John Perry | Hurricane Eta hits the mosquito coast LRB November 9, 2020


Central America’s “Mosquito Coast”, home of the Miskito, stretches between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border is at a point that juts out into the Caribbean: Columbus named it Cabo Gracias a Dios for the protection it offered on his last voyage. When the storm that became Hurricane Eta formed over the seas of Venezuela on October 30, it headed west towards the cape 2,000 kilometers away, following the trail of Hurricane Edith in 1971, Mitch in 1998 (at the seven thousand people in Honduras and three thousand people died in Nicaragua), Felix 2007, Ida 2009 and many other smaller cyclones.

Eta swung south as it approached, devastating coastal settlements, then turned inland on Nov. 3 on Hurricane 4 on Nicaragua to destroy the village of Miskito in Wawa Bar. In 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 northwest, Eta crossed Honduras. It hit Cuba over the weekend and landed in Florida on Sunday night.

The Nicaraguan authorities had announced the arrival of Eta five days in advance. Honduras had six. The Nicaragua Disaster Agency announced its plans on October 30, and trucks transported roofing materials, mattresses and groceries to Bilwí the next day. 30,000 people have been evacuated and moved to stronger buildings such as churches and schools. Two people died: gold miners who worked despite the warnings and were buried in a landslide.

In Honduras, where the Covid-19 epidemic is still in full swing, November 4th was supposed to mark the start of a traditional holiday that the government hoped would lift public spirits. With warnings of up to 60cm of rain, they focused on whether or not to continue on vacation rather than preparing for the emergency. By the time the celebrations were canceled on November 2nd, the coastal settlements were already flooded.

On November 3rd, the valley in which Hondura’s second city, San Pedro Sula, is located, began to flood. NGOs warned that a “disaster” was about to occur and that people should save themselves. A red alert did not go off until 400,000 people fled their homes, gathered on the roofs of buildings, and started sharing video clips of the water at their feet. One man, Julio Guerrero, who asked for help on Facebook, blamed the government for his impending drowning and that of “thousands of Hondurans”. He was eventually rescued along with many who had been stranded in heavy rain for up to thirty hours. By November 7, the official death toll had reached 25, but a morgue is said to have prepared to accept 100 bodies. more than 1.7 million people’s homes were lost or damaged; Twenty road bridges have been destroyed, one dramatically swept away by rising waters, and 51 major roads are unusable.

Accusations began. The disaster management minister, nicknamed “Killa”, accused victims of not leaving their homes quickly enough. Journalists who criticized the government for encouraging people to travel during the holiday week despite the pandemic attacked them for getting their way during the disaster. Well-known presenters from Televicentro and Une TV compared Hondura’s inactivity with Nicaragua’s early preparations. When officials accused the pandemic of running out of public coffers, journalists blamed the corruption that skimmed away much of the international aid sent to Honduras to deal with it.

Honduras was in crisis before Eta hit it. The president runs a narco state that was fraudulently re-elected in 2017. Since the murder of Berta Cáceres in 2016, there has been no pause in attacks on human rights defenders: in the middle of the pandemic, five members of an indigenous coastal community who were fighting against tourist developments were kidnapped and have not yet reappeared. Funding had been withdrawn from health care long before Covid-19 hit, some of it being diverted to fund the ruling party’s election campaign.

Both Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua took calculated risks at the start of the pandemic in March. Ortega relied on his investment in 19 new hospitals and, most importantly, a community health system to help manage the crisis without imposing a lockdown. Hernández knew his health service would not be able to cope and enforced a strict lockdown through regular police brutality. Nicaragua has officially recorded 5,600 virus cases out of a population of 6.6 million (opposition sources claim the real figure is 10,900). Honduras hit 100,000 cases out of a population of 10 million that weekend. After the Flood, the virus is likely to multiply.

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