Siham Handal was huddled inside her home in the city of San Pedro Sula last week when Hurricane Eta ripped through Honduras and other Central American nations with powerful winds that brought torrential rains, catastrophic flooding and devastating landslides.
She had to cover her windows with towels as water from the Category 4 storm percolated inside after Eta made landfall in Nicaragua last Tuesday and worked its way to Honduras and Guatemala on Wednesday.
“We felt strong rains and winds, but we didn’t see the kind of flooding that other people living in the center of the city saw,” Handal, 25, told NBC News in Spanish.
After the hurricane, Handal lost communication with her grandmother in El Progreso, about 20 miles southeast. Her grandmother is OK, but the surrounding areas in her community are not, she said.
“Many areas of El Progreso flooded, leaving a lot of damage behind, especially in the municipality of La Lima. It was disastrous," Handal said. "Many people were on their roofs waiting to be rescued. Some of them even spent days without food, waiting to be rescued."
Eta is the strongest storm to ravage the region since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when approximately 7,000 people were killed in Honduras. Preliminary figures show that Eta has killed at least 58 people in Honduras. Local authorities said they expect the death toll to go up as flood waters recede and cleanup efforts continue. It’s estimated that Eta caused $5 billion in damages, compared with $2 billion from Hurricane Mitch.
"Even more painful" with Covid-19
Roberto Contreras was 38 when Mitch devastated Honduras. He said he remembers it affecting about 15 percent of the nation’s population, close to 150,000 people.
“Eta is affecting 25 percent of the population; we’re talking about half a million people. This becomes even more painful because of Covid-19,” Contreras, who’s now 60, told NBC News in Spanish. “Many people lost their jobs, and everything they had in their homes was the product of more than 10 years of work and they lost it all.”
“This is worse because we had no pandemic with Mitch,” he added. “How are people supposed to recover when they can’t even go to work?”
Albania Lopez, resident of La Lima, took her two dogs and sought refuge with her aunt and uncle in San Pedro Sula last Tuesday when she heard that heavy rains were already overflowing rivers around her house. Before leaving, she stored everything that was important in high places around the home to protect them from possible flood waters. But the efforts were in vain.
She returned four days later to find that Eta’s flood waters had rushed into the home where she had grown up and destroyed everything in sight, leaving behind piles of mud and debris.
“My heart broke into a thousand pieces because it was truly a total disaster. I’m pretty sure no home in this area survived this,” Lopez, 26, told NBC News in Spanish. “That was probably one of the worst days of my life.”
Lopez lost her job doing sales with an airline in September after being on paid leave for a few months because of the pandemic. She’s been trying to get back on her feet with help from family, friends and a GoFundMe that her cousin started for her.
Communities in the center of Honduras such as La Libertad are still submerged under flood waters, prompting most residents to seek refuge in shelters. The land where Gabino Velazquez’s home stood is now completely empty, almost like it was never there.
“There’s not even a pair of shoes here. The river took absolutely everything,” he told Telemundo News in Spanish.
Contreras, who is also the owner of the Honduran family franchise Power Chicken and a former mayoral candidate, has been visiting some of the most affected communities and setting up mobile kitchens with the help of volunteers to feed those who are reeling from Eta.
He has also helped run rapid Covid-19 tests in some of the shelters he has visited, Contreras said. “In one of the shelters it was 50-50, meaning that if the 50 percent that’s infected stays there, they will infect everybody else. We need to start thinking about what we can do to start relocating people.”
Contreras added that there’s a big need for mats, bed sheets and pillows for people to have a place to sleep “after they lost it all.” But the need runs even deeper.
U.S. Hondurans send help
Hondurans in Miami have been mobilizing to send aid. (Florida has the second-largest Honduran population among states, after Texas.)
Sandy Vega is one of them. She has been using her online shop La Yassu Boutique as a platform to raise money through Facebook Lives and purchase basic goods such as canned food, clothes, diapers and medicine to send to Honduras.
“Organizations in Honduras are asking for medicine,” said Vega, who has been using her own money to cover the shipping costs of sending the aid to Honduras. “There are young kids with fever, stomach ailments and rashes all over their bodies.”
She has also partnered with other Hondurans in Texas and Northern Florida to help her connect with local organizations in Honduras who receive the shipments and distribute the aid.
“There are women with newborn babies with absolutely nothing, not even clothes for their babies,” said Vega about some families taking refuge under a bridge in Chamelecón.
Hondurans living in Puerto Rico who survived Hurricane Maria in 2017, which caused over $90 billion in damages and killed at least 2,975 people, said that the news coming out of their home country seemed far worse.
María Ines Gamez, a Honduran who lives in Utuado, Puerto Rico, said small homes built near rivers were washed away with the floods, while others got buried by the mudslides, making it more dangerous than anything she had previously experienced.
“I saw children carrying children and all the terror,” she said in her native Spanish.
Gamez is part of the organization Circulo Hondureño de Puerto Rico, Spanish for Honduran Circle of Puerto Rico, which has been collecting donations for Eta survivors. The donations go to a church that works with other organizations to distribute aid, according to the group’s president, Liliana Casco.
In Honduras, other hurricane survivors such as Handal have been helping others in dire need.
She started a GoFundMe with the help of her aunt who lives in New Jersey as well as other family members. In partnership with the Quetglas Foundation and Fundación OSOVI, they’ve been able to buy refrigerators, kitchen appliances and cleaning supplies to be able to help 100 families.
But Handal said she’s keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Iota, which is expected to hit Honduras on Tuesday, “because I can’t think of anything worse than to give people this help and then have them lose everything all over again.”
“So, we’re going to continue fundraising to see if we can help more families and wait until next week to see when we can start distributing this aid,” Handal said.