PBS NewsHour


Battered by storms, Central America struggles to recover

During the past three weeks two massive hurricanes -- Eta and Iota -- have slammed into Central America causing devastation to a region already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nick Schifrin reports on how many across Central America are still struggling to survive.

AIRED: November 23, 2020 | 0:05:44

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the past three weeks, two massive hurricanes, Eta and Iota,

have slammed into Central America in almost the same location. Hurricane

season ends one week from today. And this one set records, 30 named storms and 13 hurricanes.

For those living -- already living under the specter of COVID-19,

after the storms, the question now is of sheer survival.

Nick Schifrin is back with this report.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This was supposed to be Virginia Morazan Mesa and her family's

journey home. Instead, it's a return to nothing.

VIRGINIA MORAZAN MESA, Hurricane Victim (through translator): Here was the kitchen.

We had a living room, two bedrooms and the hallway.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This beach is where their house once stood.

VIRGINIA MORAZAN MESA (through translator): It's only sand that's left. What else can I tell you?

Nothing's left, not even the pole, nothing. And it hurts, because I have been left on the streets,

entirely on the streets.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Puerto Cabezas also known as Bilwi, bore the brunt of Nicaragua's

strongest storm ever. Hurricane Iota slammed Nicaragua's east coast last week,

with wind gusts of 155 miles an hour, homes pulverized into piles of lumber, streets flooded.

As water surged in, Mesa and the residents in these low-lying areas had no choice but

to evacuate by boat. They crammed into nearby shelters to ride out the storm,

hoping their homes had survived. Many didn't.

VIRGINIA MORAZAN MESA (through translator): I have been shaken. I'm not OK,

I have been left tormented because this hurricane, I felt, was very strong, too strong.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It was the second Category 4 storm that hit the same coast in two weeks.

Hurricane Eta struck just 15 miles north of Iota's landfall.

The hurricanes' damage extended well beyond Northeastern Nicaragua.

From Panama to Southeastern Mexico, torrential rains engorged rivers and left huge swathes

of land underwater. In some parts, the downpours triggered deadly landslides.

In Guatemala, the village of Queja, a mountainside gave way and buried dozens of people.

After rescue efforts were called off, the area was deemed camposanto, sacred land for the dead.

Guatemalan government crews flew to isolated villages to distribute aid. But they haven't

even reached places like San Juan Cotzal. So the local Ixil Maya community have to save themselves.

On Sunday, volunteers from the local Catholic Church collected food and donations.

But delivering that aid is a challenge when the

storms destroyed bridges that used to connect 20 communities.

Maria Toma talked to us late last week.

MARIA TOMA, Guatemala (through translator): There have been a lot of landslides, major

losses to property. And communities have now been left out of touch.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Toma visited homes to document the storms' impact.

She kept the community apprised through a local media collective.

They say the county never had the resources to cope with a storm the magnitude of Eta.

DIEGO SAMBRANO, Guatemala (through translator): There are no firefighters, either volunteers

or from the municipality. There are no relief agencies. Families woke up, only to sink their

feet into water that was already running inside the house. That's how Eta took us by surprise.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Iota brought only more devastation. Its rains lingered over the weekend,

killing more livestock and turning cornfields into lagoons just weeks before harvest time.

MARIA TOMA (through translator):

There is a concern going into next year, 2021. How will families eat? Where will they get money

to eat? Where will they get the corn, the beans, what is most heavily consumed here?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Across the region, hundreds of thousand are living in shelters,

their concerns of COVID-19 put on pause.

JACQUELINE PAZ, Flood Victim (through translator): What are

we to do if we were left without a home, without a bed, without dishes? We don't have anything.

KAYLY OBER, Refugees International: With COVID-19, it's always a balancing act between

evacuating people safely and ensuring that they're

on higher ground or in shelters to protect them from the hazards of these kinds of hurricanes.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Kayly Ober manages Refugees International's Climate Displacement Program.

She fears authorities haven't been able to offer COVID mitigation,

like handwashing, temperature checks, or social distancing.

KAYLY OBER: What we're seeing in the region here is a little more ad hoc and a little more

haphazard, unfortunately. And so what we might find is more people have been put at risk to

COVID due to evacuation, but only time will tell to what extent that really -- that really is.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Early reports in Honduras already show high positivity rates. Around the city of San

Pedro Sula, as many as 100,000 flood victims crammed into more than 80 shelters. But even

that's not enough; 500 people are now living under this highway overpass. They have no running water.

KAYLY OBER: People are facing displacement due to the hurricanes.

And it will be even harder for them to build back or bounce back from that devastation and impact,

because COVID-19 has made their livelihoods pretty precarious and tenuous already.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Slammed by the year's most powerful Atlantic hurricane and the pandemic, storm victims

face an uncertain and treacherous road to recovery. And many of them have nowhere to go.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.