After two hurricanes in a deadly pandemic, communities are left to respond

Written by
Megan Corbett-Thompson, Jessica Farber
Published on
May 29, 2023

On November 5th, ECO-RE, our Honduran partner organization, sent us the news that they were being hit by Hurricane Eta. There were long power outages, bridges were being ripped apart, towns were submerged, and entire cities were without contact. People were fleeing from their homes and had nowhere to go.

Eta had made landfall on Nicaragua’s north-eastern shores as a Category 4 hurricane, and was slowly moving across the northern part of the country, into eastern Honduras. For three days it continued northwestward into Guatemala, Mexico and then dissipating into the Caribbean[1].

Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned in the floods caused by the hurricane. An estimated 4.9 million people were affected across Central America and Mexico [2]. Overall, at least 200 fatalities across Central America were attributed to the storm [3].

In Guatemala, rain tore the side of a mountain collapsing and burying the village of Quejá, in the region of Alta Verapaz, killing dozens of people [4]. In the valley surrounding San Pedro Sula, thousands of people were trapped for days on rooftops without food or water due to the overflow of rivers and flood canals [5].

Overhead photo of flooded homes in Honduras

Our partners in Honduras told us the government had abandoned their people. The authorities did not order evacuations of at-risk areas until the areas were underwater. Hoping to stimulate the economy, the government had scheduled a holiday that weekend. On November 1st information regarding the strength of the storm was released, however a day later officials were encouraging people to go on vacation [6].

Living through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the already fragile country plunged into a devastation reminiscent of that of Hurricane Mitch. The acts of solidarity the citizens demonstrated such as the rescue operations, people opening their homes to those that had lost theirs, food distributions and many more were the only rays of hope pushing people forward.

Temporary shelters for the displaced were set up by citizens and the government. According to official reports, 55,300 people in Honduras and 17,600 people in Guatemala were in shelters as of November 15th [7]. Shelter conditions were dire, with many reporting overcrowding, incidents of gender-based violence, family separation, a lack of food, potable water, electricity, non-food items and health supplies, and inadequate COVID-19 prevention measures [8].

Community Natural Disaster Planning

Community Natural Disaster Planning

“Receiving inputs from professionals from diverse contexts and backgrounds we adapted the CommunityFirst COVID-19 Roadmap to support community-led responses in the face of natural disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

ECO-RE had been providing food baskets and other essential supplies to these shelters located around Tegucigalpa and in the Northern regions of the country, and wanted to do more to provide dignified support to the thousands of displaced.

Since July, SeeChange and ECO-RE have worked together to accompany the Indigenous Lenca community of Reitoca as they used the CommunityFirst COVID-19 Roadmap to strengthen their pandemic response. Our colleagues at ECO-RE suggested that we adapt the COVID-19 Roadmap methodology for disaster response purposes.

With community health experts and natural disaster emergency logistics experts, we drafted the CommunityFirst Roadmap for Dignified Shelters. Receiving inputs from professionals from diverse contexts and backgrounds we adapted the CommunityFirst COVID-19 Roadmap to support community-led responses in the face of natural disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of this Roadmap is to promote access to a safe, protected and dignified environment for those affected by a crisis, with a special lens on vulnerable populations.

Three days later on November 16th, a second hurricane hit. Hurricane Iota, the 30th named storm of the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever recorded, had reached a Category 5, with winds of over 245 km/h, it wrecked the islands of the outlying Colombian Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina [9]. Becoming the first Category 5 hurricane to strike Colombia directly, the storm destroyed 98 percent of the infrastructure of the island of Providencia [10].

As Iota made landfall in Nicaragua as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, only 24 km south of where Eta had previously made landfall 13 days prior [11], our partners on the ground were bracing for this second much larger storm. SeeChange organized a call with the community members in Reitoca in the department of Francisco Morazán and Amapala, an island in the department of Valle.

“I feel more safe knowing that we have a Roadmap to follow. This Roadmap is not only for now, but for what’s to come.”


Leader of the Organized Women of Reitoca

The community members expressed that the roadmap reinforced their decision-making capacities in the face of a natural disaster; whether to evacuate or to stay in their homes, how to set up a refuge in the safest space in the community, identifying which community members were the most vulnerable and would need to relocate.

The roadmap is divided into four sections: alert, organize, prepare and respond, and supports communities to mobilize their resources and knowledge in the face of a natural disaster. “I feel more safe knowing that we have a Roadmap to follow,” Raquel, a leader of the Organized Women of Reitoca, shared. “This Roadmap is not only for now, but for what’s to come.”

Hurricane Iota cut a path nearly identical to Eta across Central America [12]. The impact was extremely severe; Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua alone reported at least 7.3 million people affected between the storms [13]. The back-to-back storms drove 404,000 people to shelters in Honduras and Guatemala [14]. The repercussions of the two hurricanes could cause the level of poverty in Honduras, already at more than 60%, to rise by 10% surpassing 70% of the population according to analysts [15].

The end of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke records with the most named storms in history. Hurricane Iota was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic this late in the year [16]. This year the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published empirical data confirming that global warming is making hurricanes stronger, wetter and generally more destructive [17].

Eta and Iota’s aftermath, combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, yielded health, ecological and economic consequences on a mass scale that will be seen for decades to come. The destruction of the countries affected, together with the effects of gang violence and climate change making subsistence agriculture increasingly difficult, is likely to spur a new wave of migration. Without basic rights being provided by the government, the people are left to rely on each other. Communities, especially indigenous communities, are at the frontline in the response to the hurricanes and the pandemic, and we must support their efforts to reinforce long-term sustainable solutions.

Photos by ECO-REColectiva de Mujeres Jóvenes Feministas en San Pedro Sula

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