What you notice first is the smell. A sour, rotting stench, it seeps into your hair, your clothes, your skin. It's in my watchband now. When I first arrived in this section of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, called Comayaguela, just before the New Year, workers from UNICEF issued me and Ann, the photographer accompanying me, cotton face masks to avoid the smell. But it seeped into the cotton. We smell it at night when we go back to our hotel. In our hair and in our sheets. In our backpacks and in the thin pages of my notebook. Mostly, though, it seeps into your memory.
Nearly 25 years ago, another powerful hurricane devastated Honduras. Fifi, it was called, like an innocent pup, and 8,000 people died. Three hundred thousand were left homeless. This one, Mitch, was worse: 6,600 died, 9,000 are missing, 1.5 million are homeless. When it came, on Oct. 26 and 27, it brought 200-mph winds before diminishing to a catastrophic tropical storm that hovered for nearly a week.
You can't walk more than 10 minutes without seeing the effects in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Garbage still hangs from the telephone and electrical wires. Buildings are shells of concrete or wood, piled inside with dried solid mud. Water marks on some houses rise higher than six feet. Roads have been slashed in half by foot-thick cement walls that slid down the mountainsides; the slashes reveal gutted layers like raw wounds with red dirt underneath. Once, while walking through a neighborhood with only seven walls left standing from the dozens of homes that had been there, I looked down underneath the swell of dirt I was standing on and saw, peeking through, the rusted yellow of a car roof. The rest was buried.
We have come here, Ann and I, to report on the post-hurricane relief efforts. This is our second journey to Honduras -- the first was in 1994, when we drove overland through Copan, San Pedro Sula and on up to Tela. Portions of those roads now no longer exist.
There was a misty sadness around New Year's in Comayaguela. There were few firecrackers this year, fewer fiestas, fewer gifts. But there were prayers of gratitude, too, for those spared. Last night, from the windows of our hotel in the central market, we watched a procession of hundreds holding candles and following a row of priests in white robes and red sashes. "Help in our hour of need," I heard the priest say. Many brushed tears from their cheeks.
The market here runs almost as it did before the hurricane. Stalls sell grains, fruit, shoes, undergarments, tools, colorful toys, small electronics, baseball hats, barrettes, firecrackers, powdered milk, meat and household goods. A small boom box is rigged to two bullhorns and merengue music blares and crackles. Overhead, U.S. military Chinooks carry relief supplies to remote parts of the country. Behind the vendors, where a railing used to run along a bridge overlooking the Rio Choluteca, a few wooden planks have been nailed together for safety.
Even before the hurricane, Honduras was the poorest country in Central America. Now, more than 50 percent of its crops have been destroyed. In the valleys around San Pedro Sula, the banana crops for this year and next have been wiped out. Some are afraid that all the grains coming in from relief agencies will send the shattered economy into a depression. Surplus will cause the prices to drop and poor farmers won't earn enough to live. It's a terrific irony, a law of economics that seems cruelly unjust.
What have been avoided are the disease epidemics that often follow such natural disasters. Even in the shelters where so many are living together in squalor, diarrhea has been the most common ailment. Cholera, typhoid, malaria -- they are no more prolific than during any other year. Relief agencies acted quickly. Enormous blue tanks with UNICEF stamped on the side brought clean water to shelters and rural communities.
A child approaches me eating powdered milk from a tin lid and asks for a
dollar. I refuse. This is not a result of the hurricane. It is everywhere, in all third world countries. Children speak two words of English: "hello" and "money." The barefoot child wanders off dejectedly. Another woman approaches me
and asks if she can have the baseball hat I have clipped to my pack. I'm not
using it, she explains, and the sun is in her eyes. As I give it to her, she
thanks me like I've offered her the queen's crown. Ahead of me looms a garbage
pile 25 feet high and a full city block long; from the bridge, I can see that its contents include a woman's high
heeled pump, a car door, a blue toothbrush, orange rinds, banana peels, the
wrinkled pages of a book, a tire, a child's leg brace, corn husks, broken
plates, food wrappers, tin cans, pantyhose, a fan blade, a purple satin
dress and, in front of it all, a rotting dog's head, his lower jaw and body
missing, and the remaining fur matted down with blood and dirt and sand.
Flies and mosquitoes are prolific.
Walking here we see crumbled walls with pink and purple bougainvillea
snaking over their tops. Inside one kitchen, the mud is solid to the tiled
countertop. Workers in rubber boots and white face masks struggle to clear
the debris, but it is like trying to sweep the sidewalk with a safety pin.
Inside, the houses left standing smell oppressively like mildew. In one end
of the city, Concordia Park has been destroyed, its temples and monuments -- small
replicas of the Copan ruins -- lie smashed on their sides, the fountains empty
and thick with spider webs. Two teenage girls were clutching each other
inside one of the fountains during the storm, a man told me. When he came
upon them, they were already dead. On the other side of the park are more
house remains and beyond that a surplus of stagnant water. Large bulldozers
are working to clear a channel, but it has been three months and
the diseased water still stands. Some people still living under corrugated
tin roofs on the mountainside use the filthy water. More than 140 cars are
buried deep under the dirt, a passerby tells me, with the drivers still
inside. Now, in the stagnant water, limbs have begun to surface, bloated
hands and feet and arms.
Someday, modern explorers will come through this tiny corner of the world
and try to explain what happened. They will find the skeletons of people and
animals, the twisted metal of cars and chunks of painted cement or floor
tile nuggets. They will find buildings and trucks buried under the hardened
dirt. They will theorize on what provoked such heavenly wrath. They will
think of other discoveries, other ruins: Tikal in Guatemala, Chichen Itza in
Mexico, the Coliseum in Rome. They will think of Sodom and Gomorrah, or
Pompeii. Of sudden furies, instant devastation and the decades of untangling
the destruction wrought upon so many millions of lives.
In the shelters, where tuna, tortillas, rice, beans, corn, flour, coffee
and powdered milk constitute the daily diets, things are different. Housed
mainly in schools, the people will soon be moved to five massive shelters that are being built by UNICEF and the government.
The folks at UNICEF hope the shelters will be necessary for only 13 months.
Though sparse and temporary, each will have school facilities, a medical
clinic, clean water, garbage collection, security, laundry and electricity.
Food, so far, has been available through donations, and families are given
six gallons of water a week to use for cooking and drinking. At the Olympic
Complex, where 1,072 people live, hoses are used for bathing and washing
clothes, and laundry is strewn over the manicured green bushes. A woman lies
on her side on a bed breast-feeding her baby. Kids color with pencils on
white paper next to two large blue bags stamped "U.S. Mail Foreign Air." One
relief worker from Michigan says he has two jobs: to play with the
kids and to wash the lice from their hair.
The hurricane has affected even those who came through the storm
unscathed. Roatan and Utila, the two largest of the Bay Islands, are in
surprisingly good shape. There is very minimal scarring on the landscape,
but the tourist industry, on which the islands' economy relies, has all but
vanished. Seaside restaurants with wooden tables and stellar sunset views
sit like deserted ghost towns from wild West fables. Hotels and
guest houses are empty. Divers are few. Mike
Arellano, part owner of the Sueño Del Mar Dive Shop on Roatan, says he's
called the U.S. media repeatedly to say the island is OK. Tell the tourists
to come, he says. Kevin Braun, owner of the Sea Breeze Hotel, has given
discounts on his deluxe suites and kayak tours for those visiting now. But
everyone is afraid: The tourists are afraid to come and the islanders are afraid that the tourists
won't come. Braun and Arellano know things will change, eventually. By summer the tourist traffic
is expected to pick up again, but the time between now and then is an
insufferably long sigh.
Each time it rains now, on the islands or inland, people feel a twinge of
fear, and wonder if or when it will happen again.
But even with all the terrible reminders, the arduous task of rebuilding,
the threats of disease, economic depression and housing shortages, many
people in Honduras have hope. Long-term hope. It is a chance to rebuild
better, they say, a chance to form communities, to fix what was wrong
before. "Based on other things that've happened in this country, I thought
things would go slower. But this thing has unified us," says Lesly Aravjo, a
17-year-old college student who helped drain water from a barrio near
the airport several weeks after the storm. "Right after the hurricane, my
first thought was, 'How are we going to get out of this?' We were just
starting to grow and in one day it was all over. But when I saw that so many
other countries were helping us, I thought, 'OK, we can do this. It's going
to take a lot of time, but we can start all over again.'"
Dozens of women rinse mud and debris off furniture salvaged from homes near
the worst sites. In shelters children play as if offered eternal recess with
their friends. Twenty thousand college students across the nation converged
into a mighty army of volunteers two weeks after the hurricane struck. On
Roatan, foreigners and natives cleaned the beaches together and shared phone
lines, lodging, food.
When the hurricane first hit, Tegucigalpa had 6 p.m. curfews. Authorities
feared looting. Alcohol was banned. Now the curfew has been lifted, the
alcohol is back and the old, familiar dangers have replaced the new. We are told
to be in by 9 for safety, 6 for extra assurance. "Peligroso," everyone
says. Dangerous. There is peligro everywhere. Stay out of Comayaguela
altogether, one Internet source says. Do not climb to the Peace Monument at
sunset. Do not walk around at night. Do not walk around alone. Every
Honduras man has a gun and none fears using it. The day we arrived -- on
Christmas -- six shots were fired into the United Nations building in the dead
of night. Four days later, we were due to drive to San Pedro Sula with a
UNICEF worker, but canceled the trip due to scheduling conflicts. On his
way home, the driver was robbed at gunpoint, the truck stolen. Peligro
Some believe it is no different in the urban zoos of the United States, and this may be true, but coming on the tail of a national tragedy makes such
events stand out like vortexes of despair. Bruises over bruises are always more
The government, too, is in a bind. So many of the villages that were
leveled, the entire barrios that slid down the mountainsides and crashed
into roads and bridges below, were squatter neighborhoods, housing poor rural
families who had moved to the city for a shot at a better life and had found only
the same scenarios of poverty they had fled. The government fears an
influx of more such migrants if it announces plans to rebuild those
devastated squatter villages. So it announces no such plans, while
understanding that complacency is clearly not an option.
In spite of all the overwhelming problems, most everyone in Honduras agrees
that the hurricane brought people together like nothing else in recent
history. Hector Espinal, another student volunteer, says, "I saw all these
people in my community offering bread, coffee, things for people. This
[hurricane] spontaneously unified people. It's a positive change."
Communities energized one another, neighbors helped neighbors, strangers
helped strangers. Those who came out all right offered food, clothes, beds,
toys, money and time. Friendships were born from tragedy. Nothing brings
people closer than war and natural disaster. And nothing solidifies that
bind more than hope. This, among all the things that this country lacks now,
is what Hondurans everywhere seem to carry in abundance.
In Comayaguela, it is 5 p.m. and the market has begun to close for the
day. The music stops. The stalls close. The food and clothes and toys are
packed in burlap sacks to cart home. The woman with my baseball hat walks
across the bridge holding the hand of her young son, another child held on
her hip and one trailing behind. On a distant mountain, the Virgin Mary
stands illuminated by an amber glow, a monument somehow untouched. The
setting sun casts mirrors of color into the Rio Choluteca below, rainbows of
pink, blue and green walls that look, in the shifting water, nearly whole. The
sky is full of colors and clouds and crows; the moon rises overhead. Orange
hibiscus tower over the walls and intertwine with pink bougainvillea, nearly
big enough to hide the scarred remains below. Soon, all in the city will be