In Honduras’s Sula Valley, where two deadly hurricanes barreled through less than two weeks apart, aid workers on the ground are describing whole communities underwater. People stranded on roofs, waiting to be rescued by the helicopters whirring overhead. Overcrowded shelters, with many families huddled in temporary shelters or under overpasses when shelter space isn’t available.
“I see destruction, devastation. I see people without hope, people still on the streets,” said Pascual Torres, a lawyer, reverend, and chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras, who co-founded the aid group Siempre Unidos.
Hurricane Eta, which made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on November 3, cut a devastating path through Central America, killing at least 178 and causing untold damage. Sula Valley, already soaked by winter rains, experienced several feet of flooding.
Then, Hurricane Iota followed on November 16, following a remarkably similar path and deluging the Sula Valley – again. The death toll stands at more than 60 thus far, and approximately 200,000 people are displaced.
“This time, the water came in so fast that people had a hard time getting out of harm’s way,” said Chet Thomas, executive director of the Honduras-based NGO Proyecto Aldea Global. “Today there’s 10 to 12 feet of water over the entire valley.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to get over this. It’s going to take years,” Torres said.
As Central America reels from the impact of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, Direct Relief, supported by FedEx, has sent seven emergency shipments to the region, with a total value of almost $10 million. The pallets contained a large variety of emergency medical aid, including antibiotics, antifungals, chronic disease medications, PPE, and wound care supplies.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” said Cydney Justman, a senior emergency response manager at Direct Relief. “We have a really, really long history there, so we’re really set up to respond.”
On the Ground
Thomas said that, when Hurricane Iota came through, things could – conceivably – have been worse. “To me, it’s amazing that more people didn’t drown,” he said, explaining that, while many people had evacuated when Hurricane Eta tore through, many still remained. “They were still getting them out when the second storm came in.”
Sula Valley, which is home to agricultural and industrial industries in Honduras, is far from a wealthy area. Thomas explained that people will often work for years to afford a refrigerator or furniture.
But when the hurricanes came, some insisted on staying where they were, terrified of losing their possessions. “We still have people in the middle of the valley who won’t leave their homes…thinking people would be coming through to raid the houses,” Thomas said.
For the same reason, Torres said, some people insist on staying as close as possible to their home. “They’re anxious to see what really happened – what can they rescue, what can they protect?”
Torres described one woman who barely had time to grab her 11-year-old daughter and get to the roof before waters tore through their house.
“She was crying, and I was almost about to cry too. Her body was sitting right in front of me, but her mind was confused,” he said. “She was not able still to comprehend the magnitude of what she’s been through.
And while aid groups are active on the ground, Torres said that there are challenges to providing care.
“This morning, we spent quite some time trying to reach some of our beneficiaries who will get food, but we just couldn’t get through,” he said. “We will try again tomorrow.”
For one thing, Torres said, the local airport is completely underwater. It’s dangerous to attempt to traverse the contaminated water to deliver aid. And gang activity, he added, makes it more dangerous to get help to the people who most need it.
Torres and Thomas both expressed great concern for the people unable to find room in shelters and living on the streets. But even the shelters, where Torres has visited, are not ideal. He described people crowded together and not wearing masks.
“It’s not a safe place to be. It’s not a good place to be a woman or a girl, but it’s better than to be out there, considering the situation,” he said.
Whatever is Needed
Despite the challenges, aid groups are working to procure medicines, food, building materials, and other necessities for those displaced.
Proyecto Aldea Global has been distributing family hygiene kits to people living on the streets, along with providing weekly food bags for families in need.
The medicine kits contain everything from disinfectant – to protect against Covid infection – to menstrual hygiene supplies to medications designed to ameliorate the symptoms of diseases like malaria and dengue that are associated with wet conditions. “Dengue will be one of the next big things that will be coming up,” Thomas predicted.
The kits also include chlorine tablets to disinfect water. To Thomas’s concern, he’s seen displaced people filling water bottles with what he fears is contaminated water. “People do it. They get desperate,” he said.
The organization plans to start medical brigades, with doctors, nurses, and other volunteer health workers, over the next couple of days, to provide care to those experiencing acute problems as well as chronic conditions like diabetes and respiratory issues.
In addition, the organization has distributed more than 10,000 food bags thus far, and has teamed up with other NGOs to gather and distribute donated clothing, blankets, and other much-needed supplies. “People began to respond like I’ve never seen before…they brought good food, and good blankets and mattresses,” Thomas said.
Siempre Unidos, which runs two clinics in the country, is doing whatever is needed, Torres said, including transporting people, visiting them in their homes, passing out food, and delivering medication. “We are doing almost everything,” Torres said.
The most-needed items, Siempre Unidos’s staff members are finding, are food, small tabletop stoves, and building materials.
“Whoever delivers health services in the middle of this situation needs to keep healthy in mind, body and spirit,” Torres said. “It’s easy to be brought down by the whole situation.”
And the emergency response is just the beginning. “There are complete communities are gone, and roads and bridges and transportation. The whole infrastructure of the country has been damaged,” Torres said. “The future is going to take a long long way to recover, if we are able to do that ever.”
Justman explained that, while the shipments Direct Relief has sent will help with the immediate response, the situation will require long-term support and involvement.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said. “The immediate infusion of medical aid is obviously critical, but what happens afterward to sustain the health system that’s been compromised…that’s really what’s going to make the difference and help resiliency and recovery efforts over the next few years.”