GLENN GARVIN and ARNOLD MARKOWITZ
Herald Staff Writers
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- The lethal remnants of Hurricane Mitch
poured Saturday across the Comayagua Mountains to attack urban centers on the
other side of Honduras and Nicaragua, with results so deadly that the governments
of the two countries were struck dumb.
New rain, coupled with mountain runoff from six days of continuous downpours,
sent flood waters rushing through the capital cities of Tegucigalpa and Managua,
taking an unknown number of victims to watery graves and leaving thousands of
others clinging to roofs, waving frantically for rescue boats and helicopters.
The death toll for seven countries since the storm hit reached 475 and
Only a few details were available on what may turn out to be the biggest
disaster of the weeklong storm. A giant wall of mud thundered down a northern
Nicaragua mountainside, completely burying the town of Posoltega.
Only 57 of the 2,500 people in 10 communities at the foot of Caistas Volcano
been accounted for by Saturday night, Mayor Felicita Zeledon of Posoltega told
Radio Nicaragua. Rescue workers had pulled 58 bodies from the mud, she said.
``It is like a desert littered with buried bodies,'' Zeledon said, citing
A Nicaraguan army spokesman said about 1,200 people there had been
evacuated earlier, as the waters of the Posoltega River began to rise.
For the second day in a row, a prison wall collapsed -- this one in La
Ceiba on the
north coast -- and 10 inmates were shot dead trying to escape, while 45 were
The toll from the flooding in the two nations' capitals was unclear. Authorities
both countries refused to even guess the number of drowning victims. There may
be many still submerged. Tegucigalpa television showed at least a dozen bodies
that washed up along city streets.
Official reports Saturday put Central America's rising death toll at 231
Honduras, 179 in Nicaragua, 40 in El Salvador, 16 in Guatemala, seven in Costa
Rica and one each in Panama and Mexico. Hundreds more were missing and tens
of thousands stranded or homeless.
Honduras' relief agency, the Permanent Commission for Emergencies (COPECO),
warned that its report of 231 deaths was conservative and likely to rise.
A persistent storm
On satellite picture screens at the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade,
was easy to see that Mitch was not over, although its 35-mph wind speed made it
merely a tropical depression. The wind, a devastating 150 mph when it hit the Bay
Islands off the north coast of Honduras, was never that bad on the mainland.
``I think it's going to keep weakening as it goes across the mountainous
hurricane forecaster John Guiney said. ``And that's good.''
Yes, but also bad. That mountainous terrain is veined with river valleys.
many towns like Posoltega. With additional totals of 5 to 10 inches of rain still
forecast, their vulnerability to calamity is obvious.
The newest blows from the storm that seemingly will never end left the
and Nicaraguans struggling for words to describe a disaster that has overwhelmed
all emergency response systems.
``Almost everything is damaged or destroyed, and it will be difficult to
from such a tragedy,'' said Col. Anael Perez, spokesman for Honduras' Permanent
``The forces of nature are hammering us in every inch of the national territory,''
a grim-faced Gen. Mario Pacheco Hung, head of the Honduran armed forces.
In Nicaragua, floods left a trail of devastation, cutting off 172 villages
destroying at least 24 roads, 35 bridges and 5,066 homes, according to Managua
President Arnoldo Aleman declared nine of the country's 16 provinces disaster
So far, only the United States, which has pledged $75,000 in supplies --
which flew in State Department representatives Saturday to listen to pleas for help
-- has acted to aid Nicaragua. More than three times as much U.S. aid has been
sent to Belize, which was barely touched by the hurricane.
``There is a total `little brother' complex here,'' a sympathetic diplomat
the headlines have been about Honduras, and it seems like hardly anyone knows
we had a storm here, too. We're suffering at least as badly as they are.''
Honduras' pleas for foreign help have brought results: Great Britain sent
the HMS Sheffield, which carries a helicopter and a 300-member crew. Taiwan
said it would give Honduras $500,000. The U.S. offered $125,000 for emergency
food and medical supplies. France and Spain promised to help. So did El Salvador
and Nicaragua, but that was before they became victims themselves.
Certainly the dimensions of the flooding in Nicaragua on Saturday were
of anything in Honduras. Lake Managua, up 120 feet in the past 10 days,
swallowed several ramshackle neighborhoods on its shores in a single slow-motion
gulp during the early hours Saturday.
The lake has risen so high that the narrow bridge of land separating it
larger Lake Nicaragua 20 miles to the south has disappeared, merging them into
one giant inland sea. The town of Tipitapa, where the two lakes merged, is now
under seven feet of water.
The release of flood waters that threaten to break apart a dam at Lake
scheduled for late Saturday, could swell the lake even further. Apanás, in the
Isabelia Mountains, is about 50 air miles north of Managua, behind a dam on the
Power cut in capital
The flooding in Tegucigalpa left 60 percent of the city without electricity
percent without telephones. Gasoline stations imposed informal rationing on their
own, limiting purchases to about $7.50 per person.
Mitch launched its blow at Tegucigalpa in the middle of the night. The
River, which bisects the city, rose slowly all day Friday. But at 11:30 p.m., it was
holding steady. The city went to bed.
Then, between midnight and 3 a.m., the river blew out of its banks and
a spread at least three blocks wide. Thousands of flimsy squatters' shacks were
submerged without warning, entire families swept away as they slept.
A nearby hospital barely managed to evacuate before it was engulfed, the
eventually reaching the third floor.
At first daylight, military helicopters began plucking survivors from rooftops
trees. They saved hundreds -- but not everyone. One helicopter crew, still in
obvious shock, told of seeing a whole family swept from a roof in the Loarque
neighborhood as rescue ladders dangled a few feet away.
The worst and best
As disasters always do, the storm has brought out both the worst in human
and the best. Tegucigalpa taxi drivers doubled their fares, supermarkets raised
prices, shoppers were hoarding. But silent strangers pressed wads of cash into the
hands of a haggard, broken man trudging along a sidewalk with the lifeless body of
an infant on his shoulder.
In flooded La Ceiba, a civilian armada of one-man rescue rowboats and small
launches helped stranded victims down from chimneys and treetops.
Nearly every major bridge in Tegucigalpa has been destroyed or is too weakened
to use. The battered corpses of brand-new Mercedes-Benzes, Toyotas, Fiats and
GM vehicles, swept from a cluster of riverside car dealerships, are scattered about
``I went out to help some relatives this morning and I just couldn't believe
saw,'' security consultant Oscar Alvarez said. ``It looked like a bomb hit us.
People talk about Hurricane Fifi [in 1974], but no way was it worse than this.''
This report was supplemented by dispatches from the Associated Press, Agence
France-Presse and EFE, a Spanish news service.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald