The Heat Is Online

Hurricane Mitch Nov. 1998

Death Toll from Mitch reaches 7,000 in Nicaragua and Honduras

Nov. 2, 1998 Reuters + NBC

Managua, Nicaragua -- Nov. 2 -- Officials in Nicaragua and Honduras said Monday that they now feared more than 7,000 people died in flooding and mudslides caused by the remnants of Hurricane Mitch.

In Nicaragua, a single massive mudslide claimed between 1,000 and 1,500 lives. In Honduras, as least 5,000 were feared dead, the capital was under water and 1 million people were displaced from their homes.

A top Honduran emergency official estimated Monday that at least 5,000 people died in his country. "We will never know how many people died," Dimas Alonzo said on Honduran radio.

(The number of casualties was ultimately put at 11,000.)

In Nicaragua, the situation was similar. Flying into Nicaragua, the view over the northwestern part of the country was one of swollen and overflowing rivers.
The United States was sending relief supplies on three helicopters and several planes from its Southern Command base in Panama. Some $2 million in food, medicine, water and other supplies were immediately disbursed, with two U.S. aircraft arriving over the weekend.

Nicaraguan Vice President Enrique Bolanos said the exact number of dead in Saturday's huge mudslide, which covered 32 square miles, may never be known. Survivors waited two days in the mud for rescuers and medical attention.
Decomposing bodies protruded everywhere from the mud, which let loose when a volcano crater 4,600 feet up formed a lake that burst, sending a wall of water and a hillside down onto four villages.

A body -- sometimes just an arm sticking up out of the mud, others wrapped around tree trunks -- could be seen every few yards. The stench of rotting flesh was almost unbearable.

The Associated Press and Reuters interviewed survivors and witnesses who described the devastation.
"I've never in my life seen so many bodies tossed about, not even in the war," said veteran news photographer German Miranda of La Prensa newspaper, referring to Nicaragua's civil war of the 1980s that killed 30,000 people.
One man, Francisco Manuel Pineda, sat on a tree trunk above what had been his village of El Porvenir -- 50 miles northwest of the capital, Managua -- and recounted what other survivors had told him.

"It was raining torrentially. They heard something like a fleet of helicopters, and within minutes an avalanche of mud, tree trucks and rocks wiped out everything," he said through tears.
Pineda had left his village Friday morning to buy medicine. He hitched a ride with the military Sunday to see what was left of his world.
There wasn't much. He found no sign of his house, nor of his wife, his father, his mother, his brothers, his sisters or his sons. All were believed buried in the mud.
"We saw corpses everywhere. Hands, legs and the entire bodies of two girls who were decomposing in the mud," he said. "There were more than 60 corpses in plain view."
A nearby hospital had treated 126 survivors from the four villages for fractures and serious wounds that had become infected after the victims spent nearly two days in the mud.
The hospital was packed with children wearing casts, the wounded tending to their own open gashes, and survivors frantically searching for loved ones.
Throughout the region, relief workers were having trouble getting to stricken areas because of the hazardous conditions -- in some places the water was as deep as a telephone pole.
And U.S.-based charities are working to gather donations, but they aren't likely to get to Central America for several days.


In Honduras, the capital, Tegucigalpa, was under water after the Choluteca River burst its banks. Among the dead there were the mayor and three others who died in a helicopter crash while out surveying the damage.
At least a third of the city's homes were damaged or destroyed. And even if they hadn't lost their homes, just about all of the capital's 1 million residents had been affected by the storm. Drinking water was scarce, electricity and telephone service spotty, and schools were closed indefinitely.
One man, crazed with grief and anger, showed his dead baby girl to a TV crew. As his wife sobbed next to him, he shook the limp, pale body and screamed that no one would help him with money for a burial. "She's beginning to rot. I've lost everything. I lost my girl. Where am I going to bury her? Am I going to throw her in the river?" the man asked.
Marcia Vivancos of the Honduran World Foundation/USA said "Honduras is totally devastated. We have more than a million families displaced, thousands missing, communities wiped out, and no infrastructure. We're in deep trouble."
That trouble included widespread looting. In Tegucigalpa, Soldiers joined police in patrolling the city's streets from looters, but there still wasn't enough security to protect all the evacuated houses and businesses.
And Tegucigalpa police were trying to contain a bloody riot at a jail housing 3,500, including 2,500 inmates transferred from another jail after it became flooded.

In all, the numbers of confirmed dead cover several countries: Nicaragua, 800; Honduras, 362; El Salvador, 140; Guatemala, 33. But with the latest estimate of 7,000 dead, those numbers are likely to change quickly.NBC's Kerry Sanders andThe Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)

After Mitch, Honduras reels from deadly disease spread

By Richard Chacon, The Boston Globe, Dec. 8, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Six weeks ago, it was the violent winds and torrential rains of Hurricane Mitch that sent millions in this country running for shelter. Then came the grisly task of digging out bodies and the counting of displaced families.

Now, this small, impoverished Central American country is battling an array of deadly diseases and infections that could kill as many people, officials say, as the storm itself.

The Honduran government issued a national state of alert Friday because of epidemics following the hurricane. As many as 20,000 cases of cholera have been confirmed, the government says. More than 30,000 people have contracted malaria and 208,000 more have serious cases of diarrhea, which can be fatal for infants and small children.

''This is when the real pain begins,'' said Douglas Ryan, Honduran director for Catholic Relief Services, a private volunteer organization. ''From the level of destruction we've seen to water systems and other infrastructure, these kinds of numbers don't surprise me at all.''

The government's estimates are dramatically higher than those previously given by health workers and aid agencies. Two weeks ago, for example, the Pan American Health Organization, the leading medical assistance group working in Central America, confirmed a total of about 560 cases of cholera in Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the countries hardest hit by Mitch.

The Honduran Health Ministry also said in its alert that 62 people had been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease spread by rats that can cause liver or kidney failure. Four people so far have died from the disease.

In addition, health workers said that 1,080 cases of dengue, a mosquito-borne illness that can cause chills, joint pains, and hemorrhaging, have been confirmed in Honduras.

Although some international health and aid workers yesterday raised questions about the accuracy of the government's figures, no one doubts that this country, roughly the size of Ohio, has become an incubator for life-threatening diseases.

''Public health conditions here were vulnerable even before the hurricane,'' said Leopoldo Narvaez, a doctor who practices out of his home in a Tegucigalpa neighborhood. ''We've been dealing with AIDS and high rates of cancer. But now we're talking about national epidemics to have to fight and with few resources.''

Most of the worst cases of cholera, an intestinal disease that can kill through severe dehydration, and malaria have been found along the country's numerous rivers, in rural villages, and along the northern coastal communities, health workers said.

But some cases have been reported in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, mostly in people who live or work near the Choluteca River, which since the storm has become a putrid collection of human waste, animal remains, and rotten food.

Near the city's central market, one of the most popular shopping areas for everything from vegetables to fresh chickens, some residents have begun scavenging the river to collect items that can be washed and resold on the street. Government officials closed the market for health reasons immediately after the storm hit, but the hundreds of vendors simply have relocated their booths across the street.

Unless health workers can control the spread of diseases, the death toll from illnesses could double the 9,000 Central Americans who have been killed by Mitch, the most destructive hurricane to hit the area this century.

In Honduras, the country hit hardest by the storm, the official death toll stands at 5,657. On Friday, however, the country's Justice Ministry said it had suspended the governor of the state of Santa Barbara for overstating the number of dead there. Rather than the 1,159 dead initially reported, the government said, the actual number was 282.

The spread of so many diseases has stretched the country's medical institutions beyond capacity. Even before the threat of diseases appeared, hospitals and clinics were busy treating many of the 12,000 people who were injured by the storm.

Many water systems, most of which were built only recently, were severely damaged by heavy rains or by rivers that in some instances swelled up to 45 feet above their normal level.

''More than 60,000 homes have been completely destroyed,'' said Scott Solberg, deputy director in Honduras for the relief organization CARE. ''So much of the basic water infrastructure is still clogged with debris.

''The magnitude of destruction is astounding.''

Officials in other Central American countries also are trying to fight the spread of diseases. In Nicaragua, more than 400 cases of suspected cholera and six of leptospirosis have been reported. Guatemalan officials have confirmed 26 cholera cases, and two have been found in Belize.

Many of those who are not ill are being urged to take precautions.

Aid organizations have distributed thousands of water purification tablets. Children are being vaccinated for hepatitis and tetanus. Rescue shelters are being checked regularly for infestations of rodents and mosquitoes. And government agencies are warning families to beware contaminated meats and produce.

Amid such grim precautions, many Hondurans are trying to resume their daily life. Along streets once covered with leather-colored water and outside many of the hillside homes that ring the city, Christmas lights and ornaments hang in anticipation of a more peaceful, joyful time.

''It's important that people feel a sense of restoring their livelihoods,'' said Ryan, of Catholic Relief Services. ''This has been like waking up from a nightmare.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/08/98. (c) 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.