Devastation From Up Above
Posted December 22, 1998 6:00 a.m. EST
NICARAGUA — "It's hard to tell there was actually a town there, all you can see is a scar that was left. And everything was buried," says the voice of W02 Josue Moldanado. "It actually looks like farmland now with a big pile of mud in the middle. You cannot tell where the houses were originally."
Moldanado is one of several military pilots in Nicaragua who has been flying over the devastation of Hurricane Mitch for weeks. The pilots say sometimes you have to just see the area from the air to believe it.
The mud slides in the hills of Nicaragua have permanently changed the landscape. They have also changed the lives of the people who live there. More than 2,000 people have died, and twice that number are either injured or missing.
The mud slides swallowed everything in their path, cutting through villages, crops and mountains.
"Just by looking at the map you can see where there used to be a town," says W02 Randy Shnowski, Blackhawk pilot. "And as you fly over the mud slide area there's nothing there."
Crumbling dams serve as a reminder of nature's brute force. Lakes which were once crystal clear are now filled with mud. Roads vital to reaching hurricane victims have been washed out.
"I guess there are not many roads in this country and the ones they do have are pretty important," another voice over a radio says.
Equally important to U.S. leaders are the political implications of the mission. Nicaragua used to be known as the "dark continent," and was off-limits to American troops.
"We were the first Americans to really set foot in any kind of official capacity in Nicaragua in the last 20 years," says Col. Virgil Packett, Task Force Aguila Commander.
Packett, who is heading up U.S. forces in Central America, says this mission is a great diplomatic opportunity.
"This is obviously going to have strong implications for our relations into the next century," says Packett.
U.S. troops say they are already seeing results
"The Nicaraguan people are very thankful for our presence here," says one soldier. "They greet us with open arms. They let us into their homes, they want to talk with us, share with us. They want to know our experiences. It's great. I love it."
Fort Bragg soldiers can expect to be in Central America until mid-February, but there will still be ongoing humanitarian aid needed there.
Packett says U.S. troops will probably continue working on rebuilding projects in Central America for years to come.