Juana Tabora knew she had to help her neighbours when the water began to flood the streets, blocking the exits in La Lima, her city in northwestern Honduras.
“We were surrounded by water, people started saying ‘help us, we want to come in’, so we opened the door downstairs so that people could get in,” says Tabora, the owner of a two-storey funeral home that she turned into an improvised shelter. Around 30 families took refuge there after losing their homes to the hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated large swathes of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the first weeks of November.
When it rains it pours in Honduras, a country that had already suffered multiple crisis in recent years: state repression, gang violence, economic problems, environmental destruction, mass emigration and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The two hurricanes left at least 94 dead affecting almost 4 million people across the nation, and analysts say they could cause the level of poverty to rise by 10%, surpassing 70% of the population. While the arrival of two such powerful storms just two weeks apart was an almost unprecedented natural disaster in Honduras, many of the affected believe the authorities have abandoned them to their fate.
‘The worst thing we’ve ever been through’
The impact of the hurricanes was so severe that it made many people forget, at least momentarily, about the pandemic that has changed the world. Tabora had already buried many COVID-19 victims and even had to close her business for a while because of the pandemic, but she immediately put her concerns to one side to shelter those who needed her help.
“I understand that there are people who came with small children, saving their babies, and they didn’t remember their masks because of the anguish,” she says. “When we saw the distress people were in we didn’t even think about these things… [I thought] come on, maybe they could be saved here, even if there’s not much room.”
Many of those affected have suffered post-traumatic stress due to everything they’ve been through since Eta, the first hurricane, approached. “You feel a nervousness, a tension among us,” Tabora reflects. “Worry at knowing what’s coming, as the media says it’s something huge and super dangerous.”
With the water up to his chest, Sergio Donaire, a 35-year-old upholsterer, arrived at the funeral home with his wife and three daughters after fleeing their house, which was practically destroyed. Two weeks later, it’s still raining hard and the family remains in the funeral home, without any support from the state. “There’s no food, nowhere to bathe, no electricity,” Donaire says. “My daughters have fallen ill. They’ve had a cough and the flu. Even I had a fever for two days. We’re all scared… it’s the worst thing we’ve ever been through.”
San Pedro Sula, the nation’s second biggest city, was devastated. The stench of mud and dead animals lingers everywhere. Surreal scenes abound, like in the Chamelecón neighbourhood to the south of the city, where the river overflowed and flooded the cemetery, forcing open graves and leaving coffins floating in the water.
Two weeks after Eta struck, about 60 families were still living beneath a bridge on a highway to the southeast of San Pedro Sula. Alberto López Ocampo, a farmer from the Asentamientos Humanos neighbourhood, has been sleeping on a mattress there for 15 days, beside the 11 geese, 25 hens and 40 ducks he was able to save from the roof of his house. Another 25 sheep of his drowned when the property flooded.
“I came racing out with my four children when the water started to rise at eight in the evening,” says López, who had to later to separate from his family to look after their livestock. “I arrived at the shelter but they told me to set [the animals] free. How can I set them free when they’re all I have? I have nothing, I lost everything. My house is still flooded, it flooded again when Iota struck. It’s going to need repairing because it’s sinking, it’s full of mud and it has dead animals inside.”
The families sheltered beneath the bridge bathe in the rainwater that falls on the highway and relieve themselves in the sewers. “Some of the churches and other people who are helping out donate toilet paper but there’s no government aid here,” López explains. “They don’t want to help in any way… they could easily give us umbrellas, at least with an umbrella we could get by, but the way things are right now, look, more rain is coming and there’s nothing we can do.”
The state response
Two days before the first hurricane arrived, the Honduran government was still promoting a tourism fair to revive the economy, instead of warning the population to take preventive measures. Since then, it has faced accusations of not doing enough to protect the health and dignity of those affected and to guarantee their access to humanitarian assistance.
The national authorities say they saved 34 people stranded on rooftops using military and civilian helicopters, as well as carrying out two aquatic rescues. The Colombian Air Force has also offered its support, evacuating 97 people in a Black Hawk helicopter. Marlon Matute, of representative of the San Pedro Sula mayor’s office, affirms that the local government has opened 100 municipal shelter across the city and is providing financial support, food and hygiene products to those affected.
President Juan Orlando Hernández has visited affected families to deliver humanitarian aid and has declared the construction of dams a national priority. “The Honduran people must know that Operation ‘You Are Not Alone’ will reach every last corner affected by the storms to give us back the dignity that was muddied, but has not been lost,” he wrote on Twitter. On 26 November, he announced that he had sent the Free Vaccine for All Against COVID-19 law to the National Congress, to “ensure that everyone has access, voluntarily and without cost”.
Dinorah Nolasco, director of health in the Cortés region where San Pedro Sula is located, says the area has suffered constant crises in the last two years: “First we had a dengue emergency, then a COVID emergency and now we have this tragedy. It’s a disaster we’re living through, but we’re trying to get back on our feet.”
With clouds of mosquitos, large bodies of water and animal corpses everywhere, plus the lack of sanitation due to the storm damage, Nolasco is on the alert for possible outbreaks of malaria and leptospirosis. But the main concern remains the pandemic that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and brought more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 to a nation of 9.5 million people.
“All the shelters are conducting daily medical evaluations and testing every patient suspected of having COVID, both with rapid antigen tests and real-time PCR tests,” Nolasco says. “We try to give them advice, we try to isolate them and we try to give them as much psychological counselling as we can, because obviously right now there has not only been material damage and human loss, but the population has also suffered a lot of psychological damage.”
Solidarity within the LGBT community
In a phone interview from Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, Erick Martínez Salgado, a defender of the rights of the LGBT community, affirms that the government response to the hurricanes and the pandemic has been weakened by a lack of planning and the historic corruption of state institutions. Martínez laments that the government has not taken differentiated measures that take into account the needs of LGBT people, as well as those of other marginalized populations, such as indigenous peoples and people with disabilities.
The defender explains that the pandemic and the hurricanes have exacerbated the poverty experienced by many members of the LGBT population in Honduras, which has historically suffered high levels of discrimination, exclusion and violence – particularly transgender people who are disproportionately dependent on the informal economy and sex work. He also warns that “in the temporary shelters they are not applying differentiated protocols for transgender women… They should not put them in places where there are only men… this could lead to discriminatory actions or violence against the LGBT community.”
Martinez speaks with pride of the solidarity the LGBT community has shown with trans women in the coastal areas worst affected by the hurricanes. He says the Movimiento de Diversidad en Resistencia group raised a thousand dollars to buy them food, clothing and shoes, while transgender refugees in US cities such as Washington DC and Miami have sent them money to buy supplies. However, Martínez questions why “citizens are replacing the government’s role in providing humanitarian aid.”
A new wave of migration
The destruction in Honduras, combined with the effects of climate change that have made subsistence agriculture difficult in recent years, plus a possible change in the immigration policy of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration in the United States, could drive a new wave of migration.
Sandro Mejía has been living in San Pedro Sula for 20 years, but now sees no other option than to seek a better life in the United States. He says he almost drowned when the water first began to rise. Now his only roof is a bridge.
“Yesterday was my 58th birthday and I couldn’t even celebrate with a Coca-Cola,” Mejia says. “I have nothing, I’m broke now. First I lost money due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then these two storms hit. You can’t live in this country anymore… I’ve been out of work since the pandemic, when everything shut down. I haven’t worked for almost a year now because there are no jobs in this country. We’ve lost everything… we’re being buried alive here.”
Mejía accuses the government of having abandoned those affected by the hurricanes. “The people have no rights, no health, no work, no nothing,” he adds, as he savours a baleada donated by a passer-by. “The only option I have left is to emigrate to the United States. I couldn’t get in when Donald Trump was in charge… he didn’t give anybody a chance to work there, but now things are going to change with Joe Biden.”
Sat on a red sofa beneath the bridge, Zaida Ramos, a single mother of two, agrees: “The government hasn’t given us a bite to eat around here, it’s just the people helping the people. Honduras is lost.” She too would like to seek asylum in the United States, which she considers “a land of opportunities”.
Victims of the lack of environmental protection
Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the environmental defender Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016 because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, believes the destruction caused by the hurricanes was exacerbated by recent Honduran government policies. The native Lenca activist, who succeeded her mother as general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, has pointed out that the proliferation of mining and monoculture in recent years has damaged the natural barriers that used to protect the country against extreme weather.
“The weather conditions that we’ve experienced in recent weeks in our country are linked to the mismanagement of natural resources, which are seen as commodities to be excessively consumed for the benefit of certain economic groups,” Zúñiga says in a voice message. “It’s a clear sign of imbalance and an urgent warning to seek a more harmonious and respectful relationship with nature. It’s a prompt to take action against this and listen to what indigenous peoples and the organizations fighting for climate justice have been saying.”
In Honduras, opposing the exploitation of the land, and the violation of the rights of its inhabitants, means risking one’s life. According to Global Witness, 14 environmental defenders were murdered there last year, the highest per capita rate in the world. However, the government has so far refused to sign the Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty on environmental rights and the protection of environmental activists, which has been ratified by 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries since its adoption in 2018.
Citing the scientists who have linked climate change to the extreme force of the hurricanes that have hurt Central America so badly in recent months, Zúñiga affirms that “we must hold accountable the large countries and economic powers who have produced these results, as well as the process of so-called ‘modernization’, so that the people who have contributed most to the defence of the earth stop suffering the effects of the pollution caused by those who shirk their responsibility.”
Zúñiga concludes by warning that “as long as the pollution continues, as long as the depredation continues, as long as the rights of those who continue defending the earth are not recognized, our prospects will remain bleak. That’s why we intend to continue raising awareness among the people who live in [larger ad wealthier] countries so that they make more serious and genuine efforts to mitigate the environmental destruction that the whole world is suffering. Solidarity and the embrace between peoples will always be the way to reach the world we dream of.”
Duncan Tucker is Amnesty International’s media manager for the Americas. Encarni Pindado is an independent photojournalist.