Worst disaster in centuries

Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed by Hurricane Mitch, the most devastating storm to hit the western hemisphere since 1780.

Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed by Hurricane Mitch, the most devastating storm to hit the western hemisphere since 1780. The best "guesstimate" accepted by the United Nations is that at least 18,000 perished, mainly in Honduras and Nicaragua, after the Category 5 hurricane struck Central America late in October, 1998. But the tally could be considerably higher.

On the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, there were a dozen or more arms and legs jutting out from just one of the countless, reddish mud landslides that had tumbled homes and humans into the river. In a provincial town, only reachable after negotiating a major motorway that had been totally swept away in parts, there was a sea of mud where an extensive shantytown had stood a few days earlier.

How many people had died there? The local priest shook his head sadly. "Maybe 200. Perhaps 500. It could be 1,000. I am sorry. I really don't know." The meteorological facts surrounding Mitch border on the awesome. In mountainous regions it dumped 190cm of rain and, for 15 hours, had sustained winds of 290kph, gusting to more than 320kph as waves seven metres high pounded the coastline. Much of the damage, though, was wreaked by the subsequent floods and, particularly, mudslides. Aside from the lives lost, agriculture, industry and infrastructure were wiped out in the devastating, 33-hour period when Mitch remained a Category 5 hurricane.

Agriculture was particularly badly hit. An estimated 70 per cent of Honduran crops were lost and 29 per cent of its arable land flooded. In Nicaragua, rainfall destroyed or made unusable 2,700km of roads and damaged 71 bridges. One government minister in Honduras, the worst affected nation, estimated that 50 years of progress had been wiped out by this single storm. It was probably an exaggeration but damage estimates have been put at more than US$8 billion (Dh30bn).

The disaster prompted a huge international response from neighbouring countries, Europe and, particularly, Mexico and the United States, which poured in troops, planes and machinery. About $7.4bn worth of aid poured into the area, but that still could not prevent widespread outbreaks of disease, including more than 2,300 cases of cholera, 34 of them fatal, and 1,300 incidents of dengue fever. After the initial relief efforts, the longer term task of repairing the infrastructure, rebuilding the nations' economies and finding replacement homes for more than 1.5 million people got underway. It took at least four years to get the basics in place, with droughts, floods and Hurricane Michelle in 2001, hampering efforts.

In cities and larger towns, efforts have been made to ensure that new homes can withstand hurricane-force winds better and are not located on hillsides likely to be affected by mudslides. Fears remain that too many of the new homes of the rural poor are just as vulnerable as they were in October, 1998. Some areas, though, have materially benefited from post-Mitch reconstruction efforts. In Costa Rica, for instance, 5.9 per cent more jobs are estimated to have been created.

At least there will never again be another hurricane called Mitch. Because of the scale of the disaster, the World Meteorological Organisation retired the name in 1999, replacing it with Matthew five years ago. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae