Examining the impact of climate change-induced hurricanes on Central America in November 2020 and asking 'what's next?'
By Isla Kitching-
In the first 3 weeks of November 2020, communities across Central America were battered by two powerful tropical storms, Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota.
Storm Eta, classified as a category 4 hurricane by the National Hurricane Center, swept across the region in the first few days of the month bringing with it heavy rains and strong winds of up to 150 miles per hour. This initial storm caused widespread flooding and mudslides across Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, leading to the loss of life and hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. Rivers burst their banks flooding whole neighbourhoods and the waters rose so high in some communities that houses were almost completely submerged. In many areas, such as in La Lima in northern Honduras, people had no choice but to wait on their house rooftops to be rescued by boat or helicopter. In the worst affected communities, roads, bridges and power lines were damaged or destroyed, farmlands and businesses destroyed or swept away.
Less than two weeks later, a category 5 storm, Iota, struck Nicaragua and moved north devastating communities still reeling from the damage inflicted by Eta. In Nicaragua, it is estimated that more than half of those who were displaced during the first storm had not been able to return to check their homes before the second hurricane arrived. One source from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said “unlike the last storm [Eta] which predominantly hit Northeast Honduras, Iota has hit the whole country. There is flooding all over as well as landslides. Bridges and major roads are washed out and some have cracked open”. Several days after the storm passed overhead, Honduran rivers continued to rise, leading to further flooding. More mudslides are also expected which are extremely dangerous as collapsing hillsides can bury whole houses and villages. In neighbouring Guatemala, over 150 people are already thought to have lost their lives in mudslides associated with this month’s storms.
As a result of flooding and high winds damaging or destroying their homes, thousands of Hondurans are currently reliant on emergency shelters. Some of those who have sought refuge in these shelters were described by one member of a local NGO as “having lost everything except the clothes on their back”. However, many of these shelters are poorly equipped to meet even people’s most basic needs, lacking sufficient drinking water, food, hygiene products and clothing.
It is not unusual for Central American countries to be hit by tropical storms and the region experiences a hurricane season between June and November each year. However, Iota, as the strongest hurricane to occur this late in the hurricane season, has been termed a “record-breaking storm in a record-breaking year.” The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has seen an unprecedented number of named storms - those which are expected to cause a significant amount of damage. This year, officials have had to resort to using names from the Greek alphabet after using all the letters in the traditional alphabet. This is only the second time ever that this has been necessary. Yet, 2020 is part of a wider trend. Since 1996, there have been 16 ‘above normal’ hurricane seasons, a significant increase on previous years.
Scientists believe that human-induced climate change is increasing the frequency and destructiveness of storms. As sea temperatures rise, hurricanes become more frequent and intensify more quickly leaving people with less time to prepare. This was the case with hurricane Iota which, as the Washington Post described, intensified at an “explosive” and “exceptional rate” on Sunday night before hitting the Nicaraguan coast on Monday morning.
And what about Covid-19?
Hurricanes Eta and Iota have wreaked havoc on a region where people and economies have already suffered immensely this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In Honduras, a country where 40 percent of the workforce was unemployed at the start of 2020 and a large majority of people work in the informal economy, a strict lockdown forcing people to stay at home meant a high number of families immediately lost their source of income. The World Food Programme estimates that the inability to work as a result of the pandemic has caused 250,000 families across the country to become food insecure. Whilst people responded by finding new ways to support themselves, fortunately, these new forms of work such as collecting and selling firewood or fruit often pay poorly and are unreliable.
Communities and businesses dependent on tourism for revenues, such as those in the Bay Islands, were also badly affected as the country banned international flights for 6 months to prevent the spread of infection. Unlike in the UK where a furlough scheme has helped to support businesses and pay people’s wages, most Hondurans have received either no or very limited government support. Thus, the context in which November’s hurricanes have caused widespread devastation is one in which people’s resources were already extremely limited and, in many cases, their savings completely depleted.
The chaos which ensued following the storms and particularly the close proximity of people living in overcrowded temporary storm shelters has already led to a marked increase in Covid-19 cases. In Honduras' capital Tegucigalpa, shelters reported a 33% positive testing rate and this is expected to rise further, which, for a country with a weak healthcare system and limited testing capacity, has the potential to be catastrophic. Organizations have also reported they are readying themselves to deal with outbreaks of waterborne and other diseases.
“Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo”
In two separate conversations with different friends over the past few days, I was told the same thing twice “solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” - only the people will save the people. Both informed me that it is the Honduran people who have been delivering supplies, housing and cooking for one another and that they do not have much hope that the government will provide support. The government has come under intense scrutiny from protesters over the past few months accused of mismanaging finances and large-scale corruption relating to the purchase of mobile Covid-19 clinics for US $47 million which failed to materialise.
After Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit Central America, the international community mobilized quickly to send aid to affected communities. Whilst the extent of the devastation produced by November’s storms is considered similar to, if not worse than, the levels caused by Mitch, this time the eyes of the global community are not on Central America. Preoccupied by Coronavirus and their own shrinking financial resources, both attention to the hurricanes and any form of humanitarian response from more developed countries have so far been minimal.
In the months after Mitch destroyed homes and livelihoods, migration from Honduras to the United States increased significantly. During this time, the U.S. Border Patrol reported a 61 percent increase in the number of Hondurans they had caught whilst trying to cross the Mexico-US border. It, therefore, seems likely that a portion of those who have now lost their homes and livelihoods will consider migration to the US in search of safety, work and a better life. A Honduran friend agreed that following the hurricanes he expected migration from Honduras to both the United States and Spain to increase substantially. The Guardian quoted 22-year old Honduran Carlos Pineda as saying “We lost everything in our homes…There’s no work. The best way is to migrate.”
The Global Governance Project defines climate refugees as people forced to move "due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity". Under this definition, those who have been forcibly displaced by hurricanes Eta and Iota may be considered climate refugees. However, climate refugees are not eligible for international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention meaning that this term does not have much tangible value. Whilst many of the Hondurans who migrated to the US in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Mitch received Temporary Protected Status, an immigration status which allowed them to remain in the country legally, the Trump administration has since closed this avenue for people from countries including Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He has also made it extremely difficult for people to seek asylum in the US. There is therefore considerable uncertainty about the prospects of those who may choose to make this journey.
The immediate future for communities experiencing this crisis does not look bright and there can be no doubt that it will take years for these countries to recover. The scale of the repairs and reconstruction of houses, services and infrastructure is immense. However, we should not forget that Honduras and neighbouring countries are resilient; they have been here before. Much research was conducted in the years following Hurricane Mitch into the blunders and best practices of countries in the recovery process with important lessons learnt along the way. Humanitarian crisis responses and development strategies have also developed and improved since this time. It is with much hope, grit and determination that these countries and their people must now embark on the long road to recovery.