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Tuesday, October 26, 1999 Published at 06:23 GMT

World: Americas

Mitch recovery slow and painful

Millions of people across central America lost their homes

By Peter Greste in Mexico City

Honduras' Finance Minister, Gabriela Nunez has called on the country's creditors to declare a permanent debt moratorium on the first anniversary of Hurricane Mitch.

She told the BBC that Honduras had received most of the aid it was promised aid in the aftermath of the hurricane but that it is having borrow even more to pay for vital reconstruction projects.

While the financial aid was welcome Mrs Nunez said its limitations were now becoming apparent.

More than half of that aid was in the form of cheap loans, hardly helpful to a country already struggling with more than $4bn of debts and she said most of the donations were tied to specific social projects.

In Honduras more than 2000 people are marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Mitch in temporary shelters

[ image: Damage in the region is estimated to be almost $10bn]
Damage in the region is estimated to be almost $10bn
Aid agencies say tens of thousands more across central America are in a similar crisis one year after the devastating storm pounded the region and killed more than 9,000 people.

If there is one lesson that has been learnt from Hurricane Mitch, it is that while humans could not have stopped the storm, they could have prevented many of its cataclysmic consequences.

No one is really sure how many people died in the tempest but the best estimates put the figure at between 9,000 and 10,000, with as many as 5,000 more missing, presumed dead.

Across Central America, more than two million people were made homeless. Damage was estimated to be worth almost $10bn in a region already one of the poorest on the planet - Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Slow recovery

Twelve months on, the crisis has passed, but the painfully slow process of recovery is only just beginning.

Major bridges wiped out in the flooding still have not been replaced, tonnes of silt dumped in rivers and drains have not yet been shifted and some 12,000 people in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa alone are classified as still living in high-risk zones.

Much of the $9bn in promised aid has materialised, but organisations such as the British charity Oxfam say its effectiveness has been seriously undermined by the crippling debt repayments.

Pressure of poverty

Honduras and Nicaragua both have until 2001 to restart paying their debts, but the two countries are having to set aside money now, money that is desperately needed for ongoing reconstruction.

The good news is that much of that reconstruction is making things better than they were before. Reforestation programmes are making previously unstable hillsides safe and now nobody builds in flood-prone zones.

The question, though, is whether the pressure of poverty will force people back into dangerous places and to over-farm the mountains - the two big factors that helped create such a massive disaster in the first place.

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