A view of the Honduran capital.
Credit: Photo Stock
Inventory of Mitch's Cultural Destruction
By Thelma Mejía
Historians, restoration experts, filmmakers and geographers are researching and documenting the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch a decade ago to the cultural heritage of Honduras.
TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 17 (Tierramérica).- When Hurricane Mitch thrashed Honduras and a large portion of Central America in 1998, the scale of the disaster clouded the realization that the winds and rains had also taken a heavy toll on cultural, artistic and historic heritage.
From Oct. 22 to Nov. 5, 1998, Mitch churned across the Caribbean, Central America, southern Mexico and the southern United States. In Honduras the hurricane left 6,500 people dead and 9,000 disappeared, more than 300,000 people without homes, 60 percent of the road network destroyed and 4 billion dollars in economic losses. In the years that followed, there was no space to think about other types of damage.
"We forgot about the events that marked the historic calendar and that Hurricane Mitch left us, especially for remembering who we are, where we come from and where we are headed," historian Darío Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), told Tierramérica.
Euraque and a group of historians, restoration experts, filmmakers and geographers have dedicated themselves to the task of investigating and documenting Mitch's impact on Honduran cultural heritage, a decade later.
It is not easy, "because there are almost no texts, the local literature is very scant, and that poses an enormous challenge for how to recover what was lost in order to begin to build the future memory," he commented.
What has been determined so far is that the greatest damage was the destruction of historic documents.
Historian Daniela Navarrete told Tierramérica that "it is normal for us to focus on human lives, roads, housing and the rest," but "a multidisciplinary reflection on our vulnerable cultural wealth must also be carried out."
The old Tegucigalpa neighborhoods of El Edén, Concordia, Miramesí, El Jazmín and Barrio Abajo were hit hard by Mitch. Last month, when heavy rains fell, causing 100 million dollars in damage, the residents of those areas had to be evacuated because geological faults were detected.
The San Cayetano church in El Edén came tumbling down before the astonished faces of the neighbors, who tried to return home despite the cracks in the ground and in their homes.
El Edén, Miramesí and Concordia, part of the historic city core, have had faults running through them since the early 1900s. They are also home to vast cultural wealth.
On Nov. 7, IHAH presented "A Qualitative Balance of Hurricane Mitch," by Honduran author Leticia Oyuela, who passed away less than a year ago.
In the book, Oyuela points out that Tegucigalpa was originally a mining center -- founded by the Spaniards in 1578 on top of an already existing town --, which is why it was built in the mountains, where its steep, narrow streets were once surrounded by pine forests.
The forests no longer exist, replaced by impoverished suburbs. The deforestation meant the loss of a cool climate and clean air in the capital, located 990 meters above sea level.
The spread of shantytowns, says Navarrete, grew more acute after the hurricane. Today they are known as "Mitch colonies" and they demonstrate the lack of urban planning and the weaving of a new social fabric that has not yet been studied.
The National Institute of Statistics divides the urban areas into three categories: large, medium and small. They have to have more than 2,500 inhabitants and basic services like water, sewage systems and electricity.
As a result of the hurricane at least 80 of the 100 urban centers identified suffered severe damage, deterioration of cultural heritage and, especially, losses of archives.
The flooding of the Choluteca River, which crosses Tegucigalpa, destroyed libraries, family histories, antiques, colonial homes from the 17th century (emblematic of the Andalucian neighborhood La Joya), and the art museum of poet and author Clementina Suárez (1902-1991).
Just 20 paintings were salvaged from Suárez's collection, including valuable works by Salvadoran, Honduran and Costa Rican artists. IHAH is restoring five of those pieces.
The flood destroyed the historic centre of the city that held the offices of the government-run electrical company, whose walls were torn from their foundations. The mural by artist Arturo López Rodezno was saved -- it depicts the relationships of production and labor -- but today has been abandoned and now serves as a refuge for the homeless.
Only now "do we understand that hurricanes don't stay on the coasts. We have to educate ourselves about the threats and about how to protect our cultural heritage or we will be left without history," said geographer Ramón Rivera, of the Autonomous National University of Honduras.
Natural disasters could have caused the disappearance of the Maya empire, which had one of its main settlements in western Honduras, noted Navarrete. "We don't want that to happen again," she said.
* IPS correspondent.