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Post-Hurricane Hazards Test Nicaragua’s Resolve

Impoverished Country Braces for Expected Onset of Deadly Diseases

BY Loretta Seyer

November 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/22/98 at 2:00 PM

 

CHINANDEGA, Nicaragua—For miles in every direction, the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch litters the slowly drying volcanic soil of this important agricultural province in the Pacific northwest of Central America's largest country.

Enormous, uprooted trees lie in tangled clumps where the swirling floodwaters dumped them. Scraggly thatched huts crouch half-buried in the mud that engulfed these former family homes during the intense three-day storm that dropped 58 inches of rain on Nicaragua at the beginning of November.

Wide swaths of dirt left by the receding waters cover fields of sugar cane, tomatoes, beans, wheat, coffee, and a variety of other bumper crops that had been awaiting harvest. A light yellow scar slashes down the side of the Casitas Volcano where tons of rock, mud, and water gave way and buried a string of villages at the base of the dormant volcano.

Alongside a raised spur of the Pan American Highway, thousands of campesinos (peasant farm laborers) perch with their scant belongings and sketchy shelters on the highest ground they can find, in a wide green valley that resembles the African savannas.

The devastation “Hurac·n Mitch” brought to Nicaragua can easily be seen in their faces and in the stories the campesinos tell of the raging waters.

One woman recounts how she grabbed her children, placed them in bags, and hung them in trees. Another describes how she stood in swirling water up to her waist for two days, until the flooding began to recede. A third said all she did was “climb.”

Many of those living in Chinandega, LeÛn, and other provinces in Nicaragua's west and north, have lost family members and the few goods they owned. Few had much to begin with.

After Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. More than 75% of its 4.5 million population live in poverty or extreme poverty. Unemployment hovers around 16% and underemployment around 36%, but Mitch, which has been called Central America's worst storm in two centuries, is expected to make those numbers climb.

History of Disaster

The plight of the Nicaraguan poor, most of whom are Catholic, has been exacerbated over the past three decades by a series of natural and man-made disasters.

In 1972, Managua was leveled by a deadly earthquake. During most of the 1980s, the country suffered from a war fought by the Marxist-oriented Sandinistas and the American-supported Contras. In 1996, Nicaragua's Pacific coast was battered by a powerful tidal wave that destroyed several ports. And now Mitch has killed at least 4,000, injured many more, and left nearly 1 million Nicaraguans homeless.

The death toll is certain to rise. Medical, government, and Church personnel are grimly waiting to see how many will succumb to several fatal diseases that were expected to start manifesting themselves in great numbers in mid-November. Already there have been confirmed cases of cholera and hemorrhagic fever.

Many more cases are expected because thousands live in areas contaminated by the corpses of humans and domestic animals. Although piles of human and animal bodies have been burned in gasoline-fed fires, many more remain to be discovered. It's their decaying presence that may prove to be so dangerous, particularly for the children who swim in fetid water.

Officials from the Nicaraguan government, the Catholic Church, and a variety of international aid organizations are attempting to dispatch clean water, food, medicines, clothing, tents, and building supplies to the hundreds of thousands affected by the devastation, but the humanitarian efforts are hampered by a series of factors.

The first is the sheer difficulty of reaching the suffering.

Dozens of bridges were swept away by the torrents, making many roads impassable. The government and several private construction companies have started to build up rubble and debris in the shallows of streams and smaller rivers, making fords that can be handled by trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles, but many expect it will be years before the bridges are rebuilt. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending advisors to evaluate the situation; in a few key areas, pontoon bridges may be built.

Adding to the problem is a lack of helicopters. The Nicaraguan government has only a few. This scarcity made it difficult for officials to rescue people during the hurricane, or to discover in the subsequent weeks how many had been affected. The U.S. and Mexican governments have since sent a score of helicopters to Nicaragua to aid in the humanitarian efforts. Some food and water is getting through by air, but the need is so great that the helicopters can do relatively little.

Humanitarian efforts are also being hindered by the enormous proportions of human demand.

The flooding left hundreds of thousands with little in the way of food, medicine, and material goods. Various aid organizations, including those run by the Nicaraguan Church, rushed whatever they already had on hand to the suffering, but their supplies were quickly exhausted. This lack has created a problem both for those affected by the storm's devastation and for those regularly helped by Caritas, the Nicaraguan-American Foundation, Food for the Poor, and other development organizations.

As the size of the Mitch-related disaster in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador became apparent, material help began flowing in from outside the region. However, aid workers didn't always know what to do with the goods, since the distribution channels are still sketchy.

AgustÌn JarquÌn Anaya, the comptroller general of Nicaragua, noted that some areas are getting nothing, while others seem to be getting extra supplies. He is looking into making the distribution more efficient.

Assessing the Damage

The Nicaraguan government is also conducting a disaster study to discover exactly what damage has been done, and to determine what the country's needs will be in the next few months and years.

More than $200 million in foreign aid has been received in the devastated region so far, but this is only a pittance in light of the billions of dollars of damage caused by the storm. Nicaragua alone is estimated to have suffered more than $1 billion in damage to its infrastructure.

Government and Church officials in Nicaragua are particularly worried that the humanitarian aid flowing in from outside will soon dry up when the world turns its focus to other matters. These officials say that nearly 1 million Nicaraguans will have to be fed a month from now; they also fear that an equal number will have to be fed six months from now.

The country will have a tough time feeding its people from the breadbasket regions of Chinandega and LeÛn. Mitch flattened many crops and drowned thousands of steers in those fertile areas. Most of the crops that survived are ready for harvesting, but the poor road conditions will prevent them from being brought to market. And with the rainy season just ending, no more crops can be planted until May.

Mitch compounded its devastation by wiping out numerous businesses and the employment they offered. Many of the homeless no longer have a job whose salary could be used to rebuild their homes and lives. Widespread unemployment is expected to have a debilitating effect on the country's overall economy.

Noel Ramirez, the chairman of the Nicaraguan federal bank, thinks his nation will have to spend $1.5 billion to revive the economy—presupposing that Nicaragua's $6 billion foreign debt will be forgiven. Many of Nicaragua's highest-ranking leaders, including Vice President Enrique BoloÒos and Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo of Managua, have called for the total forgiveness of the nation's foreign debt.

So far France, Cuba, Austria, and several other countries have renounced their shares of the debt. The United States and Great Britain are discussing the matter.

At the moment, things look grim for the people of Nicaragua. However, government and Church officials are hopeful that, if the country's foreign debt is forgiven, if aid continues to be dispatched, and if Nicaraguans themselves work hard to overcome the aftereffects of Mitch, it will take about five years to bring the nation back to an economic status comparable to that existing before the disaster.

If any of these conditions are not met, officials will not be surprised if it took decades for the effects of “Hurac·n Mitch” to be overcome.

For more information about helping the victims of Hurricane Mitch, contact: Food for the Poor, Dept. 19054, 550 SW 12th Ave., Deerfield Beach, Fla. 33442.

Church Playing Key Role in the Relief Efforts

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua is playing an important role in the country's effort to evaluate the overwhelming disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch, to help those deeply affected by the storm, and to plan for the future.

Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo of Managua has named Msgr. Eddy Montenegro, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua and the head of the archdiocese's social-outreach projects, to lead the Church's disaster-relief efforts in Nicaragua. The monsignor also represents the Church on the country's disaster-relief committee, which is headed by Vice President Enrique BoloÒos.

Msgr. Montenegro said that the Church has two roles in helping to deal with the disaster. The first is serving on the national committee that is “planning the general response to the disaster.” The second is that the bishops of the most affected dioceses have been “placed in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid in their dioceses.”

The monsignor noted how logical it is for the Church to handle this task, since it already has a variety of aid organizations in place: among these are Caritas, the Church's international charity; various social justice organizations; and a variety of diocesan- and parochial-aid programs. The two organizations that will do the bulk of the direct distribution are the American-Nicaraguan Foundation and COPROSA, the archdiocese's social-justice committee.

Another reason for the Church's prominence in organizing and distributing disaster relief is Nicaraguans' lack of trust in the government's ability to undertake the task fairly. Most feel that the Church can be trusted to distribute aid to all those who need it, not just to those whom might be politically sympathetic. Many communities have begged the national government, which is headed by President Arnoldo Alem·n of the Conservative Party, to channel all aid through the Church for this reason.

Cardinal Obando y Bravo has told the priests and religious of his archdiocese, which covers about half the country, that there will be no discrimination in the distribution of resources. They seem to have taken his injunction to heart, since some pastors have been forced to mediate between groups on the left and right about the distribution of resources in certain villages.

“Typically,” said Msgr. Montenegro, “a liberal mayor may only want to take care of the liberals. As of now, most of these problems have been addressed. In the face of this disaster, the people have learned to work together better.”

He noted that the Nicaraguan Church is depending on help from Catholic organizations, ranging from the Vatican to local parish groups. The Vatican itself has sent $50,000 to Nicaragua and Honduras, and the money is being distributed by the two countries'dioceses.

Msgr. Montenegro added that many ordinary Nicaraguan Catholics who weren't directly affected by the disaster immediately organized efforts to help the stricken. One of the first was a telethon called the Chain of Love.

In the areas most directly affected by the disaster, many middle-class and upper-class Catholics immediately began helping Mitch's victims. Some left their jobs and began volunteering at clinics, food-distribution centers, and the schools that had been turned into shelters for the homeless.

Many of the very poorest Nicaraguans living outside the disaster areas made a point of immediately sending aid to their victimized neighbors. They gathered materials and monetary donations, and dispatched them to the Church. They also helped the priests, nuns, and medical personnel who have been working almost non-stop since the rains hit.

“The hearts of the poor always respond much faster than the organized groups,” said Msgr. Montenegro. But he added that “everybody is making a special effort to unite in the face of the disaster.”

Loretta Seyer

Loretta Seyer, editor of Catholic Faith & Family, recently returned from Nicaragua.