Rising Up From Mitch's Mud

Honduras copes after 3 out of 4 bridges are knocked out by the hurricane. Villages dig out as aid arrives for Central America.

The people of Nueva Esperanza are in mourning. But like the rest of Honduras - the Central American country hardest hit by deadly hurricane Mitch - the poor hillside neighborhood is fighting to pull itself up out of the mud.

Spanish for "new hope," Nueva Esperanza is still reeling from last weekend's loss, when relentless rains - about as much in a few days as Honduras usually gets in a year - loosened the ground and sent cliff-perched houses crashing to the swollen Choluteca River. At least 18 residents perished, making this one of the worst hit of the Honduran capital's many neighborhoods devastated in a storm with effects heightened by poverty and deforestation.

But this week the residents of Nueva Esperanza, from small children to grizzled old men, were out fixing broken sewer lines and shoveling tons of mud and rock left in the community's unpaved main street. If the street were repaired, emergency crews promised, they would bring in heavy equipment to search for victims under the rubble. So dozens of neighbors pitched in.

Nueva Esperanza is a reflection of the mammoth national effort Honduras is undertaking to stand up again.

With more than 90 bridges - three of every four - damaged or destroyed on the country's primary road network, a national effort is under way to repair major highways, get people and supplies moving again, and avoid the shortage of food and fuel that is threatening much of the country including the capital.

"This catastrophe set us back 40 years," says Honduran Interior and Justice Minister Delmer Urbizo, "but if we don't reestablish our transportation links in the next [few] days, even Tegucigalpa will be severely affected."

Thousands of the city's nearly 1 million residents are left homeless by the massive flooding, with many complaining of hunger and lack of clean water. Long lines are forming at gas stations that are slowly drying up.

The race to establish a supply line is on.

A "food and fuel caravan" on the main highway from San Pedro Sula near the Atlantic Coast in the north to Tegucigalpa must be established by Saturday, officials say, to hold off serious shortages.

Mitch, one of the most powerful hurricanes to roar through the western Caribbean this century, cut a swath of devastation across much of Central America that is still being measured.

Most of the damage and loss of life came from days of torrential rains and flooding, which left at least 9,000 people dead, perhaps 1 million homeless, and caused billions of dollars in destruction.

The heaviest damage befell Honduras and Nicaragua, the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries after Haiti. Nicaragua lost at least 1,500 people in one calamity when the rim of Casitas volcano collapsed, sending water from the rain-swollen crater lake down over small settlements.

In Honduras, official figures put the death toll at more than 6,400 on Wednesday, with thousands more still missing. Some areas are still under water, and reports of people stranded on roofs and in treetops continued coming in several days after the rains stopped.

In Tegucigalpa, floodwaters ripped through the low-lying center city along the riverbanks. But the rains were cruelest to the dozens of marginal communities that have crawled up the sides of the city's denuded hillsides over recent decades.

La Soto, once a bustling if poor community, is now eerily quiet except for the high-pitched scrape of nails being pulled from the wood of tossed and tangled homes.

As in Nueva Esperanza, a massive landslide sent a whole mountainside, and the houses camped upon it, careening toward the river. A few of the simple houses stand relatively unscathed - although a hundred yards below where they once sat.

While former homeowners salvage wood in hopes of building another house elsewhere - or simply for fuel to build a fire - a silent stream of the uprooted crosses a crusty mudflow that just a week ago was a neighborhood. A couple carries a muddied but prized single-bed frame, a boy trudges along hugging a chicken under one arm.

"This neighborhood was damaged when Gilberto [hurricane Gilbert] came through in 1988, but this time it was destroyed," says Jesus Flores, who lost a cousin when La Soto slid down the hill last Saturday. Mr. Flores, who before the storm sold fruit and vegetables with his wife in La Soto's now-vanished market, says he fears the same dangerous mistake of building houses on unstable land will be repeated.

"There were promises of relocation [after Gilbert], but it never happened, and people kept building on land that was supposed to be left as green space," he says. "If they don't assign us a little piece of land somewhere else this time, we'll be forced to rebuild right here even though we don't want to. Where else can we go?"

Two decades ago Tegucigalpa unveiled an ambitous zoning and development plan that was supposed to give order to the capital's growth, conserving crucial green areas in this hilly city traversed by rivers and strictly limiting precarious hillside development. The plan was never implemented.

"You just look around and you see that the development of Tegucigalpa has been competely anarchic," says Zoraida Mesa, resident coordinator for United Nations activities in Honduras. "Now the whole city is paying a very high price."

WITH the city's flow of clean water completely shut down, Ms. Mesa says one of the UN's top priorities is an emergency water supply plan to provide water to 500,000 people. "What's going to happen if there is still no water flowing in a week?" she asks.

The plan calls for an army of trucks to initially supply water to cut-off neighborhoods, followed by installation of temporary surface pipes. Noting the heavy damage so many neighborhoods sustained, Mesa says: "Complete restoration of the water supply system is a long-term project."

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