'THERE'S A BIG WIND A COMIN':
A PROFILE OF SURVIVAL AND THE CULTURE OF RESPONSE AFTER HURRICANE MITCH ON ISLA GUANAJA, HONDURAS
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMS-9632458. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Now that five months have passed,
All they do is drink and blast.
The fellows sleep with a troubled brain,
Determined they are livin' on a hell-bound train.
Orin Ebnks (Mangrove Bight)
As Mitch crashed into Central America, it became the deadliest western-hemispheric weather event of the century, resulting in over ten thousand casualties in the Central American countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and surrounding areas (Fig. 1). Many of the casualties werer due to mudslides induced by torrential rains. Additional tens of thousands died weeks and months after the event from disease and malnutrition, particularly in rural hinterland areas of Honduras cut off from adequate food, water, and medical supplies (Oliver-Smith, 1999). One of the areas hardest hit by the hurricane was the Island of Guanaja off the north coast of Honduras. Based on our observations of the island's damaged infrastructure and the importance of fishing and tourism, we decided to conduct more extensive field work in Guanaja and, more specifically, in the community of Mangrove Bight. While the nearby islands of Utila and Roatan went virtually untouched, Guanaja experienced winds of 200 mph for an unusual 45 hours directly over the island. This report describes the impacts, survival, and the culture of response to Mitch and its aftermath for Guanaja. We also propose that recovery from this event illustrates the Phoenix Effect in that a strong relationship of island folks with the Seventh Day Adventist church tied them into an international recovery network that allowed for an effective recovery process (Dyer, 1996; Dyer, 1999).
Puerto Cortez is the transshipment port for the country's pineapple, banana, palm crop and other agricultural products. Loss of 90% of the annual crops through flooding had destroyed this commerce, and many empty trucks and their flatbeds cluttered the port area. Truck drivers for Chiquita and Dole hung out at local boarding houses with no prospects for the season. There was only light traffic on the roads to the port, which is usually crowded with major commercial transport. For smaller towns along the rivers, bridge washouts and channelization threatened commerce and destroyed structures in the floodplain. Cattle and other livestock were washed away, and people could not get to areas across swollen rivers for several weeks. In selected areas, repairs were underway, not with government or foreign aid, but with the help of regional construction companies from San Pedro Sula.
In La Ceiba, the major coastal city to the east in the Departmento de Atlantida, a major bridge, built in 1910 by the United Fruit Company, was washed out, cutting La Ceiba off from towns and commerce with Truillo and from areas farther east including the Departamentos de Colon and Gracias de Dios. People desperate for news of family across the river tried to cross, but were turned back by the swollen torrent. One man was washed away in his attempts to forge the river. Eventually, a rope bridge was strung across, allowing passage of people and food stuffs from one side to the other. As of March 1999 when we arrived, the bridge remained unrepaired. In the Departmaneto de Colon east of the bridge, some coastal Garifina settlements were reportedly buried under mud, and in Gracias de Dios settlements of Miskito Indians were cut off and stranded in the labyrinth of coastal wetlands and winding rivers.
Guanaja is also the home of a vibrant fishing industry which, together with tourism, makes up the mainstay of the local economy. The Key (also known as the town of Bonacca) is a community built on coral cays; it is the commercial hub of the island and has grown to a population of close to 6,000. It is the port for a deep-water fleet of around 50 vessels that target lobster, finfish such as snapper and sea bass, and shrimp. One observer describes the fishing industry this way:
Demands of the people have gravitated towards the sea, towards fishing . . . The golden days were the early 50s. That was when some of the first generators came out here - shrimp boats, and ice-packing plant, that kind of thing. It's still looking at fishing; they're waiting for that next big catch that's going to take everybody out of debt so they can pay off their boats. Tourism is second fiddle.
Fishermen target nearshore stocks with smaller (25-foot) vessels, but larger vessels go far out to sea on trips that can last one or more weeks and may travel many hundreds of miles from Guanaja looking for lobster, fish, and shrimp. Most of the fleet was out at sea when the storm hit, and, as such, only two vessels in The Key were lost. Other impacts on the fishery included damage to piers and fishing boats in the nearby communities of Savannah Bight and Mangrove Bight. More importantly, fishery impacts associated with Mitch included hefty licensing and inspection fees, which were due right after the storm event. This was a hardship when one considers that virtually all fishermen were unable to go fishing for months, and, instead, they had to spend money in order to have their vessels repaired. In Mangrove Bight, all of the commercial vessels experienced some damage, in some cases enough to require major repairs. For example, two vessels had fiberglass hull and deck damage that required months to repair. Those vessels considered sea worthy are currently being used to ferry people and supplies to and from the Key and the airport.
On the terrestrial side, the island biota has a great deal to offer to visitors who are not marine oriented. The highlands are accessible by a 35-mile trail system that reaches Michael Rock Peak (1,370 ft.), the highest elevation on Guanaja. The upland vegetation includes pine savannah and semitropical dry forests on the lower slopes. In the coastal zone, mangrove stands, palms, and gumbo-limbo trees can be seen from the hiking and riding trails. During the wet season, the island biota is further enhanced by several endemic species of orchids, small reptiles, and amphibians.
According to the official travel guide of 1999, Guanaja has about 20 visitor accommodations, the largest of which provides full services for dive tourism. In all, there are 170 rooms available on the island, primarily located in The Key, where the only shopping and communication facilities are available as well. The two upscale resorts, Bayman Bay Club and Posada del Sol, provide a wide variety of water-dependent activities, while some of the smaller hotels may offer horseback riding, water taxis, and nature tours. Finally, the only regular service available to tourists arriving on the island is by domestic air service. From the landing strip, water taxis will transport visitors to their destinations; there are no cars on Guanaja.
No coral reef structure around the island of Guanaja has entirely eluded the forces of Hurricane Mitch. Factors such as depth, exposure to wave action, and type of coral are often responsible for the degree of destruction. It should also be pointed out that some of the reef damage is not "fresh" and may, in fact, be the result of heavy dive pressure over time. As such, it would require a greater in-depth inspection and knowledge of pre-hurricane conditions in order to determine the full extent of marine resource damage.
A rapid assessment of selected reef sites on the leeward side of the island indicates that for massive formations, scoured and scared surfaces appear to be the most common feature. Hard coral species, such as brain or star coral, were bleached in patches ranging in coverage from 50% to 80% where the storm approached the island. Violent groundswells caused by Mitch also stirred up tremendous amounts of sand and silt, which remains in suspension and may have settled in areas of healthy coral cover. Soft Gorgonian species in shallow waters, particularly on the windward side, have been ripped off from their substrata and deposited on beaches in notable quantities. Breakage of coral heads and pinnacles has been reported by divers in water of 25 feet or less. In these waters, six out of eight mooring buoys were damaged or destroyed by a storm surge that, according to witnesses, rose 15-20 feet above sea level.
When asked about the current status of reef and fish habitats, fishermen refer to them as "cleaner" than before the hurricane. Our search for an explanation of such observations revealed a decrease in seagrass beds and algae cover. This reduction in food sources and habitat cover corresponds well with the absence of fish in general. However, some species reportedly have increased, and their size is larger, according to some respondents. It is certainly possible that changes in habitat can lead to subsequent changes in the composition and diversity of species. It is likely that the "larger" individuals may have colonized reefs after being displaced from similar habitats by the storm.
The winds were way over 200 miles an hour, and the weather bureau in Miami claim no. But we had two wind gauges out here - one of them was clocking 265 when it broke. The other one was on a shrimp boat and that broke around 200 and something. The radar on that shrimp boat was just spinning around. That's hard to turn against those gears. That thing was spinning. They said it was just 195. Well, they wasn't here!
In Mangrove Bight, the storm struck quickly. By 10:00 a.m. on the 27th the tidal surge had started to take out structures:
We were livin' in my sister-in-law's house, and the water just started a comin' in. But it didn't give us time to save anything. We had to move real fast, and the waves just took the house right out. Water was coming in the front when we was going out the back. We had to run up that hill there, but we moved real fast. We ran down the road towards the airport, and laid down in the field. People was blowin' around in the field. My sisters boy had his school pack on, and the wind picked him up and blew him towards a barb wire fence. The pack flipped off just then, and he was saved. We ended up huddled in a little A-frame under some trees . . . Some of us tried to leave and get to Savannah Bight, but the wind, he just pushed us right down, and we lay flat most the night right up in that field - no food or water. There was two pregnant women blowin' around in that field - both our babies survived, but five others staying in houses had miscarriages. Nobody died in that field. My baby boy - that is why I call him little Mitch.
Thirty people survived the hurricane, exposed on an abandoned airfield between Savannah and Mangrove Bight, and despite the overall destruction, miraculously no one was killed in the community. People ran from one home to another on the waterfront, and all of them moved to the more permanent structures on the shore. One large house owned by a Canadian and perched up on a hill away from the beach became a safe haven for many. People traveled from Mangrove Bight by holding onto palm trees and running between the strong gusts from tree to tree. Over three hundred of the local residents ended up in this large, open house. They stayed there through the next day, standing room only, in the dark, with nothing but crackers to eat and water from plastic jugs to drink.
Others survived in the kindergarten and in the few remaining houses back from the beach not taken out by the storm, and five people made it through in a drainage pipe near the school. Seven families rode out the storm in their fishing boats on the canal that bisects the island:
We took our boat with others up into the canal to ride out the storm. The wind was blowin' real bad, and the surge lifted us up and down in the canal. We was tied off in the middle of the canal, but one of the boats got hung up in the mangrove there. It was real, real bad, and I prayed to Jesus to help us. But after the storm we felt lucky, because we had food and supplies on the boat. When we got back to the Mangrove Bight, we could see that nobody had anything left - at least we were lucky that way.
Of the 173 structures present before the hurricane in the community of Mangrove Bight, only 27 survived, and all of these experienced some degree of damage. The majority were washed out to sea, or smashed onto shore, by the advancing storm surge that left Mangrove Bight buried in a twenty-foot wide debris field. Remaining structures were those built out of brick and cement (Fig. 3). All other wooden homes built on pylons over the water were totally destroyed, prompting a post-hurricane government regulation forbidding construction over the water. Nonresidential buildings destroyed or partially destroyed included a bar/dance hall, stores, a power plant, the kindergarten, the school cafeteria, a public primary school, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, warehouses, and a dive shop.
The average value of destroyed buildings was estimated at $11,000 U.S., while the total estimated value of destruction and damage to Mangrove Bight as a whole was approximately $2 million. Seventeen homes survived complete destruction, and of these all had partially damaged roofs or walls. Surviving homes in Mangrove Bight housed 7% of a total of 526 residents, leaving 83% homeless after the storm.
When Mitch moved onto the mainland by mid-day on October 28, residents of Mangrove Bight and elsewhere throughout Guanaja faced a bleak landscape of utter destruction. People were in shock when they first saw what had happened, and didn't know what to do:
When we first came out, it was terrible to see. There was nothing left of the village. The remains were piled high all along the beach there, and it was dangerous just walking around because of nails and such. People started to look for things left from their houses, but it was a big mess - a lot of the houses had just disappeared - the sea took them. We had to walk up and down the piles just to get around. And all the beauty and green was gone - that was really shocking - all the trees gone and nothing left. See up on that hill, you can see the rock exposed there. Before Mitch you couldn't see that - it was all covered with trees. But we felt we were blessed - praise to God - nobody was killed - not a single soul lost here in Mangrove Bight - so you could say we were lucky.
What was a real shock was to see all your friends' houses gone. If there's any joy that we should have in out hearts at this point is that we didn't have many people injured, and certainly very few dead.
As mentioned earlier, a household survey was conducted in Mangrove Bight in order to assess the cumulative effect and perception of people regarding specific characteristics of the hurricane event. In order to minimize damage and loss of life, communities need to be alerted as early as possible of the approaching calamity. For a remote island society, it was particularly important to receive advanced warning so that adequate preparation could be made. The survey indicates that the most inexpensive and convenient forms of communication were radio and contacts with friends and family (Table I). It also became clear from the contacts and conversations we had with other people that the event was the worst they ever experienced and that everyone, particularly children, was significantly traumatized by it. The results of inquiries regarding their worst fears about the effects of Hurricane Mitch are shown in Table II. As is evident, the people experienced multiple anxieties, especially those generated by forces of the storm and the consequences related to property damage. Numerous respondents indicated that children continue to have nightmares, and any inclement weather is seen as another hurricane. As far as can be determined, there is no assistance available on the island for people to deal with psychological scars brought about by Hurricane Mitch. In fact, the only medical assistance of any significance was provided by a British cruiser, the Sheffield, and a rescue mission from the Cayman Islands.
As to the general perception of their lives before and after the hurricane, we asked respondents to judge their conditions on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is the worst, and 10 the best condition). The findings indicate a dramatic decline in their perceived and actual standard of living as people experienced the effects of this calamity over a year's period (Table III).
Another aspect that is revealed by disaster is the influence of the political ecology on disaster response, which can determine when, where, and how much aid is directed to a particular area, population, subculture, or minority group.
Political ecology also engages competing interests in contested interpretations of power (control of resources). Disaster events bring to the fore the struggles of communities to maintain power. Power relationships work themselves out within the place and space - the territories - of communities. Communities whose culture primarily depends on natural resources for survival are ecosystem linked, meaning the health and sustainability of economy or community power is linked to the renewability of the natural resource base. This is the case in Guanaja, where fishing resources provide the primary form of subsistence. Tourism is a secondary resource for the communities on the island, and recovery of local marine and terrestrial resources is crucial for tourism.
Territorialization of community space seldom follows the natural contours of ecosystems, political entities often do not control key elements or parts of ecosystems upon which they depend. If an ecosystem is pulverized by a disaster event, as Guanaja was, the territorial (community) space can lose both economic and ecological viability, and recovery can be difficult or impossible without external assistance. Thus, response to disasters involves the political ecology and ethnohistory of human populations under disaster conditions and is impacted by social and economic factors which combine to create what is identified as the "culture of response."
The culture of response emerges from underlying traditional structures that have evolved as adaptations to disaster. Torry (1978) points out that many adaptations - or maladaptations - of the culture of response can influence the recovery process. Examples include administrative inefficiency, which retards recovery (Baldassaro, 1975; Levine, 1995), fatalistic belief systems that jeopardize life (Sims and Bauman, 1972; Kates, 1971), and alien technology introduced to regulate hazards that pose new sources of danger (Flannery, 1972; Lees, 1975; Reidinger, 1974; Obeng, 1977; Torry, 1979).
The culture of response is also tempered by economics when power relationships dictate access to disaster recovery resources. Regarding vulnerability to disasters in Honduras, Guanaja is politically marginal and thus on the fringe of access to resources. The non-Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, non-Spanish heritage of many islanders was also cited by several key informants as a disadvantage when seeking help from the mostly Spanish-Catholic central government. This marginalization makes island residents extremely vulnerable to disasters such as Mitch, which overwhelm the ability of local recovery systems to respond to the basic and immediate needs of victims.
The ability of communities to independently rebound from a disaster has been identified as the phenomena of "amplified rebound." Amplified rebound or "Phoenix Effect" outcomes are most difficult to achieve if impacted communities lack resources and have a high number of lower- to middle-income residents. This scenario fits Guanaja, where most residents survive through fishing or tourism, and where most are not above lower-middle-income conditions, and put at risk because of the uncertainty involved in fishing and a general lack of government services such as health care or insurance of any kind. The Phoenix Effect is formally defined as:
a sustainable improvement in the social and economic condition of a community or organization arising from the strategic investment of capital resources after a disaster event. (Dyer, 1996, p. 35)
To achieve this effect, the recovery projects chosen for funding must provide long-term social and economic benefits that have the potential to rebuild and restructure the local economy in ways that, prior to the disaster, might not have happened as quickly or at all. Hurricane Mitch devastated much of the Island of Guanaja, and little aid was forthcoming from the Honduran government for recovery (see Table IV).
The fishing families of Guanaja had no backup, no forms of insurance, and no direct means to replace the lost personal items, houses, and community infrastructure destroyed by Mitch. In a previous case study of the Phoenix Effect after Hurricane Andrew (Dyer, 1999), external aid came to communities in south Florida from established government agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Economic Development Administration, that were mandated to provide such assistance. In Guanaja, the Honduran government operated under no such mandate, and provided little aid for recovery after Hurricane Mitch. The aid they did provide consisted of stipends for residents to remove the post-hurricane debris field in their own community, and of several teams of masons who brought their brick and cement working skills to help in the reconstruction of local schools. Further aid came from the government six months later, when a land grant provided 30 house lots to residents left homeless in Mangrove Bight.
We have documented other efforts of recovery from this event, particularly for Mangrove Bight, which lost 83% of its buildings and all of its social services. In fact, the houses being constructed by the volunteer church organizations are in some cases better than before. For example, houses are being constructed off the water, and a new housing area will give residents land and housing who before had no title to land and were in effect squatters over the water.
One key respondent was very involved in helping the U.S. recovery teams with logistics, such as food preparation and clothes washing for over a hundred youth volunteers who worked on site during July and August. Her efforts were rewarded by the construction of a house for her family out of sequence from the designated community reconstruction list agreed upon by residents. Before Mitch, her family lived on the water in the house of her sister-in-law; thus, she had no place of her own. Her house now sits on a bluff near the northern end of the community with a scenic view of the bay below.
Mangrove Bight's remarkable recovery of infrastructure can only be explained by contacts with a network of church aid organizations, particularly the Cayman Island Mission of Seventh-Day Adventists and Global Challenge, Bozeman, Montana (U.S.), which is a cooperative group of church-related construction and contracting experts who donated labor, time, tools, and supplies to assist communities worldwide impacted by calamity. Thus, the connection of Mangrove Bight to this church organization (nongovernmental organization - NGO) resulted in a culture of response that mirrored what has been accomplished elsewhere with governmental funds. This means that by being affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Guanaja residents were automatically perceived as members of a wider "family" from the resource-rich U.S. who had as a mandate the assistance of fellow church communities in the face of disaster anywhere in the world. The outcome is that the Phoenix Effect has been achieved in Guanaja not through government aid organizations, but through a religious aid organization. If Guanaja had been mostly Catholic and Spanish, without the 92% reported Adventists population, we hypothesize that they may not have received the infrastructure aid that they have.
We also hypothesize that Guanaja's non-Catholic and non-Spanish roots put the island residents in the class of a minority within one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Despite this, their personal toughness and their more direct connection to a wider religious network outside Honduras puts them ahead of less-fortunate, mainland agricultural communities in the recovery process, some of which are still without significant aid in the disaster landscape of post-Mitch Honduras.
Recent visitors, repeat visitors, or those who have settled in Guanaja from other countries have provided important links and initiatives for outside assistance and relief efforts as well. Inquiries have been received by the Guanaja Tourism Association from individuals in the U.S. requesting instructions as to how they can be helpful in providing support for the disaster victims. The Elderhostel is a nonprofit organization providing educational adventure to adults worldwide, and during hurricane Mitch it had groups on the island. Their academic itinerary allowed them to get a personal, intimate look at the disaster event and, at the same time, kept some tourist facilities operating in the wake of tourism slowdown after Mitch. Both of the largest resorts on Guanaja (Bayman Bay Club and Posada Del Sol) launched relief efforts for local villages by using their communication facilities to request donations from overseas. The people of Guanaja have shown great fortitude and self-reliance in dealing with the after effects of the hurricane and are looking to the U.S. not for handouts, but for the trust and commitment of the travel and tourist industry. They stand ready to offer the visitor their hospitality that, together with the travel industry in the U.S., can forge a partnership.
Sources* N % National Radio 113 42.6 Friends/Family 75 28.3 Television 59 22.2 Newspaper 9 3.4 National Disaster Alert 4 1.5 Local Churches 3 1.2 Just Instinct 2 0.8 TOTAL 265 100.0% *Respondents gave more than one answer.
Types of Fears* N % Hurricane Winds 109 18.0 Torrential Rains 98 16.2 Flying Objects 85 14.0 High Tides 80 13.2 Garbage/Debris 71 11.7 Mud Slides 61 10.1 Erosion/Flooding 31 5.1 Other than the above 70 11.7 TOTAL 605 100.0% *Respondents gave multiple answers.
One year before Mitch 7.82 Immediately before Mitch 7.96 Immediately after Mitch 1.48 Five months after Mitch 4.43 One year after Mitch 7.19 *Data is based on 165 respondents.
Sources* N % Close friends 61 25.8 International Help 45 19.0 Family Members 39 16.5 Neighbors 37 15.6 Churches 32 13.6 Nobody 15 6.4 National Government 5 2.2 Local Government 2 0.9 Total 236 100.0 *Respondents had more than one answer
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