Still Staggering A Year After Mitch

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—When the disaster came last November, Alejandrina Mejia, her husband and seven children were asleep in their house next to the Choluteca River that snakes through the hilly, mile-high Honduran capital.

Engorged by the pounding rain that accompanied Hurricane Mitch as it dumped 5 feet of water in three and a half days over the Central American nations of Honduras and Nicaragua, the river began rising. The powerful flow began carrying houses and their owners into the torrent.

The Mejia family, who lived in Colonia Venezuela, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, heard terrified cries above the roar of the rising waters. In the darkness, at 3 a.m., they fled their tiny home and began scrambling uphill to escape the maelstrom.

When dawn arrived, they saw disaster. Their house and the houses of their neighbors had vanished. Building rubble lay everywhere. Injured people called for help. And just a few hundred yards from their home, an entire hillside known as the New Hope Colony had come down, burying 300 families.

Alejandrina Mejia and her family found refuge with her mother in a two-room shack that still remained on a cliff above the river. Three other families joined them. And what they thought was a temporary situation continues a year after Mitch.

Mejia, like many of the Honduran poor who were left homeless by the worst hurricane to hit Central America in two centuries, is still waiting for help.

“We have been forgotten,” she said. “The government gives no aid.”

The Honduran government declared Colonia Venezuela a condemned disaster area because it lies too close to the river and is vulnerable to flooding — which did occur because of the recently concluded rainy season's heavy downpours. Just after the hurricane, the government helped the thousands of people camping in Colonia Venezuela and adjacent areas, but they haven't received any government aid for more than half a year.

Colonia Venezuela's situation isn't unusual. Complaints are widespread across Honduras that government aid isn't getting through to the people who need it most. Cries of corruption are becoming common. People are more and more turning to the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church of Honduras for help.

Rogelia Inios, a mother of four who is living with relatives in Colonia Venezuela, declared that she has lost all hope in government solutions.

“I trust only in God,” she said.

The two women's dismal situation arises from a confluence of grim statistics.

Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti and Nicaragua. Before Mitch, the yearly per-capita income was $2,000; it's believed to be much lower after Mitch. The vast majority of the country's 5.9 million people, 80% of whom are Catholic, live in deep poverty; some are so destitute their only food sources are tortillas and sugar cane.

“One of the difficulties that we're dealing with is the socioeconomic situation of the country, which makes it difficult to deal with the damage,” said Pedro Landa, assistant director of Caritas Tegucigalpa, the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa's aid agency.

Mitch played havoc with the weak Honduran economy, destroying 40% of the coffee crop and all of the banana crop, which is the country's principal export.

“We are a banana republic, but we have no bananas,” said Episcopal Bishop Leo Frade of Honduras.

A new banana crop won't be ready until mid-2000, and it will take years for the coffee trees to recover. The lack of work in the agricultural sector is having a ripple effect in the rest of the nation's economy, keeping many from finding work.

The hurricane also had a devastating effect on the country's permanent structures; the Honduran government estimates that 60% of the infrastructure — everything from roads to bridges to levees to schools were destroyed.

For the first three months after the hurricane, the Honduran government gave substantial aid to the displaced, but then it started focusing on the country's infrastructure. In the nine months since then, various aid organizations such as Food for the Poor, the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church, headed in Honduras by Archbishop Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, have attempted to pick up the slack.

Mitch displaced an estimated million people. Some found temporary refuge with relatives; others crowded into government and church shelters; still others constructed flimsy shacks out of cardboard, zinc and plastic sheeting.

After the waters receded, tens of thousands returned to their homes. In the year since the hurricane, they've tried to restore some order to their lives, rebuilding their houses, planting crops in the country, trying to find work in the cities.

But tens of thousands of Hondurans are still homeless, since the land they once lived on is now worthless for habitation or even nonexistent. Many are caught in a real-estate limbo aggravated by the NIMBY — “not in my back yard” — syndrome.

Some municipal governments are refusing to allow the poor, even if they have scrapped together money from aid grants, to purchase land inside or near urban areas. They're also refusing to grant building permits to poor people who already own land and want to build houses there. Influential merchants and other wealthy landowners don't want destitute people, with their tiny shacks and large families, to live near them.

Caritas, aided by Food for the Poor, is trying to alleviate the situation. It's negotiating to buy land at a reasonable price; this land, along with building materials and household furnishings, will be donated to the people who remain in condemned areas such as Colonia Venezuela.

Some land has already been bought by Caritas. The future landowners are traveling there daily by foot to construct their homes, which are being built out of donated materials.

These builders are part of a movement that seems to be arising among destitute Hondurans. For the first time in memory, the very poorest Hondurans appear to be taking their own fate into their hands and trying to better themselves through their own efforts. They're also joining in the country's post-Mitch reconstruction efforts.

They're organizing into groups and joining a group of about 500 organizations, said Dr. Jeff Heck, “that have been gathering to discuss the best ways to better the country.” Heck, an American physician who travels frequently to Honduras to treat some of the country's most destitute, is one of the co-founders of Shoulder to Shoulder, a medical organization that sends North American medical teams to Honduras.

Ferdinand Mahfood is the head of one of the organizations that's been working to aid Hondurans after Mitch. The founder of Food for the Poor is having his nonprofit, development organization send money and supplies directly to the poor through Caritas. Some of this aid will be used to help the residents of Colonia Venezuela buy land.

“If you really love people,” Mahfood said, “it is very easy to help them.”

Alejandrina Mejia, Rogelia Inios and their neighbors should soon be the proud owners of new homes far from flood-ravaged areas near the Choluteca River.

Loretta G. Seyer, the editor of Catholic Faith & Family, recently toured Central America.