Battered Nicaraguan Town Slowly Recovers From Hurricane's Wake

WARD FORBES, a resident of this Atlantic coast town which is slowly rebuilding itself, muses over the events of last October. That was when Hurricane Joan struck, and Bluefields lost more 4,000 homes, 17 schools, and 21 churches, and dozens of other buildings. ``But like the Phoenix, we shall rise above this mess,'' Mr. Forbes recalls thinking at the time. Seven months later, signs are that the town is doing just that.

The distinctive spirit of this essentially Caribbean town has returned, as was evident at the recent annual ``May Pole'' celebration - a tradition which highlights the English-speaking, black residents' African and Caribbean heritage. The week-long festival of spring and fertility gave the town's 40,000 people some relief from the chore of rebuilding.

``We are very pleased with the reconstruction so far,'' says Johnny Hodgson, a community leader who heads the government housing office here. ``We accomplished about 85 percent of what we'd planned to get done in the dry season.''

In some cases, Bluefields will be better off than it was before. There will be roads, lighting, and electricity where formerly there were none, Mr. Hodgson says.

But overall, the distinctive look which made Bluefields unique in Nicaragua, has been lost. The bright Caribbean colors and individual touches people gave their homes are gone. Most homes are now makeshift structures. There is still no private telephone service, and the phones in public offices are unreliable. But 70 percent of electricity has been restored.

Some residents complain that materials for reconstruction were far too little, and distributed unfairly. According to the Rev. Palmerston Boudi`ere, pastor of the Moravian Church, ``Distribution of what there was, was good. The problem was there simply wasn't enough to rebuild everything.''

The local economy has picked up somewhat, mostly because of the Sandinistas' economic liberalization enacted late last year. Jamaican ships arrive twice a month to buy the fish catch. Before that, the government bought all the fish, much of which was lost by poor storage and management.

Even so, like the rest of the country, Bluefields survives mostly on remittances and donations from abroad, say local residents and officials.

And it appears that the continuing economic hardship is eroding good will for the Sandinistas. There is high praise for the job the Sandinistas did in evacuating people and saving thousands of lives before the hurricane hit, as well as good marks for the reconstruction effort. But an informal survey of about two dozen Bluefilenos, as they are known, revealed one main complaint.

``Come on man!'' Forbes exclaims, referring to the inflation-spurred cost of living. ``Three thousand cordobas for a pound of sugar, which the children need. Twenty thousand cordobas for a pound of milk! If we get six more years of this regime I think we'll starve.''

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