With Hurricane Iota becoming the second major hurricane to hit Central America this November, relief agencies have tried to prepare for even more destruction and have appealed for donations and support from around the world.
“Right now the world’s attention is focused elsewhere,” Conor Walsh, Catholic Relief Services’ manager in Honduras, told CNA's Spanish-language sister agency ACI Prensa Nov. 16 before Iota made landfall.
“It’s been a little hard to get resources together to be able to respond effectively considering the scale of this emergency, but we’re doing what we can and we’re reaching out to all people of good will.”
“We are fully aware that there are other emergencies the world is dealing with right now. Let us not overlook Central America,” he said. “Let us not forget our brothers and sisters here in Honduras because they are suffering, and they are very very close to the United States. We should extend a helping hand.”
Hurricane Iota briefly reached Category 5 hurricane strength, then made landfall in Nicaragua Monday night with sustained winds of 155 mph, a Category 4 hurricane. It weakened to a Category 2 strength storm, with 105 mph winds, before becoming a tropical storm, National Public Radio reports.
The storm brought “catastrophic winds, life-threatening storm surge, and torrential rainfall,” the National Hurricane Center said. At least four adults and two minors were killed in Nicaragua, which lost electrical power along almost its entire coast. Tens of thousands of people took refuge in government shelters.
At least two people died on the Colombian island of Providencia, where 112 people were evacuated on Tuesday, CNN reports. The infrastructure on the island was completely wiped out. It is the first recorded Category 5 storm to hit the island and its neighbor San Andres.
Iota is the 30th named storm this season, and the strongest storm of the season. It follows soon after the Nov. 4 landfall of Hurricane Eta, which hit Nicaragua, Guatemala, and southern Belize.
“The situation in Honduras is already critical,” Walsh said before Iota’s landfall. “After Eta came through, thousands of people were displaced from their homes in the north. They’re living in shelters now. They’ve lost everything.”
“In more vulnerable rural communities, farmers lost their crops. This was just before they were going to harvest their bean crops and their corn, two basic staples,” said Walsh.
“Iota is expected to be worse. It is going right through the center of the country,” he said. “We’re bracing for the worst.”
Timothy Hansell, manager of Catholic Relief Services in Nicaragua, told National Public Radio that the relief agency aims to provide cleaning supplies and toilet paper to local residents, rebuild homes, and help farmers recover.
Caribbean coastal indigenous communities were among the hardest hit by Eta’s strong winds and floodwaters, he said. Many of their homes were destroyed. Nicaraguan farmers in the northern and central parts of the country lost as much as 50% of their bean crops, with heavy damage to rice, corn and vegetables.
Likewise, the immediate situation in Honduras is “a very, very critical situation,” Walsh said.
Catholic Relief Services is the U.S. bishops’ foreign relief agency. There are about 60 CRS staff based in Nicaragua’s national capital of Tegucigalpa, the city of San Pedro, and La Esperanza in the west of the country. They normally focus on improving agriculture, water supply and education. Aiding youth vulnerable to exploitation and unemployment is another area of their work.
“All of these programs are being interrupted now because of the emergency,” Walsh said. “We’re using whatever funding we can to provide immediate assistance for the families that have been so badly affected.”
There is great need for drinking water, food supplies, and biosafety equipment like masks, antiseptic gel and soap. There are fears that crowding at hurricane shelters will lead to the spread of coronavirus infections.
“People who are in shelters, for the most part, had to leave their homes without anything, much less a mask,” Walsh explained. “The conditions for propagation of COVID are rife in those shelters.”
According to Walsh, Honduras “is suffering the effects of climate change, and it is not responsible for this.”
“It is our duty as human beings to respond to that in a way that recognizes our common humanity,” he said.
Scientists say a changing climate and hotter oceans have contributed to stronger hurricanes. The water in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico is consistently 2 degrees hotter than a century ago, according to National Public Radio.
“Honduras is starting from a very vulnerable point to begin with,” Walsh continued. “Even without the hurricanes, even without COVID, Honduras was teetering on the edge because it’s such a poor country and it’s been so hard hit by climate change.”
The country is suffering an “acute food insecurity situation” with low food supplies after several seasons of drought.
“And add to that COVID. COVID locked down the economy. It closed markets. It made it even harder for people to make a living or an income,” said Walsh. “Now, what little is left, Eta damaged, and hurricane Iota is going to finish off.”
“What is going to be the result? In all likelihood, people who have lost everything are going to feel they have no option but to migrate. It’s going to translate into stronger migration pressures once again,” he added.
Walsh encouraged better ways of thinking about Honduras and its people.
“We have to get past this notion that Honduras is a source of problems or a source of migrants that we don’t want. It’s a neighbor of ours. It’s a place of great suffering, where poverty and exclusion explain why so many choose to leave the country,” he said. “The more that we can help Hondurans in Honduras, the better.”
Catholic Relief Services is accepting donations for hurricane relief through its website, www.crs.org.