Local News

Honduras Appeals for International Aid for Storm's Victims

Posted November 1, 1998 6:00 a.m. EST

— With 7,000 people feared dead in Honduras alone, the government appealed today for international aid and rescue workers warned of rampant starvation and illness if the country's shattered bridges and washed-out roads are not quickly rebuilt.

Hurricane Mitch, which killed an estimated 9,000 people throughout Central America, has turned Honduras' largest cities into virtual islands accessible only by air.

Foreign Minister Fernando Martinez led foreign diplomats on a tour of devastated areas of the capital, Tegucigalpa. President Carlos Roberto Flores appealed for temporary bridges, food and other help.

Transportation also remains difficult in neighboring Nicaragua, where despair over the lack of food and water prompted a crowd to hurl insults at their president Tuesday.

Mitch moved over the Yucatan peninsula late Tuesday and was forecast to head toward Florida later this week, although its 45 mph winds were but a shadow of the 180 mph gusts last week. Forecasters said they did not expect it regain hurricane strength.

Many rural communities in Honduras have had no communication with the outside world since the storm began last week. With fuel in short supply, few areas can keep power plants running - and that means no electricity for water pumps.

``We have food,'' Lt. Col. Jose J. Barahona said as 8,800 pounds of supplies were being unloaded from a U.S. Air Force cargo plane Tuesday in the northern city of Trujillo. ``The problem is the areas that are only reachable by helicopter - and we don't have enough.''

Floods and mudslides caused by Mitch were blamed for deaths across a broad, 500-mile corridor from Nicaragua into southern Mexico, from Honduras' Atlantic Coast to the Pacific.

The scope of the disaster across Central America overwhelmed relief efforts. Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman was jeered Tuesday by flood victims during a visit to Leon, 55 miles north of Managua. Up to 1,950 people were believed to have been killed nearby when a mudslide crashed down the flanks of a volcano after days of torrential rains.

``Murderer! We're dying of hunger!'' the refugees shouted. Administration officials claimed political opponents orchestrated the incident.

Preliminary estimates indicate that 7,000 people died in Honduras - a number that could rise as more reports from isolated areas come in, Col. Rene Osorio of the national emergency commission said.

In addition, he said 11,100 people were missing and 1 million were homeless.

At least 300 people have been arrested in Tegucigalpa for violating a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew imposed to prevent looting and robberies, police said.

The Honduran and Nicaraguan ambassadors to the United States said Tuesday that at least 70 percent of the infrastructure in their countries was destroyed. Roads, bridges, telephone lines and almost every other means of communication have been wiped out by flooding and mudslides.

Barahona, an emergency official in the Honduran province of Colon, said workers have been unable to reach up to 12,000 of the area's 100,000 residents because of damaged roads.

Some Trujillo residents said the food isn't getting to those who need it most.

``There's nothing here,'' said Luisa Argentina Aguilar, who was left homeless with her two children, mother and sister when the storm blew the roof off her house.

She suspected that food packages were going first to influential families. ``They're not giving them to the poor people,'' she said.

The devastated infrastructure also is impeding fuel distribution - important to keeping aid trucks, planes and helicopters moving.

``We have enough fuel to last about five or six days,'' said Col. Alfredo San Martin, the Honduran air force chief of staff.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ricardo Aguilar said a Blackhawk helicopter had planned to fly to the Pacific port of Amapla, to examine road conditions near an oil refinery. Poor weather forced it to turn back.

``The key is getting the fuel into the cities,'' he said. ``If we don't get fuel in the cities, it will be utter chaos.''

Along with emergency supplies, the United States sent more than two dozen military aircraft and 500 military personnel to assist with air surveillance and rescue missions.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, whose country was working to send a dozen military planes and 28 helicopters, called President Clinton on Tuesday to urge a large-scale international aid effort. Zedillo's office said Clinton was ``highly sympathetic'' and pledged to review aid work.

Chaos reigned in northern Nicaragua, where a mudslide Friday from the Casitas volcano buried hundreds of people under tons of mud and rocks.

Rescuers saw four men buried up to their chests screaming for help late Monday on the slopes of Casitas, where bodies dotted wide fields of mud. The rescuers could not reach the men - blocked by 200 yards of quaking, unstable mud.

Just 22 miles away from Casitas, the Cerro Negro volcano began erupting Tuesday, and Mitch re-formed as a weak tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the volcanic eruption, lava flowed down Cerro Negro's nearly 3,300-foot northern face into an apparently unpopulated area.

Elsewhere in Central Ameria, Guatemala had 157 dead, 100,000 homes damaged and at least 30 highways blocked after Hurricane Mitch swept through. El Salvador reported 225 dead, 135 missing and 50,000 homeless. Six people died in Mexico and 31 were missing from a schooner in the Caribbean.

Florida's southern Gulf Coast has already felt effects from Mitch. Rain across the state and a cold front were caused by the approaching storm, said Michelle Huber, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

``We're not forecasting it to be a hurricane,'' Huber said. ``We're forecasting it to remain a tropical storm for the remainder of its life.''