Small Improvements in Hurricane Preparedness
By Thelma Mejía - IPS/IFEJ
The aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 marked the beginning of some protection efforts in Honduras, but there is not yet a national policy for reducing the country's vulnerability to hurricanes.
TEGUCIGALPA, Sep 10 (Tierramérica).- With the 2007 hurricane season under way, Honduras shows improved reaction capacity, but the country remains without policies to reduce its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as preventing people from building in flood plains like those devastated nine years ago by Hurricane Mitch, say experts.
In Tegucigalpa alone, one of the areas must vulnerable to flooding, 78 million dollars are needed to improve infrastructure in areas at risk, said the capital's mayor, Ricardo Álvarez, in an interview for this report.
The Choluteca River, which crosses Tegucigalpa, needs to be dredged so that it returns to its original course. That would cost an estimated 4.2 million dollars. But furthermore many people have returned to live along the riverbanks due to the lack of contingency plans, nationally and in the country's 298 municipalities, said the mayor.
There has been some progress, however.
Hurricane Felix, which made landfall in Honduras on Sep. 5, causing intense rains and flooding along some rivers, demonstrated the coordination capacity of state and local agencies under the leadership of the Permanent Commission on Contingencies (COPECO), agreed several experts.
"This was not the case before, not when Mitch happened. There used to be distrust among the institutions and the data were diffuse, confusing. Now we see a more coordinated team, from local governments and at the central level, which allowed a broad process of early warning for the citizens," said Nabil Kawas, meteorologist and professor at the public Autonomous National University of Honduras.
The National Meteorological Service has acquired more experience, he said. Following training in 2005, it can now predict more effectively the amount of rain to fall over certain areas, which allows monitoring of potable water supplies and hydroelectric dams, and to discharge water if levels are high, he explained.
"People have learned to protect themselves and to be aware. There were no deaths (from Hurricane Felix), and that shows we are better off now then when we had to face the impacts of Hurricane Mitch, Kawas said.
Some 7,000 people died in Honduras, and more than 3,000 in Nicaragua, when Mitch thrashed Central America in October 1998. As a result of the disaster, both countries fell back an estimated 20 years in terms of infrastructure and development.
Now the local emergency committees in Tegucigalpa operate with such precision that "it was known, for example, which general store was in a higher risk zone than the others, and the effort to personally convince people to evacuate had positive results," said Mayor Álvarez.
In the neighborhoods where the city government was not able to clean out the sewage drains to prevent flooding, the residents organized to do it themselves.
President Manuel Zelaya pointed to the evacuation of 25,000 people in less than a day as a success.
The early warning system made evacuation possible in four of the country's 18 departments (provinces), mostly in the jungle region of Mosquitia, on the Atlantic coast and the areas along the Nicaraguan border hit by Felix, like Puerto Cabezas and Cabo de Gracias a Dios.
The Mosquitia region, known also as the Mosquito Coast, a vast swath shared by Honduras and Nicaragua, and the forest-covered mountains of the two countries contributed to the weakening of Felix, which made landfall on Sep. 4 as a maximum strength hurricane, so it did not cause severe damages in Honduras, according to the experts consulted for this report.
The hurricane hit one of the most densely forested zones of Central America and "we were saved by a stroke of luck, because if that hurricane had hit somewhere else, it would've destroyed us," commented biologist and university professor Mirna Marín.
In Nicaragua, some 40 people died, 120 disappeared, and 50,000 were left homeless by Felix.
In Marín's opinion, Honduras today is just as vulnerable as it was after Mitch hit almost a decade ago. "People returned to live near the rivers and in flood zones, and there is no government policy to prevent those actions," she said.
Furthermore, "deforestation of watersheds and mountains continues, without stopping to think about their importance in threatening situations like the one we just faced," she said. Forests play an important role in the ability of soil to absorb rain.
The former COPECO commissioner Juan Carlos Elvir believes Honduras is lacking land regulation and budget supports for the emergency and prevention institutions.
"Although we have improved a great deal, management needs to go deeper and there needs to be more aggressive citizen participation," he said.
"We don't yet have a culture for preventing a social behavior of panic like what we experienced these days in the long lines at the shops, supermarkets, banks and gas stations," said Elvir.
* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.