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  Number 219 | Octubre 1999
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Honduras

Raining Questions

he fact that the powerful Ulúa River swept away a Bailey bridge that the US Marines had erected in Ilama after Mitch was a reminder that the country is still very fragile and vulnerable and will continue to be so until adequate measures are taken.

Ricardo Falla

Of all the threats to Honduras that could be gleaned from the almost unintelligible weather forecasts that followed the Independence Day celebrations on September 15, the only one that failed to materialize was the threat to the Atlantic Coast. Torrential rains fell over the country's mountain ranges in the central region, including Tegucigalpa, and the south, but the sun shone on the coast, which was only hit by a few showers.

The fact that only days after those first forecasts the powerful Ulúa River swept away the Bailey bridge that the US Marines had erected in Ilama after Hurricane Mitch served as a reminder that the country is still very fragile, very vulnerable. It also warned us that this situation will continue unless adequate measures are taken.

Indestructible Baileys?

The emergency, caused by a succession of tropical storms almost exactly a year after Mitch, may prove not to be fully over as of this writing in early October. Many bridges were destroyed, though not as many as by Mitch. The most notable occurrence was the destruction of some of the ugly Bailey bridges, whose impressive iron structure made them appear as if they would last forever, physical monuments to the Mitch tragedy. Even the one erected to connect Ilama and Santa Bárbara, and inaugurated with such pomp and ceremony by President Flores in February, was ripped away despite its “made in USA” guarantee and the fact that US Marine engineers installed it.

This bridge was first closed to vehicles on September 15, as the raging Ulúa River had undermined its foundations; by the next day, the water had risen above its railings. President Flores came to visit the area at that point and the governmental Permanent Contingencies Commission (COPECO) decreed a state of red alert for all the zones surrounding the Ulúa and Chamelecón rivers. Many people took photos of the partially submerged bridge, although none of them thought it might be on its last legs. But, indeed, it was swept away by the Ulúa's turbulent waters on September 18 and literally disappeared. The only indication that it had once stood there was a piece of metal that had attached it to one of the riverbanks.

It seems that this event set alarm bells ringing inside the government, indicating the possible magnitude of the growing catastrophe. If one of the famous Bailey bridges had been destroyed, what might happen to the country? Would it again splinter into a thousand pieces like a fragile glass object dropped onto the floor, as happened during Mitch? The government decided to declare a national state of emergency and to rob Peter to pay Paul by transferring the Bailey bridge on the Bonito River, just outside the city of La Ceiba, to Ilama. Some viewed both as rather impetuous decisions, and the latter one certainly annoyed La Ceiba's inhabitants.

The losses in numbers

COPECO's latest figures on the damage from the storms, released on October 6, were 28 dead, 6 missing, 3 injured, 17,609 evacuated, 7,242 evacuees living in temporary shelters, 96 houses destroyed, 1,158 houses damaged, 15 bridges destroyed and 26 communication routes in bad condition.

These figures are probably conservative, though they do have a credibility that was lacking in the Hurricane Mitch figures because they break down the number of dead by department, making it possible to confirm the information. COPECO's joint center of operations evidently learned some lessons from Mitch and was better organized and therefore able to provide a better response to this new emergency. COPECO had also received assistance from USAID and from the US Geological Service, which established offices in the armed forces' command headquarters, working 24 hours a day with 15 telephone lines. The aid provided computers, furniture and office equipment; it is not known if any technical assistance was included.

The areas hit

The regions hit hardest by these rains were Tegucigalpa, Choluteca, Santa Bárbara and the country's northern zone, particularly the Sula valley. Tegucigalpa was affected by the Choluteca River, which dissects the large basin in which the capital city is located, and by the mountain streams that cut down the slopes and feed into the silted up rivers. In addition to the Bailey bridge swept away by the swollen Ulúa River, the Choluteca River carried off the one connecting the city of Choluteca with the rest of the country. It appears that even experienced engineers from the most developed country in the world were incapable of setting the bridge on firm enough foundations.

The north of the country, sliced by several large rivers—the Chamelecón, Ulúa, Aguán, Sico, Patuca and Coco—was also badly hit. The rainfall there was moderate, but the torrential rains that fell on the mountainous watersheds of these rivers caused significant damage. The Sula valley was the most affected area in this zone and, within it, the banks of the Ulúa were especially hard-hit due to the release of water from the El Cajón dam.

The dam or the banks?

All the rain that fell over the extensive watersheds of the Chamelecón and Ulúa rivers caused the destruction in the Sula valley. The Ulúa runs past El Progreso and was the more destructive of the two rivers, not only because of its size but also because the El Cajón dam is located on one of its tributaries, the Humuya. From September 23, water was repeatedly released from the dam—at times as much as 1,000 cubic meters per second. The government said it was done to keep the water from reaching the maximum limit of 290 meters above sea level, the force of which could cause the dam to shimmy and perhaps collapse. In fact, the release of water resulted in the collapse of many dikes on the river's meanders that had been poorly repaired by the government.

The travails of Estero de Indios

As night was falling on Sunday, October 3, we visited the community of Estero de Indios in the Sula valley north of the city of El Progreso. Some 50 men were struggling against the force of the waters, piling sacks of earth to bolster the slowly crumbling contention dikes, mounds of earth piled up on either side of the river so enormous one could drive a car along the top. The inhabitants had been working continuously on shifts for three days and nights shoring up the dikes to make sure the waters of this wide river would not flood the peasant's houses and crops along the right bank. The young cooperative members and other peasants had already stacked 3,000 sacks, but the leaking water kept shifting everything.

The government was conspicuous by its absence: the Permanent Contingencies Commission (COPECO)—a name that would seem contradictory for a commission were it not for the fact that contingencies in this country are indeed permanent—was nowhere to be seen. The same was true for the armed forces, the municipal authorities and the Sula Valley Commission (CEVS), which had repaired the breach that Hurricane Mitch had opened in the riverbank along here in the first place.

We hurried off to call in an SOS to the government to provide dump trucks, sacks, spades and manpower to ensure that the banks would not give way again. We also wanted to warn it to stop releasing water from the dam, since it was contributing to the flooding in Estero de Indios.

The following day we had the chance to send a cry for help out over the national, government- monitored Radio América station. People in Estero de Indios also heard the message and called in again to repeat the SOS. The national COPECO commissioner in Tegucigalpa promised an immediate response, but he explained that the El Cajón situation was itself critical and that they could not accept the request for two or three days of respite in the man-made flooding they were generating. They were not going to let El Cajón collapse and would prefer to evacuate the population.

Evacuate or resist?

A few hours later the commission sent us a fax saying they had tried to reinforce the contention dikes to protect the village of Estero de Indios, but that it was technically difficult to ensure that the dikes would not give way. They asked us to help persuade people who were refusing to leave their homes to evacuate the area. Immediately afterward a fax came in from the commander of San Pedro Sula’s 105th brigade, saying that troops billeted in the neighboring village of Urraco were helping reinforce the walls of the dikes to protect the village, but that the inhabitants had refused to evacuate the area at risk.

The situation reminded us of Guatemala in times of war and emergency plans, when the guerrillas would urge people to leave because the army, like a hurricane, was bearing down on them. Many people refused and were later massacred by the army. This is a different situation, however; the people here know their own circumstances better than COPECO or the armed forces. They understand that any bad decision they make will end up affecting them and not the engineers or commanders.

COPECO's strategy was to evacuate at all costs, but the people who would be evacuating saw that as capitulating to the rising waters. It would mean giving in to the temptation to stop lugging around sacks of earth, instead grabbing what belongings they could and climbing a hill to twiddle their thumbs and wait for the river's force to breach the dikes and flood their crops of maize and African Palm with three meters of water. We read the commissioner's fax on the El Progreso Reconstruction Committee's afternoon radio program without attempting to convince people one way or the other but, luckily, by the following morning the situation in Estero de Indios was under control.

There was obvious tension between the CEVS and COPECO throughout this emergency. If the dike had given way, the CEVS would have blamed COPECO for continuing to release water from the dam, while COPECO would have blamed the CEVS for having repaired the contention banks badly in the first place.

Back in the times when the whole Sula valley belonged to the banana-producing Tela Railroad Company, that transnational corporation dug relief canals to channel the water off in various directions and thus protect the banana fields from flooding. Even if the banks of those canals were not well built, the overflow was at least spread out. This time the Tela Railroad Company suffered no losses in the banana plantations it rehabilitated after Mitch, as the dikes it constructed on its remaining lands were of a better quality than the ones the government built.

Bankers or farmers?

Agriculture suffered the main damage. The Sula Association Ranchers and Farmers calculated that 8,500 acres of land in Sula valley were affected, among them 2,550 acres of bananas, 1,020 of sugar cane, 510 of plantains and 340 of maize. Small and medium banana growers on the banks of the Ulúa River near El Progreso, who sell to the Tela Railroad Company and received loans from it to plant again following Mitch, suffered severe losses once again. They are now calling for a financial assistance policy similar to the one used to rescue the Corporate Bank when it recently declared bankruptcy. The government immediately pushed through the Temporary Financial Stabilization Law to bail the bank out with 180 million lempiras (about $12 million) and the farmers are wondering why the government should not help them recover their investment as well. They plan to lobby Congress for a law in their favor.

Our Reconstruction Committee in El Progreso had financed the sowing of basic grains on some 2,550 acres of land after Mitch with the help of the organization Concern American, on the condition that each family pay back 15% of the loan. Now these same small-scale farmers have lost everything for the second time since the Mitch tragedy; the first was the loss of crops earlier in the year due to a drought in April and May. Those crops had been sown late, in February, because the soil was still too wet earlier, after the hurricane's passage. This new setback is not only a material blow to the small farmers, it is also a moral one as they are forced to accept food-for-work programs again and seek still more financing in order to sow next time.

The poor or the rich?

What caused this new destruction? Among the causes we should not ignore one of the most obvious: global climatic changes. Rains and hurricanes have hit the whole of Central America, Mexico America and the Caribbean this year. Hurricane Floyd caused exceptional destruction in the United States and the rains that returned to wreak chaos on Honduras also fell from Colombia to Mexico. These storms form in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Africa and travel across to the Americas. Such disasters are therefore a global phenomenon caused not only by the deforestation of our river basins. Even on that point, although the finger is often pointed at our peasants, the rich countries of course provide the market for our precious woods. There has not been enough time since Mitch to reforest the slopes of the watersheds of Honduras' rivers. In places such as Tocoa, this task has at least been started because of the tragic lessons learnt last year, but in the Sula valley, nothing has been done yet.

And the money from Stockholm?

There was enough time to prepare the infrastructure needed to provide protection, but it was not done. The rivers that clogged up with sand and earth during Mitch were not dredged and this reduced the volume of water their channels can hold. Simply put, these channels are not big enough to accommodate a flow of over 600 cubic meters per second, and if it surpasses 1,000 cubic meters flooding will occur. Complaints were registered in Tegucigalpa that the Choluteca River had not been dredged and President Flores blamed the municipal government. He says the Conservative mayor is responsible for such works because municipal government is autonomous, insisting that the central government can help but cannot wrest responsibility from the local government. As for the dredging of rivers in poor municipalities, Flores has stated that this would cost US$300 million, which he says Honduras simply does not have at its disposal. If this is true, he needs to explain what happened to the funds pledged in the donors' meeting Stockholm back in May.

The fact that the lost Bailey bridges were well built, albeit maybe not designed to withstand such extreme increases in water level, highlights just how important it was, and still is, to dredge the rivers. There is nothing to say that those rivers will not easily swell up again to similar or even higher levels than witnessed during Mitch.

Contention banks or bridges?

After dredging the rivers, the next important task in terms of protection infrastructure is building strong river dikes. Since March, the small farmers in El Progreso have been demanding that the government attend to the dikes, an engineering task that the municipal government lacks the capacity to carry out. This is precisely why the Sula Valley Commission (CEVS) exists, as the Tela Railroad Company takes responsibility only for the dikes on its own properties. The CEVS, which is responsible for all the others, either did nothing or did it late, hurriedly and badly, without compacting the earth. In its own defense, it claims that it received the necessary funds late. In any case, wherever Mitch had left small breaches in the dikes, the water leaked through, soon opening torrential flows. In some cases, the farmers struggled to protect the dikes by reinforcing them with hundreds or thousands of sacks of earth and sand, as in Estero de Indios. Sometimes, but not always, they received help from the CEVS.

This prolonged emergency period in September and October made abundantly obvious what the government appears not to have realized during the dry months of March, April and May: the country's valleys are incredibly vulnerable. Following Mitch the government had concentrated on rehabilitating land communication routes and constructing bridges, especially temporary Bailey bridges, and inaugurating them in high-profile ceremonies. Perhaps they forgot about the dikes and dredging because such public works do not have a very sexy profile. Now, in a personal tour of the damaged areas, President Flores accepted that not only the valleys but the whole country was in a fragile and vulnerable state and recognized the vital importance of both dredging the rivers and repairing the contention dikes.

The level of El Cajón

Another element that needs to be examined as a cause of the damages is the role the El Cajón dam played. Its maximum tolerance level is 290 meters above sea level, though it is not clear what would really happen if the waters rose above this limit. The impression, backed up by journalists, is that the cement wall would give way and the cities and towns in the valley below would be swept away by an avalanche of water. It is also said that if the waters reach their peak level, the turbines would have to be switched off to avoid irreparable damage to a “national asset,” possibly because of the pressure exerted by the water. The paralyzing of the country's main electricity source would have serious economic repercussions for the whole country. The fact is that there is a kind of mystery surrounding the dam that the public appears willing to passively accept, feeling that these are very complicated technical matters too difficult for small, uneducated minds to understand.

In the most critical days of the emergency, the dam's waters almost reached the 288-meter level. At the beginning of October the level was rising by five centimeters every hour and a half and it was deemed necessary to release water into the Ulúa, in amounts assumedly calculated in consideration of the river's own swelling. The initial releases were small—only 100 to 300 cubic meters a second—but later they reached over 1,000 cubic meters a second.

The dam or the valley?

The problem and the limits of El Cajón have given rise to two questions. First, was the release of water really made at the right moment or did those responsible act too hastily, if not necessarily with bad intentions? And second, was the potential damage to the valley really taken into account? The sense is that the decision was based only on the dam's situation, ignoring that of the valley. One businessman suggested that a technical commission be set up to manage El Cajón; another suggestion is that a social audit be carried out of how the release of water was handled. There is a feeling that El Cajón, billed as a national asset that must be protected at all costs because it produces cheap electricity, is in fact generating very expensive electricity considering the damage caused to farmers. Small-scale farmers we have spoken to feel that the decision taken was a political one, with the poor, as always, subsidizing the industrialists. Just as in the case of the bankrupt and rescued Corporate Bank, ordinary people end up financing the errors the rich make and the thefts they commit.

The countryside or the city?

Knowing that September and October are the months of heaviest rain—Hurricane Fifi struck in September and Mitch in October—the other question is why water was not released from El Cajón in the dry months so it could act as a contention dike in the rainy season. Although no official answer has been given, it probably has to do with the experience of 1994, when the problem was exactly the opposite. El Cajón was dangerously close to its minimum water level that year, and the country suffered a strong economic recession due to the constant power cuts. The official attitude is thus probably that it is better to have El Cajón full to ensure that it does not dry up. It is now clear that the dam's water level has to remain between two dangerous limits, both of which imply great damages for the country. The double contradiction—between farmers (both rich and poor) and industrialists and between rural and urban inhabitants—has to be resolved equitably, taking into account that the very rich farmers tend to be industrialists and live in the city as well, so they end up straddling the contradiction.

Exaggerate or warn?

In examining the warning phase, it has to be said that the meteorological forecasts are usually unclear. Is it that the meteorologists from the Civil Aeronautics don't understand what they are saying and only repeat information obtained over the Internet, or do they want us to feel that they are the technical experts in this field and the rest of us are an ignorant mob?
“An erratic low pressure system is interacting with the inter-tropical convergence zone and will cause intermittent rainfall.” What is this ridiculous language supposed to mean? The public, confused by the mysterious content of such words, worries but does not heed the warning.

Sometimes the forecasts are not just unintelligible but also woefully wrong. On Thursday, September 30, a red alert was declared and classes were suspended across the country. On the country's northern coast children turned up for school on Friday because it was not raining. Saturday and Sunday passed and it was still sunny. Where was the red alert? Why had it been declared? In the countryside it was suspected that the whole nation had been alerted not because the rains might threaten the valley below El Cajón, but to justify the releases of water from the dam, threatening the weakened dikes that the population was struggling to reinforce. The feeling there was that it was all a great lie, and that flooding was a political rather than natural occurrence.

The radio, television and press did a good job, but not as good as during Mitch, when the population was better prepared having seen with their own eyes the TV images of the hurricane's red eye against a blue background moving towards the country's coasts. This time the media tended to exaggerate and the satellite pictures that accompanied the red alert—only a great white bank of clouds lying over Central America—were rather unclear and not very convincing. Did this image mean that it was going to rain a lot, a little or not at all? Maybe the government had good intentions in giving such a clear warning to the population, to avoid any possible loss of human life, but there is no place for exaggeration in such matters either. As with El Cajón, it is not a case of having the dam full just in case, but of knowing the real situation, acting objectively, doing exactly what is required and informing the population in the clearest, simplest way. If the warnings are exaggerated, they lose credibility, which could have negative effects on the next crisis. If you cry wolf too often, no one will believe you when it finally turns up.

The military in action

The armed forces put in an appearance in the evacuation and rescue phase this time, having been notably absent during Mitch—all for the better, say some. This time, however, over 10,000 officers, troops and auxiliary personnel were dispatched across the country and had a visible presence. Furthermore, with the Combined Operations Center based in the armed forces high command headquarters, there was better collaboration between the military and civilians, with the military apparently subordinated to the civilian powers. It is possible that recent changes in the military high command, including the appointment of a commander with close ties to Flores, thus providing the President with greater control over the military, facilitated coordination. The armed forces have also recently received disaster training.

Forced evacuation?

There were many reports of people resisting evacuation. Government representatives claimed that such people were obstinate and irresponsible, thus undermining the idea of persuasion through conviction, the principal strategy behind any evacuation effort.

Many rural people did not want to leave their houses because they had nowhere to go, because it is very uncomfortable living outside pestered by swarms of mosquitoes, because they were afraid of being robbed and because they prefer to fight on against the floodwaters until the last possible moment. With whole communities or large groups resisting evacuation, it would appear that they had a more accurate assessment of the local situation, a more sensitive picture than the government. In fact, there were no reports of people dying as a result of refusing to leave heir homes. Fortunately, there were also no cases of soldiers forcing them to leave at gunpoint, as one COPECO representative recommended.

The navy used motorboats to evacuate areas that were already flooded and the people there were more than happy to leave, though sometimes the women left and the men remained behind or soon returned to wait it out on some patch of elevated land. It is essential for COPECO to analyze the experiences of evacuations during this emergency to learn from the reactions of people themselves, which is the only way to create a more effective rescue policy.

Houses without land?

The strategy of both the government and COPECO focused on evacuation rather than offering support to the population so they could reinforce the contention dike infrastructure. Nearly 18,000 people were evacuated and just under half were concentrated in small temporary shelters. The macro-shelters in the cities were already full of people left from Hurricane Mitch who are still waiting for their houses to be built. Government policy now is not to create any more macro-shelters because it feels that the overcrowding creates a loss of identity and generates social problems.

The national COPECO commissioner happily offered to build 2,000 prefabricated houses donated by international NGOs and the US government for those affected by this new disaster, at a rate of 100 a week, but he did not mention where they would be constructed. Lack of land is one of the basic housing problems and one of the main reasons there are still thousands of homeless people waiting in macro-shelters a full year after Mitch struck.

More Cuban doctors

To deal with health issues, 32 Cuban doctors and nurses came in on the same plane that took home 109 others who had spent 10 months attending to 500,000 people in over 126 villages following Hurricane Mitch. The Honduran population bade the departing contingent a tearful farewell, full of gratitude for what they had done, while the Honduran Doctors' Association was glad to see the back of them since some patients had switched to the highly-skilled Cubans. The government gave the new brigade a warm welcome.

It was sent to El Progreso and its surrounding areas, one of the zones most affected by the recent rains. The local government also gave the Cubans a noticeably warm welcome, as did Micheletti, the department's local Liberal party boss and parliamentary representative. He received them with a barbecue and an embrace and later introduced them into the area's health system, where they will have a high-profile presence in the hospitals working shoulder to shoulder with Honduran doctors. Micheletti obviously wants to exploit the Cuban presence politically, and, though the medical team must feel used, they have to resign themselves to a diplomatic silence.

Centralism? Equity?

Who will compensate the farmers for their losses caused by the failure to dredge the rivers, the inadequate repairs to the contention dikes and the bad management of the El Cajón dam? The government's failure to provide an answer is worrying farmers in the north, although 100 million lempiras (around $6.7 million) have been issued by the government to help the municipalities respond to emergencies affecting their respective populations.

On the evening of Friday October 1, President Flores addressed the nation on a radio and TV hook-up. “Today more than ever I feel the real weight and responsibility of governing,” he said, giving the impression that he was even more overwhelmed this time than he was following Mitch. Last year international solidarity focused on Honduras as the most battered country, but that has not happened this year as the rains have fallen evenly across the whole of Central America and Mexico.

The next day, the Association of Honduran Municipalities (AHMON) voiced concern that the 100 million lempiras would be administered by an intermediary body that would centralize the funds rather than their being sent directly to the communities hit. AHMON also questioned how the aid would be distributed. Would a municipality with a population of ten thousand receive the same amount as one with half a million? Would someone left homeless receive the same amount as someone who was not?
Meanwhile, tenants of the capital city's market, who lost a lot to the flooding and the looting that followed, will receive 20 million lempiras, and they are asking similar questions. How will the money be managed and distributed, will it be handled transparently and will it arrive quickly?

Political theology?

During these uncertain moments, spokespersons for the government are using a “theology” that amounts to telling the population to “have faith and pray,” as COPECO president Juan Bendek put it on the Friday initiating the red alert. President Flores also has his own religious discourse, though more finely tuned and delivered with a rounded rhetorical style. During his address to the nation he stated that “no hurricane is stronger than our will to survive, no natural power is greater than our God, in whose piety and authority we rest and trust with great hope.”
At times, seeing Flores genuinely afflicted, racing from one place to another in his helicopter, offering band-aid solutions, it is difficult to know whether to believe him or not. Political cartoonists are inclined to paint him with his nose dripping floodwater and his eyes sprouting tears. Does he really feel what he says or is everything just politics? The man is a consummate professional when it comes to handling his own image, so is this just a mixture of religious experience and political skill?

The shine is off the President's image

Without wishing to dodge the theological issue of what sense there might be in praying when faced by inclemency, knowing that the weather follows its own laws, it appears certain that, despite his skill, President Flores' image has lost some of its shine. This can be seen in the criticism aimed at him by certain elements of the media that previously showed him greater respect.

Even former President Reina, from the same Liberal party, has been bitterly critical of Flores' administration for abandoning the fight against corruption his own government initiated. Conversely, Reina is angry at Flores for joining up with supporters of ex-President Callejas to sentence Reina to pay 30,000 lempiras for a scandal related to the management of funds during the sixth Central American Games, an accusation Reina denies. He has directly accused Flores of manipulating public opinion, which he says is very serious because people have the right to be duly informed and if for any reason they are not, they “turn into enemies, because manipulation produces disastrous effects.” Worse even than flooding?

Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras.

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