Anthropologist Bill Loker: Eye Witness to Hurricane Mitch

Up-ended trucks and vans are tossed like toys near a coffee warehouse
in Tecucigalpa, Honduras. Bags are filled with ruined coffee. (photo Bill Loker)
The tin roof rattled like radio thunder, threatening to fly off with each new gust of wind. The rain beating down sounded like someone had turned a high pressure fire hose on that same beat-up tin roof. Wind-blown rain swirled into the kitchen through the open eves of the country shack, turning the hard earth floor into mud, dampening firewood and morale. Outside trees creaked and groaned in the wind and the nearby creek roared into a torrent. As I lay in my hammock in the blackness of 2 a.m., it sounded like a high-speed freight train was getting ready to run right through the house. Welcome to Hurricane Mitch in rural Honduras.

More than once that night, I wondered how I would get out of the remote little town where I was doing anthropological research. As I listened to the increasingly desperate radio reports describing area after area of the country devastated by the storm, I soon began to wonder just where I would go. After four days of this, I realized there was really no place to go, no way to get there and that I would have to ride out the storm and its aftermath where I was.

I had heard about the approaching hurricane by radio the weekend before it hit (October 23). I was out making a tour of the region I was studying, visiting small towns and villages around the El Cajón reservoir. The El Cajón dam is the largest in Central America and, at 260 meters tall, one of the ten highest dams in the world. I am studying how the dam has changed peoples' lives—especially their agricultural practices and their other means of making a living. The area where I work is in many ways typical of rural Honduras: extremely poor, dirt roads subject to wash-out and flooding, no electricity, highly isolated, and generally beyond the reach of most government agencies.

When I heard the radio report of a hurricane brewing in the Caribbean I took the information seriously. While hurricanes are infrequent in Central America, when they do hit, they are devastating. Honduras's last experience with a major hurricane was in 1974 when Hurricane Fifi caused tremendous loss of life and material damage on the North Coast and adjacent inland areas. There was no historical memory of a hurricane doing severe damage to interior or southern Honduras. After Mitch, there is.

With the approaching hurricane in the back of my mind, I hurried from Palo de Agua to Mal Paso, a two-hour trek through rugged pine-covered mountains. In Mal Paso and nearby Majadas I interviewed people about their farming practices and expected harvest. On Monday, October 26, I heard an interview with personnel from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The spokesperson warned that Mitch was a category five hurricane and "an extremely dangerous storm" and recommended that all residents of coastal Honduras and low lying areas evacuate immediately. Las Majadas lies across a valley from the town of Montañuelas, where I live while in the field. I feared that the already swollen river separating me from "home" would become impassable. So I cut short further interviewing and headed to Montañuelas.

The walk back was extremely muddy and the river was high. But I successfully forded it on a borrowed mule and arrived home without incident. I found people in town to be singularly unconcerned about the hurricane and its potential destructiveness. I went out and purchased some food supplies: sugar, rice, beans, and flour for me and the family of eleven with whom I lived. I feared that Montañuelas would be isolated by this storm and food supplies could get tight.

On Wednesday morning (October 28) there was a short break in the rain, and I went out with four member of the household to get firewood for cooking purposes. In the middle of that chore the storm roared back to life, soaking us all and provoking a land slide on the trail back to town. We gathered wood and negotiated the landslide and arrived soaking wet back to the house. Later that day, I went down to the res-ervoir's edge to see how much the lake level had risen. It had risen at least five me-ters in two days, it was visibly rising still. The town lies above the maximum lake level and so was not in danger. But many agricultural fields were already under water. The lake level rose nearly 30 meters in six days, an unprecedented rise. Three times more water entered the lake than projected in the "worst case scenario," based on Hurricane Fifi. Mitch was three times worse. The reservoir came perilously close to topping the dam, in which case there would have been a 260- meter waterfall cascading over the dam face. This could have caused dangerous undermining of the dam's foundation and possibly catastrophic failure of the dam. As it was, the dam retained millions of cubic feet of water that reduced the severity of flooding downstream in the coastal areas of the country. While the dam saved coastal portions of Honduras, the rising lake waters meant crop losses for local people.

One of the distressing things about Mitch was its unpre-dictability. The National Hurricane Center expected the storm to move north and west, which would have taken it on a trajectory toward Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. Instead, the storm sat off the coast of Honduras, maintaining its force, battering the island of Guanaja and coastal areas, while it decided which path to take. After remaining nearly stationary for almost 36 hours, the storm then moved south, directly into the center of the coast and into inland Honduras. Mitch waded ashore right around Trujillo on Tuesday, October 27, and moved south and west. By October 30, it moved through Tegucigalpa, the capital and into southern Honduras where it took a tremendous toll in terms of human lives and wrecked havoc on roads, bridges, and buildings.

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