Surviving Mitch

September 25, 2007

The survivors of last October's devastation in Honduras and Nicaragua have lived through a double hurricane: a four-day meteorological event named Mitch and a social/ecological disaster compounded by debt and economic "adjustment" many years in the making. The principal victims of Mitch were poor Hondurans and Nicaraguans, people already reeling from social, economic and ecological devastation of monumental proportions. Over the decade preceding the storm, they had become even more impoverished, demoralized and alienated from the institutions of state power—institutions which remained notably unhelpful throughout the natural disaster.

The following testimonies from survivors of Mitch were recorded this past January, some three months after the hurricane.

On October 30, floods and mudslides in the area near the town of Posoltega killed upwards of 2,000 people. The greatest loss of life took place in three small communities built on the unstable, deforested hillside of the active Casitas volcano. Juana Lanza (below) is a survivor of the devastation. When interviewed in January, she was still living in a refugee shelter.

Juana Lanza
Posoltega, Nicaragua

When a friend came and told me, "look Juana, here comes the flood," I quickly got ready to go and said to my children, "let's get out of here right away." The small children, including my five-year-old daughter, were led away first, along the side of the canal, but my oldest boy said to me that he wanted to stay with me. "I'm going to die by your side," he said to me, "I'm not going to run away."

So he stayed with me and we crossed the current together. My boy went first, and I followed carrying my littlest one. We all got pretty banged up by the current. The three of us managed to save ourselves, and so did my husband. But I lost my little girl. She was five years old. We looked for her but we never found her. People told me she was buried with her arms all bruised and her feet broken. But we don't know; maybe that's not true. All we know is that there are now four of us instead of five.

We hadn't known the current was coming until we actually saw it in front of us. We didn't know. We heard on the radio that there was a hurricane somewhere else in the country and we said to ourselves, "pity those poor people who are suffering and dying," not knowing that we were about to suffer the same fate. And we had to fend for ourselves. Here there was no salvation.

It was raining and raining and we saw the current on the other side of the hill, on the other side of the canyon. And then we heard a noise that sounded like an airplane. We thought we were hearing the current on the other side but no, it was the current that was right in front of us, coming after us.

We were five neighbors here. We all had small houses but they were all destroyed. None of the houses are left. Everything was washed away. Some of the neighbors escaped; some were washed away by the current. I was able to save myself and my baby by climbing onto a tree trunk and I waited there for more people. I was all torn up and naked like the day I came into the world. Without clothes, without anything.

Later they gave me clothes in the school where we took refuge. And we stayed there for 11 days with other refugees from the storm. And now we have nowhere to live and we are waiting for help. My tent is out back. We are all together but I feel strange because it's not my home. And I feel strange because I lost my little girl. Every time we sit down to eat I remember her. It troubles me to have lost the soul of my little girl.

We hope they can take us off this hill before there is another danger, like the collapse of the hill. This is what we are all afraid of. Because, to be honest, I don't want to go through all that destruction again. I don't want to lose my children. If there is another danger here they should help us get out before more children die.

The government says they are going to help us with land but who knows when. Who knows how much help we can really expect. The day before yesterday there was another meeting and they promised us land. We are still waiting. We need someone to give us a hand because we don't have anything. We have been left in the street without tables, without dishes, without clothing, without anything.

The Acahualinca neighborhood in Managua, a shantytown along the shores of Lake Managua, was also hard hit. Fishing in Lake Managua—severely polluted by untreated sewage—has traditionally provided both income and subsistence for the families of this neighborhood. Twelve-year-old Karen de los Angeles Silva Ruiz (right) lives a few blocks from the flooded area. Her family's house was left standing.

Karen Silva Ruiz
Acahualinca, Managua, Nicaragua

I remember how the people were flooded out during the hurricane. There were people killed and houses covered with water. And people came from the municipality to help them and to take them to the tent community called Nueva Vida. Everybody was down by the lake because they worked there. And they ate there because they had earned a little money.

What I remember is that the bridge was covered with water and garbage from the lake. The lake had been further away but then it got very close. Now the people go there to bathe. They try to earn their living there but nobody wants to buy their fish because they say the fish are contaminated. But now the people who live here go to the lake to eat because nobody else will buy contaminated fish.

There used to be little houses here but everything has collapsed; everything was washed away. In the school over there they were helping with clothes; some gringos came to hand out some clothes because the people didn't have anything to wear. People ate in the school. Everything happened in the school. But we missed a lot of classes because of the hurricane.

Everyone here is like family. I felt very bad for my friends who died in the storm or were injured. I couldn't bear it because they were suffering, and their suffering was like my suffering. I cried every night; I asked God to help them, and they were getting help little by little. I prayed almost every day and it pained me to see what was happening to people. That's why I couldn't bear it.

The unsustainable use of the land—the deforestation and soil erosion resulting from large-scale commercial land use, as well as the slash-and-burn techniques of subsistence farming—made the natural devastation of Mitch much worse. In northern Honduras, near the city of San Pedro Sula, some contrasts can be seen between sustainable and unsustainable uses of the land. Irma Gutiérrez (below left) is a member of the Guacamaya Cooperative of organic coffee growers in San Pedro Sula, and the owner of a small organic coffee plantation as well as a commercial vegetable garden. Her terraced crops (below right) survived the hurricane.

Irma Gutierrez
San Pedro Sula, Honduras

After it rained for seven days and seven nights, thank God, these terraced plots of land were still here. And all the crops that were planted using soil-conservation techniques are still here. They didn't wash away. I have to say we were surprised by this. We feel privileged by God because he has protected us, but above all, we now feel we can say to the world that the fight for soil conservation is the fight for a weapon with which we can feed ourselves.

We are now convinced because if Mitch couldn't destroy this land, what can? This is the work God entrusted us with. He told us to work the land, not to burn it or wear it out. Our mission is to work the soil. Look at this plot of land. It has a 67% incline. And that one, nearly 80%. It took nearly two years to terrace these plots. And here they are. We are sincerely proud.

Practicing minimal tillage is the key to sustainable agriculture. I'm not bragging when I tell you that I was one of the first around here to practice organic farming. I have been doing this for 12 years. We have carefully studied the results of organic farming like these little ditches, which allow us to gather organic material.

What we all used to do here was to strip a plot of land, burn it and plant a crop. After two years the land was useless and we would abandon it. Now it's different. Instead of burning and discarding, we use all the leftovers as organic compost for the next crop. And we build terraces in order to plant along level contours in the land. That way the water collects gradually and it's less likely that the crops will wash away.

I have four children, three girls and a boy, and they are all more or less following in my footsteps. My son is an agronomist and my oldest daughter is a schoolteacher. The next oldest is studying ecology and the youngest is still in secondary school. We share the mission of teaching sustainable agriculture—not with chalk on a blackboard but by example.

I like this work, though I have to start very early in the morning and leave the housework for later, sometimes until 10 o'clock because I am out in the fields. For the first seven years I had to work hard to make my own farm. I had to cultivate two vegetable gardens by myself because I didn't want to get indebted to any bank. Besides, they didn't want to give me a loan. I planted carrots, chiles, onions and cauliflower and I sold everything in the market. With what I earned, I planted two plots of coffee, and now I produce enough to pay a few employees to help me. And now that I am successful, the banks keep offering me loans, but now I don't need them and I don't want them.

Now we have a cooperative of organic coffee growers and we export our coffee, mainly to Germany. The trickiest thing is the price we can get on international markets. We have a governing board that keeps track of prices, but they are out of our hands. Whenever there is an overproduction in the big coffee-growing countries like Brazil and Colombia, prices fall all over Latin America.

Mitch poured three days worth of torrential rains onto the unprepared city of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Because of the large numbers of houses washed away, mostly by the furious Choluteca River, and because of the uncertainty of rebuilding, many people remain in shelters nearly a year after the hurricane. Antonia Pérez moved into a large temporary shelter in a convention center in downtown Tegucigalpa and was made coordinator of one of the shelter's pavillions. The shelter, called Expocentro-INFOP, continues to house people who lived along the banks of the river.

Antonia Pérez
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

We were first advised about Hurricane Mitch at eight o'clock that night by the firemen who warned us that the river was rising. At first we didn't take it seriously because the river had risen many times before, but not like this. When it reached a crest it came at us, breaking down walls and carrying everything with it. Then we realized that our neighborhood was in danger. Thank God we had time to escape with our lives, but our houses and possessions were all carried away.

The government told us that it is going to relocate us, but it has been a long time. We have been here three months and they still haven't been able to place us. Everyone in the shelters is getting desperate. We have a little piece of land that the river washed away. But we have cleaned up all the debris and the rocks, and we are going to have to build our homes on the shore of the river again because we have nowhere else to go.

There is no plan. The government says they are going to take us to El Zamorano, but in El Zamorano they don't know us and we don't know them. And it's a problem because we won't have any work there and we won't be able to take food with us to last us the amount of time they tell us we will be there. Our children could die there of diseases, of hunger, of bronchitis, of the cold weather, of who knows what. Children can die of anything. Medicine is more available here. We can search the capital for what we need for our children.

Also here we can send our children to school to study at least the basics, and maybe to learn a trade so that they can find work and defend us. That's why we want to stay in the capital. But where do they want to send us? I don't think that those of us in the shelters are going to go because life is much too difficult, and we won't have the resources to live on and to get ahead. We think we are going to return to the land we lived on before Hurricane Mitch came.

Women have overwhelmingly borne the burden of the everyday tasks of sustenance and recovery in the communities and shelters of hurricane survivors. Zoraida Sosa Sánchez (below) coordinates a program called "Women and Community" in the neighborhood of San Francisco Libre in Managua.

Zoraida Sosa Sánchez
San Francisco Libre, Managua, Nicaragua

This program tries to help women in San Francisco Libre develop in an autonomous way with a program of holistic health. We call the program "health in the hands of women." We know that women are the principal protectors of life in our families. So we try to give them support so that they can continue to respond to the needs of their families and at the same time not exhaust themselves.

During the hurricane we provided emergency assistance for San Francisco Libre. One of the main things we did was to aid the emotional recovery of women from the trauma they had experienced. We have held three workshops in which about 25 women have participated. They all expressed a great sadness over the losses they have suffered, which they say robs them of their energy and strength. To recover in the short run from all that loss means they have to confront the insecurity that comes as much from within as from the day-to-day conditions they face.

Throughout this post-Mitch process, we have been analyzing the ways in which women are becoming resigned to the houses and shelters in which they find themselves. We have also examined how they dedicate themselves to childcare, as though they were clinging to the children that thank God they didn't lose.

Their husbands, meanwhile, have doubled their consumption of alcohol. Since the area is near the lake, one of the means of survival has always been fishing. About three years ago, fishing reached its peak as the fishermen were successfully selling their fish in El Salvador, but the fishermen have lost their boats and equipment in the storm, and the fishing has become less productive. So they have barely begun to fish again, but many of them have taken their paltry earnings to consume more alcohol.

We have a small emergency committee for San Francisco Libre and one of the things that we have succeeded in doing has been to attract the UN World Food Program for disaster victims. Within a week of the WFP's decision to extend its food support, one woman told me that the fishermen began telling their wives, "Look, the World Food Program is giving us food, and other people are bringing us clothing. We have what we need to live, so you don't need this money." And they simply take their earnings to buy liquor.

So we see how much stress these women are living under. And with this increased consumption of liquor, the women tell us that the men have become increasingly violent. Intrafamily violence has always been present in Nicaragua. Our group tried to initiate a discussion about this three years ago, but it has remained hidden, as if it were a family secret. What we are trying to do now is to help the women become owners of their homes and their land. There are many single mothers who have separated from their husbands or who have left or been thrown out of their homes, and who are living with their mothers. They need a space to raise their own families because they are the ones who take care of the children.

We are also trying to provide an alternative for women by helping them find land they can cultivate. Many women have told us, "If I could have a few acres of land I am sure I could make it productive because I have always worked the land. I always worked in the orchard with my husband. So I know what it takes to be productive." It's important for women to have houses and land in their own name, to help them build their self-esteem.

It has been a constant struggle. The current government created a ministry of the family, but it doesn't recognize a household headed by a single mother as a family, despite the fact that here in Nicaragua, there are a great number of women in that situation. So our mission is to help these women get houses and land. That is what we are working for.

Victoria Maldonado is an independent filmmaker from Colombia. She recorded these testimonies while making her most recent documentary video, Hurricane Mitch: Uncovering the Costs of the External Debt. The accompanying photographs are taken from that documentary.

Tags: Honduras, Nicaragua, Hurricane Mitch, inequality, testimony

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