The Miami Herald
November 1, 1998
Rain adds to storm's deadly toll
Honduras hit hard by floods

             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 was still

             Only a few details were available on what may turn out to be the biggest single
             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 had
             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 reports from
             rescue workers.

             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 in
             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 in
             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, it
             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 terrain,''
             hurricane forecaster John Guiney said. ``And that's good.''

             Yes, but also bad. That mountainous terrain is veined with river valleys. There are
             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 Hondurans
             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 recover
             from such a tragedy,'' said Col. Anael Perez, spokesman for Honduras' Permanent
             Emergency Commission.

             ``The forces of nature are hammering us in every inch of the national territory,'' said
             a grim-faced Gen. Mario Pacheco Hung, head of the Honduran armed forces.

             Flood devastation

             In Nicaragua, floods left a trail of devastation, cutting off 172 villages and
             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 -- and
             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 said. ``All
             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 a frigate,
             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 the equal
             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 from the
             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 Apanás,
             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
             Sebaco River.

             Power cut in capital

             The flooding in Tegucigalpa left 60 percent of the city without electricity and 80
             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 Chulateca
             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 turned into
             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 river
             eventually reaching the third floor.

             At first daylight, military helicopters began plucking survivors from rooftops and
             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 nature
             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
             city streets.

             ``I went out to help some relatives this morning and I just couldn't believe what I
             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