Aid Dribbles to Hondurans From Skies That Brought Disaster
U.S. Says Storm Aid Could Cost Billions

Relief Efforts Enter Rural Areas in Nicaragua
Central Americans in New York Offer Aid to Victims of Hurricane
Honduras's Capital: City of the Dead and the Dazed
In Nicaragua's Disaster Zone, a Flow of Human Misery

Aid Dribbles to Hondurans From Skies That Brought Disaster

Sunday, November 8, 1998

OROCUINA, Honduras -- The helicopter descended on this village in southern Honduras like some giant insect of the Apocalypse, ratcheting the air and sending a whirlwind across the muddy soccer field where it alighted.

Villagers swarmed from the trees ringing the field and ran toward the Mexican Air Force helicopter. Many looked exhausted, ragged, hollow eyed, muddy. Several children had red eyes, a sign of infection.

Within minutes, the crowd had unloaded a small shipment of food and medicine donated by charities in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

"The creek flooded and carried away 15 houses," said Jesus Montoya, a teacher. "We are completely isolated because we don't have any way to get to the regional capital. For eight days we've been isolated."

This village of 4,500 people, with tiled roofs and an immaculate white church, lies along what used to be a sparkling stream in the hills of Choluteca Province. Like thousands of other hamlets in Honduras, it was cut off from the rest of the world by one of the freakiest hurricanes in history, the storm called Mitch. The storm crawled slowly over Central America for a week, dumping two feet of rain and killing more than 10,000 people in landslides and floods.

For eight days, the residents of Orocuina have lived without electricity or clean water. Their food has dwindled and the Mayor has started rationing. There is an epidemic of conjunctivitis, and the local doctor has diagnosed three cases of cholera. People are beginning to feel desperate.

Although far from the Atlantic waters that spawned Mitch, Choluteca Province was particularly hard hit by the storm. The Choluteca River and all its tributaries flooded, knocking out dozens of bridges, including two major ones on the highway to the Pacific port of San Lorenzo.

In the town of Choluteca, block after block of houses have been completely buried in mud. The huge plantations of melons and sugar cane along the river that provided most of the jobs have been wiped out.

"Nobody expected this to happen," said Dario Rivera, a local businessman who was helping organize aid deliveries. "Everyone thought it was going to be a small storm. The problem we have in Choluteca is transportation. The bridges are down and the roads are broken and there is no way to get there."

On Wednesday, Mexican Air Force personnel arrived in Honduras with 16 helicopters and began distributing a small amount of food and medicine to people in the south. The quantity distributed Friday afternoon to four municipalities by one of the helicopters was small compared with the number of people who asked for food.

In the village of Liure, Mayor Virgilio Gomez said the storm had destroyed 60 houses. The 270 people left homeless are living in the church and other shelters. Two local bridges were knocked out, making it impossible to get to Choluteca. Telephone and electricity lines are down.

The situation in Liure and Orocuina is repeated to various degrees in thousands of villages throughout Honduras. With roads and other installations shredded by the floods, the only hope for most people is some kind of airlift. In the last week, the United States Air Force has distributed 345,000 pounds of food and other supplies with 17 helicopters flying from its base in Palmerola, 30 miles west of the capital. Mexico shipped about 700 tons of food to Honduras.

But the scale of the problem appears to dwarf the relief efforts. Leaders in all four villages visited by the Mexican helicopter Friday said they had received no aid since the storm hit.

Cut off from the outside world, a group of men from Liure tried to walk the 20 or so miles to Choluceta last week, fording streams and wading through polluted flood plains for a day, only to find they could not get back to the village with supplies for three more days.

Though no one was killed in Liure, townspeople say they feel as if their livelihoods have been savaged.

The rains have destroyed at least half of the bean and corn crops in the municipality, Gomez said. Worse still, the floods carried away the nearest melon plantation, where at least 700 of the town's 1,270 inhabitants worked. The shelves at the local stores are empty, cleaned out by people hoarding food. There is no electricity. The drinking water is contaminated.

In their isolation and desperation, town leaders ordered villagers to build a path of rocks across the stream bisecting their town, but despite three days of work they still cannot move a bus or car across the rapidly flowing waters.

"We can't count on anything," Gomez said.

Sunday, November 8, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
U.S. Says Storm Aid Could Cost Billions

Saturday, November 7, 1998

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration said Friday that rebuilding the four Central American nations devastated by Hurricane Mitch would cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars and last for several years.

The United States has already committed $70 million to the relief effort. But administration officials acknowledged that the four nations -- El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua -- will require many times that amount of aid, and that Honduras and Nicaragua in particular have been so devastated that they will be almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and shelter for the next year.

"Those two nations have been wiped out," said J. Brian Atwood, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is overseeing the administration's disaster relief effort in Central America. In Honduras, he said, "basically the crops of that country have been destroyed in their entirety."

The Defense Department, which has dispatched 25 helicopters and four cargo planes to assist in the rescue effort, said that several more U.S. military aircraft would arrive in Central America this weekend.

The government of Nicaragua has said it needed at least 20 U.S. helicopters to transport food and supplies to isolated regions, and that only eight helicopters had been dispatched so far.

Still, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, offered no criticism of the United States and other donor nations.

"I think what happened was that this hurricane threw a sucker punch at everybody and no one really understood at first how bad this was," he said in an interview. "It took a little while for this to fully sink in in the U.S. Now it has, and I want to emphasize that I feel very gratified by the announcement of $70 million in emergency relief."

Stephen Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, the unit of the Defense Department that is responsible for Central American affairs, said that the United States "is throwing everything we can at this."

He continued: " Could we be doing more? Should we be doing more? The answer to that is probably yes. But an undertaking of this size is not easily organized."

American charity organizations involved in the relief effort strained for words to describe the scale of the disaster, which is estimated to have killed more than 10,000 people and left vast stretches of Central American underwater.

"This is even worse than all the damage done in Central America during the decades of war there," said Michael Delaney, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Oxfam America, a Boston-based charity. "After their wars, Nicaragua and El Salvador had a period of peace to develop their local economies, and now all of that progress is destroyed."

Several prominent aid organizations said they welcomed President Clinton's announcement earlier this week that the United States would organize an initial emergency aid package of $70 million.

Delaney said that the relief effort mounted by the United States may have been slow to start in the hours after the hurricane passed through the region. "But I think that's normal," he said. "I don't have any criticism. The $70 million will be important in the short term. What we need to watch is the middle to long-term in regards to the American response."

Atwood, the head of AID, said in an interview that the United States and other donor nations would have to help Honduras and Nicaragua -- and El Salvador and Guatemala, to a lesser extent -- rebuild their most basic infrastructure, including road networks and telephone systems.

"The $70 million is simply the first major tranche of aid," he said. "We really are going to have to be engaged in the reconstruction of these countries."

He said the destruction of so much farmland had left much of Central America without any source of income. "The whole agricultural sector has just been wiped out," he said. "And so in what are basically rural agricultural communities in these countries, their one and key source of income is gone."

Charity groups said that the disaster had produced an outpouring of offers of money and other assistance from the American public, a response in large part to the dramatic television images of the aftermath of the hurricane.

"It's amazing -- we're seeking a response here that we haven't seen in quite some time," said Cynthia Glocker, a spokeswoman for Care, the Atlanta-based relief organization. "From the minute this happened, we've been getting calls offering help. Our phones are ringing off the hook. We get 800 calls a day about this."

Saturday, November 7, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
Relief Efforts Enter Rural Areas in Nicaragua

Saturday, November 7, 1998

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- With the flood waters generated by a huge hurricane finally receding, now that nearly two weeks of torrential rains appear to have ended, relief workers and international aid groups on Friday stepped up their efforts to reach survivors in isolated rural areas across Central America and to rush food, medicine and other vital supplies to them.

The combined death toll from the storm, Mitch, which officials describe as the worst natural disaster to strike the subcontinent in this century, is estimated at more than 11,000, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua.

In an indication of the difficulties that lie ahead, several thousand others are still listed as missing, and more than 1 million have been left homeless.

Thanks to improving weather, however, airlifts of basic supplies to the main disaster zones in both countries are finally in full swing. Through midweek, helicopters leaving from the Nicaraguan capital for hard-hit areas like Esteli and Matagalpa with rice, beans, sugar and other basic foods were repeatedly unable to land and were turned back by bad weather.

In one indication of how international cooperation is beginning to take effect, a small Mexican air force plane landed at midmorning Friday at the airstrip in Chinandega, the northwestern town closest to the most damaged area. The plane was met by a photographer and about 12 local volunteers, who began loading large sacks of rice donated by the United States onto trucks.

An hour later another aircraft landed, and a group of French and Scandinavian doctors immediately headed for the hospital, where survivors of the mudslides that entombed six villages around Posoltega, killing more than 1,500, are being treated.

Reversing the lowered profile that it had cultivated since civil wars in the region ended early in the decade, the United States has approved $70 million in emergency aid to Central America and has sent helicopters and food. Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore are scheduled to visit Central America in the next two weeks as an additional expression of U.S. concern.

Friday afternoon former President Jimmy Carter, who helped broker the elections in 1990 that led to the end of the Sandinista revolution, arrived here to assess storm damage.

President Carlos Flores of Honduras announced that former President George Bush is to visit that country over the weekend.

New problems were emerging, however, particularly the threat of epidemics. Nicaraguan officials acknowledged Friday that there have been limited outbreaks of cholera in a few areas. International relief groups warned that the huge new bodies of stagnant water that have been created are likely to lead to the appearance of malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases.

With many bridges and roads still out of service, and farms and fields throughout the region destroyed just as an especially rich harvest was about to begin, some shortages of basic crops like beans and rice were reported.

Consumers here and in other cities complained that some prices had doubled, leading local offices of the national emergency committee to plead with store owners not to withhold supplies or manipulate prices.

The biggest challenge to President Arnoldo Aleman, however, is the popular discontent with his government's delays in sending assistance to the areas where it is most needed. In a typical expression of anger a survivor of the Posoltega mudslide, Francisco Sandoval, complained on Thursday, "The government has done nothing to help us."

Vice President Enrique Bolanos, who was put in charge of the National Emergency Committee that is overseeing relief efforts, has pleaded for patience, pointing to the bad weather and widespread damage to communications and roads that initially slowed operations.

But leaders of the Sandinista Front have been critical of the conservative government's decision to suspend the powers of mayors, one-third Sandinistas, and to concentrate power in its hands.

Saturday, November 7, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
Central Americans in New York Offer Aid to Victims of Hurricane


Wednesday, November 4, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times

NEW YORK -- Central Americans in New York stepped up their efforts on Tuesday to help the victims of Hurricane Mitch, the killer storm that has swept up entire villages and cities in Central America and caused the deaths of more than 7,000 people.

Immigrants from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and many of the community advocates who serve them in New York opened up drop-off points for canned goods and medicines throughout the region, held meetings to devise strategies for the delivery of the donations and offered Masses for the dead, as well as prayers for the homeless.

"Praying -- that's what I've been doing," said Antonia Guzman, a 43-year-old health care attendant from the Bronx who did not know the fate of her parents and sisters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Dozens of churches, community centers and travel agencies are serving as focal points for the collection of goods -- from canned food to used clothing to medicines and first aid kits. And New Yorkers, even those with no ties to Central America, are responding. Some of the churches already have rooms full of donations.

But while praying for miracles, scurrying for food and medicines and pleading to merchants for money, leaders of several Central American immigrant community groups worried about how to get goods to countries where roads were blocked by the floods, and many cities were still under water.

And, they said, even if they succeed in transporting the goods to Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, more challenges lie ahead -- mainly, to make sure the donations reach their intended destination.

"Our fear is that the donations won't reach the people who truly need it," said Antonieta Maximo, president of the Federation of Honduran Organizations, an umbrella organization for Honduran groups in New York. "We have sent things in the past that have never reached the people. It happened after a hurricane in 1974, and we have not forgotten that."

As of Tuesday evening, several organizations were still scrambling to find reliable channels to deliver the donations. Several were hoping that the Red Cross or other international organizations with offices in Central America would help them. Others, including a coalition of Salvadoran organizations that met in a church on Long Island on Tuesday, have opted to send only money.

"Transportation is expensive," said Miguel Ramirez, of El Centro Hispano Cuzcatlan, a community-based group of Salvadorans in Queens. "With the money, they can get what they need."

A group from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which before the storm had adopted Tipitapa, a Nicaraguan city, as a sister city, is doing the same. Donna Katzin, an advocate in the group, said it had decided to seek only money donations because in the past it had had trouble with shipments of medicines, school supplies and used clothing. Its last shipment, sent in May, is still in storage at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua, subject to a high tax that the organization cannot pay, she said.

"I hope that that will not be the fate of the donations now, but I just don't know, and we cannot take that risk," she said.

Mario Paredes, executive director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, said the goods collected through the Roman Catholic churches in the region would safely reach their destination because they would be delivered through Caritas, the international official agency of the Catholic Church for humanitarian aid.

"It's the safest way we know to do this and the most effective one," said Paredes, who returned yesterday from a weekend trip to Central America where he was able to assess the damage from the hurricane. "It's total, pure devastation."

Wednesday, November 4, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
Honduras's Capital: City of the Dead and the Dazed


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Selvin Joynarid Perez was standing under the awning of his small house on a bluff overlooking the Choluteca River early Saturday morning, keeping an uneasy watch on the torrential rain and the rising waters below.

Suddenly the earth trembled, he said. He turned to run into the house to wake his wife and 3-year-old daughter. He never made it.

"When I tried to go into the room where my wife and child were sleeping, the earth opened up," he said.

Within seconds, more than 45 houses in the Nueva Esperanza neighborhood slid down the bluff in an avalanche of earth and wood and tin roofing and human beings toward the roiling black waters below, Mr. Perez, 24, said.

His wife, MarIa, 25, and daughter, Kensi, were crushed to death in their beds.

Today they are still buried in tons of debris above the river, along with at least 11 other people from the neighborhood.

Some family members and survivors were picking over the jumbled boulders and pieces of houses, clawing at the earth in the hope of finding their loved one's remains.

Mr. Perez, a mechanic, was laboring to repair a road leading to the disaster site so the Government could bring in earthmovers.

Throughout this Central American capital, victims of the floods and landslides spawned over the weekend by Hurricane Mitch were trying to reconstruct their lives, though most had little left besides the clothes they wore and a thin thread of hope.

More than a dozen neighborhoods in this city of 800,000 were erased by floodwaters or buried under landslides.

All over the city, stunned men and women picked through the shattered remains of their homes.

In some places, like the devastated Colonia Soto, hundreds of vultures swirled overhead, apparently attracted by the faint but fetid scent of corpses buried in the rubble created by an avalanche Saturday morning.

Honduran officials said on Tuesday that they had preliminary reports that at least 6,420 people were killed by the storm throughout the country and 5,807 were missing. Some 600,000 are crowded into thousands of temporary shelters because their homes have been destroyed.

"This is the worst," said Delmer Urbizo, the Minister of Government and Justice, who is overseeing the aid operation. "This has no precedent in the history of the country, or even in the history of Central America."

But many officials here say they fear the worst is yet to come. Outbreaks of disease and food shortages are likely unless the roads and other installations can be repaired.

Ninety-three bridges are out along major highways, including 45 that are completely destroyed.

All the major cities in Honduras are like islands, cut off from one another..

Food and gasoline supplies are dwindling, with only a few days worth of both in the capital, officials say.

The roads leading from the capital to the Pacific and Atlantic ports are still impassable.

Vast tracts of the country are still inaccessible except by helicopter, officials said.

Thousands of people are cut off by floodwaters in the northern coastal regions, especially in La Mosquitia in the northeast.

Some are surviving in trees and on top of buildings.

What is worse, officials say, is that many villages and settlements along rivers appear from the air to have been literally wiped off the map.

The floods have also done untold damage to grain, banana, bean and tobacco crops in the San Pedro de Sula valley and other important agricultural areas.

By some estimates, more than 70 percent of the country's crops have been destroyed.

There was sunshine in the capital Wednesday. The river had retreated into its bed, and in many neighborhoods life appeared to be returning to something like its normal rhythm. In Comayaguela, the business district, people were shoveling the mud out of storefronts, removing debris from damaged factories and digging cars and trucks out of banks of earth.

But in dozens of communities swept away by floods or buried in mudslides, working-class people were struggling to come to terms with the disaster.

In La Colonia Soto, residents climbed in disbelief over the wreckage of their former neighborhood, which was nestled between two hills alongside the river.

At least 150 houses were destroyed by a series of landslides.

Most residents had heeded warnings on the radio and had taken shelter on higher ground, but dozens had stayed behind to guard their properties. Most perished, residents said.

The scale of destruction in Soto provokes awe.

An entire soccer field slid down a hill more than 200 yards from its original site and crumpled like a giant sheet of paper, plowing under the houses below. Many houses ended up 150 yards downhill from where they had been built.

Others were buried entirely, some with people inside.

Marco Albarado, a 52-year-old fishmonger, was stacking up boards salvaged from his wrecked home.

He said his family managed to leave for higher ground on Friday afternoon, just hours before an avalanche carried his house down the hill and broke it in pieces.

Looters had stolen what was left of his belongings, he said. He has no way to make a living anymore, because the market with his stall was also destroyed.

"We have nothing," he said, his eyes filling with tears.

A couple of miles upstream, some residents of Nueva Esperanza were still trying to find the bodies of the dead, but their hopes were fading. Several acknowledged that the houses that had rumbled down the bluff had been illegally built in a zone where construction is prohibited.

"The reality of the thing is that it is not the Government's fault," said Florentino Snchez, who had spent the day digging with his bare hands for the bodies of four children of his cousin. The mother's body was found on Tuesday.

"We never believed the river

Thursday, November 5, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
In Nicaragua's Disaster Zone, a Flow of Human Misery


IZAPA, Nicaragua -- In one way or another, every part of Nicaragua has been devastated by the relentless floods and landslides that followed Hurricane Mitch and killed at least 6,000 people throughout Central America. But the real disaster zone begins here.

To the south, highways are functioning again, and cattle still graze in waterlogged fields. But the Izapa River overflowed its banks here and washed away the Pan-American Highway, the main land link between northwest Nicaragua and the rest of the country. And to travel north of here is to enter a realm dominated by destruction and suffering.

On Tuesday, President Arnoldo Aleman ventured into the region for the first time since the Casita volcano unleashed a sea of mud over the weekend that entombed more than 1,500 people outside Posoltega, about 25 miles north of here. Very quickly, he learned the importance of that severed connection and the way it is crippling Nicaragua's recovery and rescue effort.

All along the road, entire families trudged in both directions throughout the day, balancing large packages on their shoulders or lugging sacks of rice and beans. With bridges and roads out, some have walked all the way from the capital, Managua, some 40 miles to the south, fording stream after stream in a desperate attempt to get food, clothing and medicine to family and friends in the disaster zone.

Among those making the slow, tiring trek northward on Tuesday morning was Vicente Hernandez, accompanied by his wife and a younger brother. Hernandez, 29, works on a ranch near Posoltega, artificially inseminating cows. But he was away visiting relatives when the mudslide engulfed his home and his village, and he was now trying to return home and search for another group of relatives who are still missing.

"We have been left with nothing but this," he said, gesturing toward a small plastic bag containing a few items of donated clothing that was attached to the handlebars of a bicycle he was riding. "Our family has been dispersed, and a great misfortune has fallen upon us."

His wife, Maria Elena Caballero Gomez, began to sob. "I don't know what has become of them," she said of the missing family members. "And if they are alive, they don't know where we are."

Jairo Javier Perez Penalver, a Red Cross volunteer who has been working in the Posoltega area, said that as late as Monday afternoon, more than 48 hours after the flank of the volcano collapsed, he and other rescue workers could hear the voices of people buried in the mud who were begging to be rescued. Most of them, he said sadly, are surely dead now.

"We have been asking for help, but it has not been arriving," he said. "The only way to get in there and take people out safely is by helicopter, and there are not enough helicopters to satisfy what is needed."

On the road, one traveler after another said they were responding to the pleas of relatives who in some cases have not eaten in three days. There are also shortages of gasoline, which has led to fuel rationing and made it even more difficult for people to move around and to incinerate the decaying corpses that health officials say could cause epidemics if not disposed of soon.

Throughout the disaster zone, there are signs that hard-pressed and hungry inhabitants are growing increasingly impatient with their situation. At a brief stop along the on Tuesday and later in Leon, the largest city in the region, Aleman was greeted with jeers, catcalls, boos and shouts of "We don't need an inspection, we need food" and, "Where is the aid?"

Gilberto Wong, the president's press secretary, put the blame for the outbursts on the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front, which he accused of trying to take partisan advantage of a national tragedy. The government, he said, was doing everything in its power to aid flood and storm victims as quickly as possible.

"There are remote and isolated regions that it just has not been possible to reach because for so many days we had inclement weather and the helicopters could not even fly," he said. "People everywhere are now asking us for help, but there is a lack of transport, and so we are asking the international community to help us."

The Nicaraguan air force has only seven helicopters, he said, most of them Soviet models left over from the Sandinista era. The United States, Mexico and Panama have donated two helicopters each, he said, but tens of thousands of people are still stranded and in need of food, water and medicine.

Milton Juarez, a farmer here who raises cattle and grows beans, corn and sorghum, would like to help out. But the floods swept away his cattle -- some of which reappeared later, bobbing in the swollen river -- destroyed his crops and leveled his home and those of his neighbors. Now he has to start over.

"Everything I had is gone, and all we have been left with is rocks and stone," he said as he sat on his bedraggled horse and surveyed the destruction here. "I'm ready to plant, but somebody has to give me seeds. But so far, nobody has come here to help us, nobody."

Wednesday, November 4, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times