Hurricane Eta hits the Mosquito Coast

John Perry

Central America’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, the home of the Miskito people, stretches between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border is at a point that juts out into the Caribbean: Columbus called it Cabo Gracias a Dios for the shelter it provided on his last voyage. As the storm that became Hurricane Eta formed above the seas of Venezuela on 30 October, it headed west towards the cape 2000 kilometres away, following the track of Hurricane Edith in 1971, Mitch in 1998 (which killed seven thousand people in Honduras and three thousand in Nicaragua), Felix in 2007, Ida in 2009 and many other lesser cyclones.

Eta swung south as it approached, devasting coastal settlements and then, at hurricane force 4, turned inland to Nicaragua on 3 November, destroying the Miskito village at Wawa Bar. At the nearby port of Bilwí, 77 houses collapsed and 803 were damaged. As the winds weakened, heavy rains began and ten rivers broke their banks. A day later, heading north-west, Eta crossed into Honduras. It hit Cuba at the weekend and made landfall in Florida on Sunday evening.

Nicaraguan authorities had five days’ notice of Eta’s arrival; Honduras had six. Nicaragua’s disaster agency announced its plans on 30 October, and the next day lorries were carrying roofing materials, mattresses and food to Bilwí. Thirty thousand people were evacuated and moved into stronger buildings such as churches and schools. Two people died: artisan gold miners working despite the warnings, buried by a mudslide.

In Honduras, where the Covid-19 epidemic is still at full strength, 4 November was to be the start of a traditional holiday that the government hoped would lift the public mood. Faced with warnings of up to 60 cm of rain, they focused on whether or not to let the holiday go ahead, rather than preparing for the emergency. By the time the festivities were cancelled on 2 November, coastal settlements were already flooded.

On 3 November, the valley that holds Honduras’s second city, San Pedro Sula, began to flood. NGOs warned that a ‘catastrophe’ was happening and people should save themselves. A red alert was issued only when 400,000 people had fled their homes, collected on the roofs of buildings, and began sharing video clips of the water lapping at their feet. One man, Julio Guerrero, appealing for help on Facebook, blamed the government for his imminent drowning and that of ‘thousands of Hondurans’. He was eventually rescued along with many who had spent as much as thirty hours stranded in heavy rain. By 7 November, the official death toll had reached 25 but one morgue was said to be preparing to receive 100 bodies; more than 1.7 million people’s homes were lost or damaged; twenty road bridges were destroyed, one swept away dramatically by rising waters, and 51 major roads are unusable.

Recriminations began. The minister responsible for dealing with disasters, whose nickname is ‘Killa’, blamed the victims for not leaving their homes quickly enough. Journalists who had criticised the government for encouraging people to travel during the holiday week, despite the pandemic, attacked it for prevaricating while the disaster unfurled. Well-known presenters from Televicentro and Une TV made stinging comparisons between Honduras’s inaction and Nicaragua’s early preparations. When officials blamed the pandemic for depleting the public coffers, journalists blamed the corruption that has siphoned off much of the international aid sent to Honduras to deal with it.

Honduras was in crisis before it was hit by Eta. The president is running a narco-state, having fraudulently gained re-election in 2017. Since the murder of Berta Cáceres in 2016, there has been no respite in attacks on human rights defenders: in the midst of the pandemic, five members of an indigenous coastal community fighting against tourism developments were kidnapped and have yet to reappear. Well before Covid-19 arrived, the health service had been stripped of funding, some of it redirected to fund the ruling party’s election campaigns.

Both Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua took calculated risks when the pandemic began in March. Ortega relied on his investment in 19 new hospitals and – above all – a community-based health system to ride the crisis without imposing a lockdown. Hernández knew his health service wouldn’t cope and enforced a strict lockdown with regular police violence. Nicaragua has officially registered 5600 virus cases in a population of 6.6 million (opposition sources claim the real total is 10,900). Honduras reached 100,000 cases this weekend in a population of 10 million. After the deluge, the virus is likely to proliferate.