The Miami Herald
November 2, 1998
Mud, rubble yield victims
Searchers find scenes of horror
Mitch death toll tops 1,500
Thousands missing; land is ravaged

             Herald Staff Writers

             SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- The grim toll of Hurricane Mitch rose
             dramatically Sunday as rescuers pulled hundreds of mangled bodies from
             mud-entombed northern Nicaraguan villages and flood waters up to 50 feet deep
             oozed from Honduras' devastated economic heartland.
             By evening, more than 1,500 people had been reported killed in six Central
             American countries and Mexico -- at least 1,071 in Nicaragua and 313 in
             Honduras alone. Thousands more remained missing, including the 31 crew
             members aboard the Windjammer Cruises tourist schooner Fantome, which the
             U.S. Coast Guard was still hunting. Hundreds of thousands were without homes,
             water or food.

             The remnants of the downgraded but relentlessly drenching storm, reduced to a
             tropical depression, moved into Guatemala and southern Mexico. But there was
             scant relief in the clear, warm weather left in its wake. It only made it easier to see
             a region in utter ruin.

             ``This is the worst disaster to befall Honduras in a hundred years,'' said a shaken
             Vice President William Handal, who saw four victims swept away as his
             reconnaissance helicopter attempted a daring rescue. ``This has been a harder
             blow to us than all the 100 military coups we've suffered in our history put
             together, harder than all the 36 civil wars we've gone through put together.''

             Authorities feared that the murderous toll of Mitch, already one of the deadliest
             hurricanes ever to hit Central America, could still skyrocket as searchers scour
             areas that have been isolated by days of intense rain and washed-out roads. The
             fear was particularly acute in northern Nicaragua, where army helicopters
             descended on a scene of horror at four villages near Posoltega, 87 miles northwest
             of Managua, at the foot of the Casitas Volcano.

             Mud and rubble buried the villages Friday after a rain-swollen crater lake near the
             volcano's peak overflowed and caved in the mountainside.

             On Sunday, the first soldiers to reach the area found rotting corpses littering the
             ground and the town a morass of mud. The heads and arms of victims, some of
             them children, stuck out of the mud as if pleading for help. Many bodies were
             nude, their clothes stripped away by the torrent. Others were torn apart. Soldiers
             were burying victims where they lay because of health concerns.

             ``We heard a boom from the mountain, and immediately after, an avalanche of
             mud carried everything away,'' Posoltega Mayor Felicitas Zeledon said. ``People
             tried to escape, but they were swept away along with trees and animals.''

             It was unclear whether many residents of the villages of El Porvenir, Versalles,
             Rolando Rodriguez and Santa Narcisa even had time to try to flee or whether they
             all had been caught asleep in their homes by the avalanche.

             Little hope for missing

             The Red Cross confirmed 471 dead Sunday evening. Only 92 of the estimated
             2,000 area residents were found alive, army spokesman Capt. Milton Sandoval
             said. There was little hope for the others.

             It was unclear whether any residents of the villages of El Porvenir, Versalles,
             Rolando Rodriguez and Santa Narcisa even had time to try to flee or whether they
             all had been caught asleep in their homes by the avalanche.

             Nicaraguan Vice President Enrique Bolaños said as many as 1,500 could have
             been killed in the landslide, but said it was impossible to dig into the rubble far
             enough to locate all the bodies.

             ``We're not sure how many died there, and we may never know,'' he said in a
             televised appearance late Sunday.

             Bolaños said the official death toll stood at 600 -- not including the victims of the
             Posoltega landslide.

             It was unclear whether any residents of the villages of El Porvenir, Versalles,
             Rolando Rodriguez and Santa Narcisa even had time to try to flee or whether they
             all had been caught asleep in their homes by the avalanche.

             Devastating floods

             Across Nicaragua, flood waters left a trail of devastation, cutting off 172 villages
             and destroying at least 24 roads, 35 bridges and 5,066 homes, according to
             Managua authorities. Tens of thousands were homeless and without power or
             water across the country.

             The newspaper El Nuevo Diario called Mitch's death toll ``apocalyptic'' and said it
             may be the worst natural disaster since a magnitude-6.2 earthquake killed more
             than 10,000 people in 1972.

             Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the country's religious leader, was stunned. ``I
             have seen earthquakes, droughts, two wars, cyclones, tidal waves, but this is
             undoubtedly the worst thing I have ever seen.''

             Efforts to simply assess the damage clamed lives. Outside Honduras' capital of
             Tegucigalpa, a helicopter flying over flood zones crashed Sunday, killing an
             unknown number of people, including Tegucigalpa Mayor Cesar Castellanos and
             several journalists.

             In another crash, four Americans and eight others were killed when their plane
             crashed in stormy weather in a remote spot in Guatemala's Quetzaltenango
             province. The identities of the victims, members of an evangelical group, were not
             immediately known.

             In Honduras, the banner headline in La Prensa summed it up: ``Total collapse.''

             Mitch destroyed an estimated 60 percent of the country's infrastructure and left
             more than 300,000 people homeless, including 20,000 in Tegucigalpa. In that city,
             where flooding killed more than 100 people, collapsing bridges broke so many
             water mains that city officials simply shut off the water supply Sunday.

             ``Something horrible has happened to us,'' Finance Minister Gabriela Nuñez said.

             Rescue and resupply

             Honduran authorities concentrated on rescuing flood victims in immediate danger
             and resupplying the rest, using helicopters and boats to reach thousands of people
             still trapped on roofs and in trees on the north coast.

             Even with the improved weather, it was risky. What appeared to be salvation for
             some refugees turned to doom. Two boats struck underwater tree trunks near La
             Lima, a submerged town east of San Pedro Sula, and seven children drowned.

             Vice President Handal, on a reconnaissance flight in the same area, spotted a
             group of 10 struggling to reach ground.

             ``Land on the hilltop over there and let us out,'' he ordered the pilot of his small
             helicopter. ``Then start picking up those people out of the water and bring them

             The copter set down, but its skids got stuck in the mud. As a horrified Handal
             watched, four refugees lost footing and were swept away. ``I have never felt such
             impotence,'' he told The Herald.

             In La Lima, the red zinc roofs of about 300 two-story houses were barely visible,
             most no more than a foot or two above water. Hundreds crowded atop them. On
             one, chickens kept the refugees company.

             As the helicopter approached, some refugees smiled and waved. Many others
             moved their hands to their mouths: We need food. One couple held up a white
             dish towel labeled with large black block letters: AGUA.

             The area was part of a 125-square-mile chunk under water as deep as 50 feet in
             some places. It includes San Pedro Sula's modern new international airport, which
             authorities fear may be lost. From the air, the control tower stood out like a lonely
             lighthouse in a sea of water that still covered the runways and parking lot. From
             marks on the airport walls, the water had dropped five to six feet since it peaked
             Saturday morning.

             Though other regions of the country suffered more damage and deaths, the
             flooding in San Pedro Sula may have the most impact on Honduras' future. The
             plantations and textile factories in the region generate about 60 percent of the
             gross domestic product.

             Worse than Fifi

             ``Hurricane Fifi [in 1974] was nothing compared to this,'' Handal said. ``It took 12
             to 14 years of effort to overcome Fifi. This one will take 30 or 40 years.''

             Conditions were miserable across the entire country, but it was the rising death toll
             that was most on people's minds.

             ``The cold and the hunger aren't important to me,'' said Rita Gomez, whose home
             in Ciudad Dario -- south of the city of Matagalpa -- was washed away in a flood
             that destroyed the town. ``I only want to know if my mother is alive.''

             In El Salvador, 100 people died in the eastern town of Chilanguera when the Rio
             Grande overflowed its banks and swept away 150 small homes, Gov. Mario
             Bettaglio said.

             ``It makes me want to cry,'' he said. ``Chilanguera has been wiped off the map.''

             El Salvador -- which lost at least 144 people -- declared a state of emergency
             Saturday, as did Guatemala, where 21 people died when floods swept away their
             homes. Mexico reported one death from Mitch -- but the dissipating storm was
             projected to move into southern Mexico sometime today. Mitch also claimed
             seven lives in Costa Rica and one in Panama.

             While the once fierce 180-mile-per-hour hurricane winds had dwindled to a mild
             30 mph, the tropical depression still posed flash-flood dangers for Guatemala and
             southern Mexico. The National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade predicted the
             storm would drop five to 10 inches of rain as it moved west at just 8 mph near
             Tapachula, on Mexico's southern Pacific coast near the Guatemalan border.

             The hurricane center also was projecting the storm to begin to turn gradually
             toward the west-northwest, where it could strengthen again if it moves back into
             the Gulf of Mexico.

             Herald staff writers Maria Morales and Frances Robles contributed to this report,
             which also was supplemented by dispatches from The Associated Press, Agence
             France-Presse and EFE, a Spanish news service.

                               Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald