NOVEMBER 6, 1998
I got home today.
I can’t believe, as I read the previous pages I’ve written, how dense I was. I missed all the foretelling incidents and I had no idea of the horror that was about to happen to Central America in the form of Hurricane Mitch.
Sure, I saw reports of a hurricane forming out in the Caribbean. I never connected it with the heavy rains in Bluefields that ruined the craft fair there, but that was just the fringe of the storm and the forecast was that the hurricane was going to turn and go north, turning up the eastern coast of Honduras and maybe hit Mexico. Bluefields was lucky only to receive a drenching. I just hoped that the hurricane would blow itself out at sea before I was to fly home on October 31st.
Early in the week of October 25th the radio station reported that a man made his way across swollen streams and fields of mud, he said, in the northern part of Nicaragua, trying to reach a small town. He said they had no transportation and no communication and there was so much water and rain where he came from that there were five families of campesinos (farm workers) who had had no food for five days..
It was reported as an isolated incident.
The weather report said Hurricane Mitch was going to hit the Yucatan Peninsula. No one in Nicaragua was alarmed.
The next report was that Hurricane Mitch was stationary over Honduras, and Nicaragua would get a lot of rain, particularly in the León-Chinandega area. We’d been having rain every day for so long I think we all mostly just shrugged. People in little mountain towns were asking for water to drink and food and plastic, please, rolls of black plastic to keep the rain off. It was duly reported and fairly well forgotten, I think.
Wednesday the wind and the rain hit. The houses in Nicaragua – the ones I’ve been in, anyway – don’t have ceilings, the ceiling and the roof being one and the same thing. The area between the top of the wall and the roof is usually pretty well open so air can move through the house. There are often openwork decorative concrete blocks in a row near the top of the wall, or set in blocks to give the effect of a window, but also for air circulation in that hot climate.
I was staying at Danelia’s house then. Her house has a clay tile roof and it has leaks. The roof is high and steep and large, so she can’t afford to repair it.
With the wind blowing hard when I went to bed Wednesday night I could feel fine, mist-like spray on me. I didn’t say anything because everyone fusses so about me, and it wasn’t cold. My bed was a cot on one side of a room, where Danelia and Lucia shared a bed on the other side. I slept a bit, then woke to see Lucia had moved to the foot of the bed, curled up in a corner at the foot, and Danelia had her colcha wrapped around her and was sitting huddled at the foot, trying to avoid the leaks that hadn’t been there before. The fine mists over me had turned into big drops that hit me in the face. I said nothing, turned and must have gone back to sleep because soon I was awakened by Danelia shaking my shoulder. “Elenita, todo está agua aquí.” (Everything’s water here.) There was at least an inch of water on the floor, my blanket was soaking wet but it wasn’t cold, and water was dripping everywhere while the wind screamed and whipped overhead.
We went to a small room at the back of the house that has a corrugated metal roof where the whole family was gathered, sitting on chairs, trying to stay out from under water leaks.
They must have thought I was a real dumbhead, but I was trying hard not to be any trouble to them, and there was nothing I could do but stay out of the way and try not to be a problem.
The wind was whipping rain in sideways through the house and underneath the clay roofing tiles. The street in front of the house was running like a river. We were soaked through and stayed wet for the next four days. All our clothing was wet.
For a while the electricity was off and we didn’t have running water for a couple of days. When it came back on it was dirty so they caught rain water and boiled that for cooking and drinking.
Little by little came reports on radio and television of things happening around the country, but still no one had any idea of the horrors they would be hearing later. Roads were washed out all over, and there was no way for people to get to the smaller towns that were out in the country until the wind calmed down so helicopters could go take a look.
What they saw then horrified them. Whole towns washed away with survivors gathered on some high spot, with no water to drink, no food or shelter. Many had lost family members. Where the land happened to be flat, there would be standing water and mud engulfing things, but often the water rushed through with unbelievable speed and strength and swept away everything in its path.
León, where I was, is a rather large city. It’s not flat but it isn’t what you’d call hilly, it just has a slope to its streets. I’d ask people where all that rain water was going that I’d see running down the street every day. To the river? Well, not to a river, really, but one of the little gullies that crosses the town. I’d only ever seen a little bit of water flowing in them even after heavy rains. Not a river at all, really.
Thursday the gully that went through León was a killer. The water that came running down the streets of town from the rains, the water that boiling down out of the hills at breakneck speed, gathered in the gully that had a little park on its flat bottom with a concrete basketball court, swings and a kids’ playground.
The water filled the gully and overflowed the top, taking off the backs of houses and stores that lined the streets more than 50 feet above it. It carried huge rooted stumps of mahogany trees that smashed buildings and ended against a house wall as the water passed by. It smashed at least two bridges in the town that I saw, tore up the concrete basketball pad and piled it on top of branches and vegetation that it had ripped down to the mud. It killed people.
Latin American television and newspapers are somewhat more grisly than we are accustomed to. There were pictures, after the water had subsided, of a ball of brush left behind with a little girl’s legs sticking out among the branches. A toddler’s right forearm and part of his left buttock protruding through a mud slurry. The body of a man half buried face down in mud. A little boy’s nude body found just as a pig heads out to eat it and is chased away. There were lots of such images, of adults, too; I wish I could get them out of my mind.
On the morning television the camera went from one big ball of vegetation to the next, twigs and leaves and branches that had gathered into a big ball as it rolled down, picking up bodies on the way, as the stream cut through wherever the water found its way. As the camera went from one ball to another, we could see legs sticking out, the body enclosed in the center of the vegetation. The commentator went from one ball to another, saying quietly, “Es nina.” (This is a girl.) “Es nino.” (This is a boy.) “Es nina.” “Es nina.” “Es nino.” Adults got caught too.
It was sickening.
When Danelia and I went down to see the washed-out bridge down by the hospital on Sunday, two days later, that raging river was just a little stream that I could once again step across without jumping. It was hard to look up and believe that little stream, the Rio Chiquito, the Little River, could have possibly been that monstrous wall of water way up there, leaving behind those big destructive stumps, tearing out those houses up on the street above it.
But the horrors were not over. On Sunday at midnight there was a mudslide on Cerro Casita that buried hundreds, maybe 2000 people, without warning. The ground was soaked from weeks of heavy rains and the crater of the old volcano had filled with water so it was a lake that soaked the earth from the insides of the volcano. The earth let go in the night without warning and a two-mile-wide mudslide swept down over the little villages and covered the houses. The next day people were trying to dig them out while the mud avalanches would still break through and the rescuers would have to flee for their lives. Men reported hearing the screams of the victims trapped in their houses under the mud. Posoltega was the town lost.
Every day new horrors surfaced. As the weather cleared so helicopters could get out into the remote areas, they found more and more desperate villagers without homes, food or potable water. The army flew along the Coco River in the north and found devastation there they hadn’t suspected. A family of five were picked out of a tree where they’d been hanging on for three days, trying to stay above the water below them, but they’d lost one child who was too weak and had let go in the night. People who have no way to communicate have no way to tell their story, and the mud-covered towns they kept finding were a surprise. It was hard to get beyond the closer tragedies they couldn’t do anything about yet, without looking for more people they couldn’t help either.
The infrastructure was down. The day I was supposed to go to Managua to the airport to go home, Saturday, October 31, there were ten bridges under water between León and Managua. When the water went down, there were bridges down, too. Sometimes it was the center section of the bridge gone, sometimes it was the bridge approaches that were gone. There was no way to get food and supplies up to the people who needed it. The army started working to grade by-passes and put in those metal emergency bridges so traffic could get by.
On Monday I was told that it was possible to get to Managua. You would drive 10 kilometers to the first washed-out bridge and you would cross the river hanging onto a rope, get on a truck on the other side and go to the next washed-out bridge, cross the river hanging onto a rope again, get on a horse and continue to the next bridge.
On Tuesday the following week, Danelia’s daughter Jasmina and friends tried to return to Managua to go to university. They got past the first two bridges that had been replaced with temporaries, but after that it was too long a walk so they came back to León. By Thursday, November 5th, when I was supposed to go to the airport again, there were temporary bridges in place for one-way traffic.
We crossed six of them on our way down. It was like road construction anywhere: you sat and waited while a long line of cars and mostly trucks slowly passed over the bridge, guided by a man giving hand signals so you didn’t run off the tracks. There were buses of people who got off and walked across the bridge to the other side so the bus could go across unloaded, then the people got back in on the other side. I was pleased to see the large number of trucks heading north with supplies: bottles of drinking water, rolls of plastic so people could get out of the rain, food.
We passed flooded fields with crops still lying on their side, areas that were flat and the water couldn’t run off like small lakes of mud, and occasionally the smelly bloated body of a drowned cow. As we got closer to Managua there was less and less sign of flooding and damage, even though I know they had serious flooding in some sections.
I got home Friday, November 6. I hated to leave, but there was nothing I could do to help. I wish I were a nurse and useful.
I expect that whole area to have rough time ahead. The flooded latrines spreading raw sewage everywhere will have contaminated everything the water spread to; nothing will be safe. The thousands of missing people will surface, some of them alive. I hope there will be lots of nurses and doctors who can go to those outlying villages and give medicines and injections to those people. I can’t see medicine doing much good without professionals to administer it. They need inoculations and fast, along with clean water. And let’s pray for decent flying weather so the helicopters can get food and water out there where it’s needed.
This is a condensed version of the story I know. Every day there seemed to be another horror revealed, another unbelievable disclosure.
On Monday night Cerro Negro, their biggest volcano, laid out a mile or so of fresh lava. There was a picture of it on the front page of El Nueve Diario with the caption, Por Que, Dios Mio? (Why, My God?)
They don’t need anything more to happen.
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