In Honduras, hurricane victims are still waiting for help
It is brutal work, especially in the humidity that drenches Honduras’ Pacific coastal lowlands in a perpetual sweat. But after living more than a year without running water to wash clothes, cook or take a decent bath, people in this Hurricane Mitch resettlement village are fed up with promises that help is on the way.
“We’re tired of waiting for people to bring us water,” said Jose Rubin Salinas, 25, one of the leaders of the volunteer water line crew, which is pooling its own meager funds to buy the plastic pipe and brass spigots needed to bring a single tap to each home on their block.
“Of course, the (relief agencies) should help us do this,” adds David Ramon Lanzo, 36, another of the diggers. But that, they say, remains a distant hope.
Nearly two years have passed since Hurricane Mitch tore into Central America, the worst natural disaster to hit the region in two centuries. Raging floods and mudslides reshaped the landscape of Honduras, sweeping away whole towns, killing 5,500 people and destroying decades of progress in upgrading roads, bridges, water systems, schools and homes in one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
In the weeks after the storm, international donors rushed in, intent not just on providing emergency food and shelter but on rebuilding the country.
“The goal is to do more than restore Honduras to pre-Mitch levels,” the U.S. Agency for International Development, one of the major donors, said in a statement. “The goal is to make Honduras stronger and better.”
That is proving a formidable challenge — and not just because of the catastrophic scale of the storm’s damage, which left much of the nation of 6 million flattened.
After sending $300 million in initial emergency funds to help Central America, the U.S. Congress in May 1999, approved $647 million in recovery aid, including $291 million for Honduras.
Nearly halfway through the program, just $30 million of that money for Honduras has actually been spent, though much more is in the pipeline, say U.S. AID officials, who are administering the relief funds.
The reason, aid experts say, is that nearly everyone is trying so hard to do the right thing in Honduras that little is getting done quickly and thousands of hurricane victims are still without homes and basic services.
Development officials, eager to ensure water and road systems are rebuilt so they will not wash away again, delayed action to allow engineering firms time to develop careful new system designs and placement plans. As a result, thousands of Honduran families — including those at Limon de la Cerca — still do not have running water or roads.
Road, bridge, sewer and water projects, by congressional mandate, are being offered for bid to U.S. firms, a process that ensures some of the nearly $1 billion Central American bailout goes back to U.S. taxpayers — but which also can delay the start of work by as much as four months. Most of the contracts for road and bridge projects in Honduras were granted only in July, U.S. AID and Honduran officials say, and the vast majority went to U.S. firms.
International donors including U.S. AID, faced with a tradition of petty corruption in nations like Honduras, have set up as many as six layers of accounting oversight for recovery funds, which has helped protect the money from theft but also slowed its transformation into quick and effective projects.
“There’s a tension between balancing the need to complete reconstruction projects in a timely manner, enforcing necessary accountability measures, and the desire to reinvest American taxpayers’ money into American companies and small businesses,” said Don Boyd, director of U.S. AID’s Office of Central American Affairs.
Western officials in Honduras are more blunt. Faced with all the constraints, the December 2001 deadline mandated by Congress for spending the aid money “is a real challenge,” one said.
Limon de la Cerca, a sprawling relief community of drywall emergency huts and tin-roofed gray cinder-block houses, sits on the soggy soil of a former rice paddy, amid the humid green lowlands that stretch inland from Honduras’ Pacific coast. The nearest city is Choluteca, the largest community in south-central Honduras, about a half-hour bus ride away.
Limon’s residents once lived in the city itself, in fragile houses of wood and adobe on the floodplain banks of the Choluteca River. Those vanished in the river’s roiling waters after Hurricane Mitch stalled over Honduras, producing floods so prodigious they destroyed nearly every road and bridge in the country, left a quarter of the nation homeless and sent deforested mountains sliding into valleys, rerouting rivers and changing the nation’s topography itself.
For a while, it looked as if the homeless of Choluteca were in luck. The city’s mayor, eager to find higher ground to relocate flood victims, persuaded a bank in Choluteca to buy and offer lots for resettlement at Limon de la Cerca.
Within a month or two of the storm, nearly 1,900 refugee families had moved to the site, living first in tents, and then in 12-foot-square drywall shelters with tin roofs provided with U.S. AID emergency funds.
Limon, aid workers told them, would soon be a new satellite of Choluteca. There would be schools and parks, water and sewer hookups. For just $2.50 a month over 10 years — a reasonable fee even in dirt-poor Honduras — residents could buy their lots. International donor groups, particularly U.S. churches, were already building cinder-block homes for the refugees, who had to contribute little more than their own labor.
A year later, however, the promise of Limon de la Cerca has faded.
Alba Soriana, 25, answers the door of her drywall microshelter with a measuring tape around her neck and sweat running down her forehead.
“It’s very hot,” she says, as the still stifling air of the tin-roofed shelter pours out the open door. “I just want to run outside.”
For more than a year now, since Mitch swept away the home she shared with her husband in Choluteca, the 12-foot by 12-foot shelter has been her kitchen, her bedroom and the workshop for her sewing business.
Her foot-pedal sewing machine sits squeezed against a bed, a small stove, her husband’s bicycle, shelves laden with clothing and toiletries, buckets for carrying water from the pump a few blocks away, and an electric fan, one of the few things she salvaged from the flood. Unfortunately, like everyone else in Limon, she has no electricity to operate it.
With the income from her husband’s odd construction jobs and her sewing, the family has managed — barely — to make the monthly $2.50 payment on their lot. They also scraped together $14 to buy three bags of cement to smooth a thin concrete coating over the shelter’s mud floor. Water still leaches through the concrete but “it’s better than the mud,” she says.
But their chances of ever owning a house are fading. In the months after Mitch, church groups, international aid organizations and other donors flooded to Limon and set to building nearly 1,300 cinder-block homes.
All of those organizations have left Limon de la Cerca, even though 600 refugee families are still awaiting houses. In this poorest of Central American countries, where 57 percent of the population lived below the poverty line even before the storm, most of those left behind can barely afford their lot payments, much less the prospect of building a home of their own, at a cost of at least $1,500.
There are still no plans to bring electricity to the village. U.S. AID has promised to fund water and sewer lines but the date for the work to begin keeps being pushed back. No one is sure whether the lines will include hookups at individual homes.
Fed up with lack of power and water, hundreds of refugee families have abandoned Limon, moving back to shacks along the river or squeezing in with relatives. Thirty percent of the houses built in the community are now vacant, said Oswaldo Lopez, of the Samaritan’s Purse, one of the last church groups still working in the community.
Even more of the microshelters, some underwater in the soupy former rice paddy, are now abandoned, and gangs roam the unlit community at night, stealing building materials. About half of the property owners have quit making payments on their lots, city officials said.
“People get tired of living here without basic services,” Lopez said. “Now they’re back living where they started, and when the rains come again they’ll be in trouble again.” One of the biggest problem in rebuilding Honduras, aid officials say, is that donors want their money spent quickly and effectively, a seemingly reasonable demand but one sometime hard to reconcile on the ground.
Marc de Lamotte, the head of CARE in Honduras, relates how a group of European Union and private U.S. donors approached his agency in the months after the storm and offered a substantial sum of money to build 600 homes near Choluteca. They wanted the work done in six months, they said.
De Lamotte, who has years of experience in development work in Choluteca province, grimaced. Building that many homes, that quickly, in Choluteca’s steambath, he knew, was impossible. Still, he took the money and did his best.
Six months into the job, and with less than half of the houses underway, CARE sent the donors a letter offering to refund their money. They ultimately agreed to grant an extension. The project was finished in 14 months and “it was a real success to do it in that time,” de Lamotte remembers.
“There’s a big difference between the thinking in Stockholm and Tokyo and actually working in the field,” he complained, referring to cities where world relief donors have held meetings on Mitch. “They want us to build a better society in six months.”
His agency has faced similar problems with U.S. AID, he said. CARE wanted to apply for a grant from U.S. AID to create watershed management programs for Honduras as part of the Mitch recovery effort. But Congress’ Dec. 31, 2001, deadline for the use of the money, he said, persuaded the group to look elsewhere for funds.
“We don’t think we can do a good job in (that amount of time),” he said.
Even U.S. officials admit the deadline has created problems. They say the need to spend money quickly has forced them to focus on projects that can be done in time, not necessarily those that are most needed. That means, for instance, that very remote communities are much less likely to see their roads and bridges rebuilt with U.S. AID funds than those that can be reached more quickly and easily, workers say.
A smaller but equally disconcerting problem has been the need to put much of the rebuilding work in Honduras out for U.S. bid. The bidding process, as well as providing opportunities for U.S. firms, is also part of a complex system of multi-tiered audits designed to ensure as little relief cash as possible is lost to corruption, a longstanding problem in much of the region.
The hefty auditing structure is largely viewed as necessary but somewhat frustrating.
“We’ve tried to move quickly but Congress says be accountable,” noted one aid worker in Honduras. In the end, he said, accountability has come first.
That has not been much of a balm to refugees like Martin Martinez, 30, whose family is one of 1,300 in Tegucigalpa still waiting for a new home. Another 2,200 refugees are waiting for homes outside Tegucigalpa, housing officials say.
Martinez, his wife and three sons have lived for well over a year now in one of the 12-foot-square shelters at Tegucigalpa’s hilltop Trebol I camp.Community latrines line the spaces between endless rows of adjoining shelters and dusty children slide down a small hill nearby, sitting on flattened two-liter soda bottles as improvised sleds and squealing. Trebol, unlike Limon de la Cerca, has electricity, and communal pumps are usually just steps away.
Like nearly 2,000 refugee families in the capital, the Martinez’ received an approximately $600 bond funded by U.S. AID. Under a resettlement program, the family can turn the bond over to one of 17 international housing relief programs operating in the capital, as a sort of down payment on a new home. Refugees are free to choose the agency they want, based on the attractiveness of each agency’s program.
The problem is that none of the groups has been very quick in building homes. Land is tough to come by in the area near Tegucigalpa, and current local residents have the right to reject resettlement projects that would adjoin their villages, as has happened in several cases. Many of the new resettlement programs are dozens of miles from Tegucigalpa, far from jobs.
Another problem is that around Tegucigalpa, where land and material prices are higher, a decent home can cost $3,000 to $6,000. International donor groups initially paid much of that cost for families, as long as they contributed their own labor, but as the disaster recedes and aid funds dry up, families are faced with paying more and more of the cost themselves.
Martinez, an electrician’s assistant, would prefer to exchange his bond for cash, and build his own home, on a small piece of land he has managed to buy in Tegucigalpa.
“The bond is no help for a house that costs $6,000,” he said. “There are jobs around but imagine how long it would take to pay off a house!”
Officials, however, have so far refused to cash the bond, fearful that such a precedent could lead others to demand cash that might be spent on something other than housing.
Marcelo Pisani,, an International Organization for Migration official who is coordinating the donor refugee housing effort in Tegucigalpa, admits that many of the city’s 1,300 refugee families may still have a long wait for homes.
The process of rebuilding has been slow, he noted, but only by the standards of developed donor countries. After South Florida’s devastating Hurricane Andrew in 1992, victims who lost their homes had replacements usually within months. Honduras, however, is a much poorer nation with a historic housing shortage, little building industry and little history of speedily building homes even before most of its infrastructure was destroyed. By the country’s own standards, the relief effort is “not that slow,” Pisani said.
In Honduras, hurricane victims are still waiting for help It is brutal work, especially in the humidity that drenches Honduras’ Pacific coastal lowlands in a perpetual sweat. But after living