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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 02:03 GMT


World: Americas

Honduras fights back after Mitch

Hundreds of towns like Morolica were flattened

By Peter Morgan

Honduras captured headlines around the world late last year when Hurricane Mitch ripped across the small Central American country.


Peter Morgan reports on 'the devastation caused to the town of Morolica
In the weeks and months that have passed, the plight of Honduras has slipped from world attention.

But the country is still in a state of profound shock, as I found when I visited the town of Morolica on the banks of the Rio Grande.


[ image: 7,000 died in Honduras - an estimated 18,000 in total]
7,000 died in Honduras - an estimated 18,000 in total
The church has only the front wall left. But it is the tallest structure left amongst the wreckage that once was Morolica.

I passed the school with children playing amongst the waist high walls that were once their classrooms. Incredibly enough the school was used as a refuge when Hurricane Mitch struck and the river flooded over the defences which have protected Morolica for over 200 years.

Hurricane Mitch
But once the water started crashing across the playground, babies had to be snatched from their sleep and toddlers hoisted terrified onto shoulders as the villagers waded towards the safety of the hills 150 metres away.


Peter Morgan reports on Honduras' efforts at reconstruction
Five-year-old Sandra Lopez was carried by an uncle onto the hillside, but her three brothers, father and pregnant mother made a bad decision. The climbed a sturdy great plane tree. But at three in the morning their cries for help could be heard no more. The tree had been washed away.

The Lopez family are amongst the 8,000 still recorded as missing three months after Hurricane Mitch, alongside the 6,000 dead.


[ image: Families now live in shacks with cardboard walls]
Families now live in shacks with cardboard walls
The Mayor of Morolica is a shy man but the story of how he walked for 40 hours to summon help has made him something of a local hero. Now he is dedicated to rebuilding his town.

It is moving to visit the cardboard and canvas city where the townspeople now live. They could have dispersed to the cities, or to relatives elsewhere in Honduras, but they want to recreate their remote farming community.

The trouble is that there is no obvious means of turning that dream into reality. The Government of Honduras has not helped yet. And so great is the challenge of national reconstruction that tiny communities like Morolica can not expect help any time soon.

Livelihoods lost

Where thousands of acres of seven foot hight banana plants should stand, there is now only a marshy wilderness. Bananas are a vital Honduras export, but 90% of the crop has been destroyed or badly damaged.


[ image: The country's principal industry - bananas - has been washed away]
The country's principal industry - bananas - has been washed away
The floods which followed Hurricane Mitch have washed away the topsoil from whole plantations, and covered others with sand. Three months on it is impossible to say how much farmland has been lost forever.

La Lima was once the commercial heart of Honduras - but it is hard to believe that now. It is, and was the banana capital of the country.

Burden of debt

How is Honduras going to get back on its feet? It is impossible to say. Unemployment will climb now that the plantations have been flattened. Bridges up and down the country are still broken. Countless roads have been ruined.


[ image: Reconstruction is expensive and Honduras has no money - so most roads and bridges remain damaged]
Reconstruction is expensive and Honduras has no money - so most roads and bridges remain damaged
Three months on the Government estimates £3bn ($1.7bn) would put things right. But it does not have the money.

Not only is Honduras one of the world's poorest nations. It is one of the most deeply in debt. It repays loans to the IMF, World Bank and others at the rate of £1m ($1.7m) a day.

The industrialised nations have agreed to suspend these payments for three years - but then the financial shackles will be put back on.


[ image: Peter Morgan re-visited the scene he reported on three months ago]
Peter Morgan re-visited the scene he reported on three months ago
The theory goes like this. If you forgive a country's debt it might just go out and borrow more, anticipating further debt forgiveness somewhere down the line. It is what economists call moral hazard.

But as I scan the devastation that has befallen Morolica I wonder whether there is a different type of moral hazard, for the rich nations of the world if they simply shrug their shoulders at the sight of this sad little country and insist that they want their money back.



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