Five years after Hurricane Mitch: Is life better or worse?

Friday, 17 October 2003

This year's Atlantic hurricane season has been brutal with Hurricane Isabel killing dozens of people and knocking out power for more than 100,000. But the damage can't compare to one of the worst storms in history, five years ago.

Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America in October 1998, killing some 10,000 people and leaving a path of devastation in countries already struggling economically.

Media rushed to the scene to report on the tragedy, and relief organizations worked tirelessly to help residents left homeless by the storm get back onto their feet.

So where do things stand now in the hardest-hit countries especially Honduras five years later? And what can we learn from Hurricane Mitch to reduce the impact of future storms?

"It's a mixed answer," said Peter Bell, president and CEO of the humanitarian organization CARE. "Central America has made progress in five years, but major challenges still remain."

Bell is visiting Honduras this week, five years after he came to the country in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. He has met with some of his old acquaintances, such as Chayo Rosario Avila, whose house in the Tegucigalpa neighborhood of Los Pinos was destroyed by the hurricane.

"After the storm, I was so depressed, so worried about where I'd go," she said. "I was afraid to go out in the street or to work. But thanks to God I recovered. The loans CARE gave me helped a lot."

CARE's loans, granted through a microcredit program, have helped Chayo start a business selling beauty products to neighbors, and she plans to restart a nursery business, growing fruit trees to be transplanted in the area. Chayo has moved into a new house up the hill from her old plot, which is now filled with saplings. "I call her the Johnny Appleseed of Los Pinos," quipped Bell.

Like Chayo, some survivors of Mitch have seen improvements in health and education, and many families have gained access to new housing, potable water and small loans for business ventures.

Nonetheless, Central America is in a state of economic crisis with crime on the rise, the gap between rich and poor growing, the middle class feeling squeezed and the poor losing ground. Large numbers of workers are emigrating to the United States in search of jobs, breaking apart the family structure and aggravating social problems.

Honduras has inched forward from 119th place (out of 174 countries) on the 1998 U.N. Human Development Index, to 115th on the 2003 index. Nicaragua is up from 126 to 121; Guatemala has dropped from 111 to 119. Meanwhile El Salvador, the least affected of the four countries, jumped from 114 to 105

The problems are complex, and are not just due to Mitch. A number of factors, including a decline in coffee and banana prices, all play a role.

For more information, or to contact CARE, see their website at:

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