Hurricanes Eta and Iota November 2020

2020 will likely remain in our world's collective memory as a year of exceptional difficulty and heartache due to COVID-19. Unfortunately in Honduras in particular, 2020 will be remembered as a year of tragedy, upon tragedy, upon tragedy. What this small country has suffered throughout the past few months is difficult to comprehend. Following is an abbreviated account.

Disaster - Hurricane Eta

Photo Credit: Univision

With COVID raging throughout Honduras, wreaking havoc on the healthcare system and economy (total reported deaths from COVID are approximately 3000), another type of storm began forming off the coastline. Within days, a Caribbean storm had formed into Hurricane Eta and began steaming towards the coast of Nicaragua, making landfall as a powerful category 4 hurricane on November 3. Fortunately, the hurricane's winds weakened quickly as it moved inland, however torrential rain persisted as the tropical storm moved directly over the center of Honduras. Much of our area of work in the mountainous north of the country received more than two feet of rain, causing widespread landslides and unprecedented flooding in the valleys, including the expansive Sula Valley. The Sula Valley is the economic center of Honduras, host to numerous factories and plantations as well as an international airport. As the hurricane moved out to sea, Heart to Honduras and the rest of the country began to take stock of the damage.

Community in the Sula Valley. Photo Credit: Univision

Nearly 100 people lost their lives to the storm. Four people, a grandmother and three grandchildren, died when a landslide destroyed a home in Lomas del Aguila, one of our Communities of Holistic Impact. Thousands of people lost everything that they owned in massive flooding.

Tragic landslide in Lomas Del Aguila.

The San Pedro airport (where we fly in and out of) experienced heavy flooding, with cleanup initially calculated to take several weeks before it could reopen. The majority of the country's economically important banana crop was lost, and many crops and businesses sustained heavy damage.

San Pedro Sula international airport. Runway submerged in foreground. Photo Credit: Univision/Honduran Air Force

Bridges, roads and infrastructure across the country were heavily damaged and dozens of communities were cut off entirely due to road washouts and landslides. Initial estimates place the damage by Eta at a staggering $5 billion US dollars, exacting a heavy toll on an economy that had already extremely been heavily weakened due to the COVID crisis.

The Unthinkable - Hurricane Iota

Social Media message from Honduran media about the second storm.

Following Hurricane Eta, thousands gathered in cramped shelters - dramatically exacerbating the transmission of COVID. Infectious diseases from contaminated water sources began to spread in affected areas. With the country still trying to understand how to even get back on its feet, another storm formed in the tropics.

Though weakened by COVID and Hurricane Eta, HTH to the rest of the country sprang into emergency action in order to avoid more loss of life and livelihood. The rain had barely subsided for a few days, and the ground was now completely saturated. Lakes and rivers were near maximum capacity and emergency measures were taken to lower the levels behind dams, such as the massive "El Cajon" in our region in order to avoid releases during the worst of the storm.

Within days, Iota was a catastrophic category 5 hurricane and incredibly began to follow a nearly identical track towards the coastline of Honduras and Nicaragua. Not even two weeks behind Eta, Hurricane Iota made landfall as a category 4 hurricane on November 16. Once again, the winds weakened, but the rain did not.

Photo Credit: USAID

Rainfall in our region may have totaled nearly three feet in this second storm. The tremendous cleanup effort of the past two weeks was undone overnight as the storm surged through the country. Even higher floodwaters and more extensive landslides damaged hard hit areas - refilling homes with mud that were still being cleaned out from Eta. The international airport in San Pedro filled with water and mud up to the top of its doorways. Crops that had survived Eta were now ruined. At least 16 more people lost their lives, though many are still missing.

The Damage

As of November 25, roughly 95,000 people remained in official shelters and 400,000 people evacuated from their homes (Source - MSF). More than 3 million households were estimated to have been directly affected by the storms, and though the death toll remains to be counted, well over 100 are known to have lost their lives.

Prior to the storms, over 500,000 jobs had been lost to COVID (in a country of 9 million people). Now, in addition to job loss, 60-80% of basic grains crops like corn and beans are estimated to have been lost and as well as approximately 10 million pounds of coffee, one of the countries primary exports (Source - CARE Int'l). Many small landholders and people living in materials poverty depend on these three crops in order to make their livelihood.

Altogether, the storms and COVID-19 have exacted an enormous economic toll on the country. COVID-19 alone is estimated to contract the Honduran economy by 7.1% (compared to estimates of 3% for the US economy). Now, the twin storms have caused approximately $10 billion in damage - an amount equal to 40% of GDP. Altogether the damage caused by COVID and the hurricanes will likely require at least a decade to recover to pre-2020 conditions (compared to expected full recovery in the US sometime in 2021). Honduras and its partners now face a long road of repairing bridges, roads, homes, factories, airports, and livelihoods - with some moments of extreme hardship for those affected by the storms.

The HTH Response

Following Hurricane Eta, Heart to Honduras began to immediately raise funds for relief and recovery efforts. Initial response included fuel for municipal heavy equipment to clear roads to isolated communities, provision of food and clean drinking water to those affected, and the donation of the International Extreme Camp's mattresses to emergency shelters and those that had lost their beds.

Efforts initially focused on Lomas del Aguila, one of our CoHI communities that experienced severe flooding, multiple landslides, and transportation cutoff for many days. Word also reached us quickly of the tragic loss of a grandmother and three children in a landslide. We helped outfit a temporary, community-based shelter in town that would not require affected family members to travel to other distant shelters during their recovery.

When a community water system was ruined in the hurricane HTH brought in purified water.

When we received word of Iota, the staff was activated as the country went into another nationwide red alert. In advance of the storms, HTH stocked the community-based emergency shelter in Lomas del Aguila with tents, water, food, mattresses, and other supplies, since experience had recently taught us that they were the most vulnerable of our partner communities. Staff members were in constant communication with the leadership of other partner communities in order to ensure that all were prepared for the coming storm in order to minimize loss of life.

Though damage from Iota was more severe, there was less loss of life due to better preparation. Lomas del Aguila was once again cut off from access to supplies. As days wore on, the communities supply of food and essentials was gradually depleted. A mission of HTH staff, national police, and other supporters made the treacherous 2.5 hour drive on damaged back roads around the back of the Santa Barbara mountains to get as close as possible to the community, since access from our side was nonexistent. Through tremendous effort, men from Lomas del Aguila traveled to meet the mission on the destroyed road and carve out a footpath in order to obtain the emergency provisions. The efforts of staff and community members were truly humbling - as seen in this video.

Throughout this period of emergency relief, several Honduran staff members spearheaded an HTH Emergency Relief Commission that was mandated to coordinate support to communities and shelters - providing a significant amount of supplies to those in need. Now that the emergency period has passed, the Relief Commission has been disbanded and is now replaced with an HTH Recovery Commission, which includes Otto, Stacey, Orlin, Ivis, and Marvin Sorto.

Some of the recovery responses will be straight forward and physical like reconstruction of water systems that were broken in the storms, rebuilding homes that were lost, relocating families that have been displaced, and road repair. Other responses will be more complicated like how to respond to loss of crops for families that depend on agriculture for their own food security and income. One of the biggest challenges will be knowing how to best respond to specific contexts as each community we work with has been impacted in different ways by these hurricanes. We can not just produce a "one size fits all" hurricane recovery response. The CPHTH rehabilitation committee is even now working out how to be sure our response aligns with our seven impact goals and reaches people in holistic ways.

Over the coming months, we will strive as an organization to foster recovery efforts that are appropriate, efficient, targeted, holistic, Christ-centered, and collaborative. Please join us in prayer for wisdom in how to best respond. As one of only a handful of NGOs that has been able to work with the local government, we will play an important uniting role in the efforts to unite the ~40 local organizations that have not been willing previously to collaborate with the government.

What now?

The coming year will likely look very different for us an organization. You will likely hear a good deal more about recovery and resiliency efforts in 2021 - as opposed to our normal updates on development work throughout the region. We deeply believe that our development work up to this point has placed us in an excellent position to work through some innovative and highly-effective, holistic recovery work. We are grateful to God for the networks and relationships that have been formed through the years, and are hopeful that our partner communities are up for the challenge ahead, JUNTOS (together)!

If you feel led to give an additional special gift this year towards the organization this year due to the trying circumstances that the country is currently experiencing, we would encourage you to do so on the HTH website.

Thank you to so many of you that have already given and have participated in the JUNTOS campaign, Covid relief, and hurricane response this year. We are deeply grateful for all of our wonderful partners.