effort since Mitch hit in late October is about to shift from emergency food and medical aid to rebuilding houses and farms "better than before."
"They are seeing this in long term, not just as an emergency needing rebuilding as before, but dealing with deeper issues and building something much better than what they had before," said James Gustave Speth, administrator of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).
"One reason the effects of Hurricane Mitch were so severe was because of poor environmental management," said Mr. Speth in a phone interview from New York.
"The people hit hardest, the poorest, lived on lakes or riverbanks or marginal areas on mountains and had nothing substantial to protect them."
But reconstruction plans announced Dec. 15 by Brian Atwood, head of the Agency for International Development, will require tampering with feudal aspects of societies of the region.
In Central America, the gap between the few rich families and the millions of the desperately poor is the biggest in the world, say U.N. officials. That gap sent millions of immigrants to the United States.
And struggles over land reform contributed to the lost decade of guerrilla wars of the 1980s.
"In the middle of a disaster, everyone is focused. It's the time to make changes in people's behavior," said Mr. Natsios, the former Bush administration official, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"This is the time to pass land reform. Now there is the political will. You could conceivably do it."
AID announced Dec. 11 it was adding $120 million for reconstruction work in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The money will go to fight cholera, dengue fever and malaria, reactivate agriculture and small businesses, rebuild and equip schools and "mitigate environmental concerns such as soil stabilization," AID said in a statement.
About 4,000 U.S. troops are already spread out in humanitarian operations across terrain once riddled with hostile guerrillas and national armies fighting the proxy battles of the Cold War.
The head of the UNDP in Honduras, hardest hit by Mitch, said aid from the United States and other donors "is reaching the people, but there are a number of complications - people still live in unsanitary conditions.
"Lots of mud still covers the cities, particularly in the north," said Harold Robinson in a telephone interview from Honduras telephone last week.
"It has been raining. Even though food was sent, the conditions are difficult." Mr. Robinson said housing is needed for 200,000 people living in shelters - mainly at schools that are to open in February for the next semester. …