Similar to the one-two punch that Puerto Rico received in 2017, Central America was devastated by two hurricanes last year. On November 3, 2020 Hurricane Eta made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, causing landslides and floods that displaced thousands of people and left dozens dead or missing in Central America and parts of the Caribbean. Just 14 days later, Hurricane Iota worsened the situation in areas already affected by Eta and significantly expanded the impact to other regions in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been the most active in history. It was also the fifth in a row to present above-average activity, with 30 tropical storms, of which 13 became hurricanes.
These two hurricanes affected more than 7.5 million people in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. As a result, these countries declared states of emergency in at-risk departments and requested humanitarian and financial aid, elevating it to an official international-level request to intensify emergency response actions.
It is estimated that Hurricanes Eta and Iota left more than 300 people dead and hundreds more missing. The International Red Cross estimates that around 5.2 million people were affected in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In the midst of a pandemic, shelters overflow (329,700 people in shelters), turning this into both an environmental and public health crisis.
The destruction of peoples’ homes and their farmlands created a disaster that rivals Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the worst the region had suffered up to that point. Environmental degradation, social vulnerabilities, and weak infrastructure, as well as a lack of preparedness by the local authorities, created a recipe for a protracted disaster on top of the deepening health and economic crisis resulting from the pandemic.
With key support from our donors, we put together the Central American Hurricanes Response Fund, designed to relieve the immediate and medium-term needs of our communities in Central America due to this climate change and health emergency.
At the outset of the emergency, HIP was in touch with allied organizations in Central America to monitor the situation. This series of storms is part of the current record-setting hurricane season, with local analysts estimating that the storms have caused more than $100 billion dollars in damage to the region.
We were able to support our communities in Central America that now face a greater degree of vulnerability. Financial and other resources helped to set up and equip temporary shelters and offer aid to hurricane victims, including mats, blankets, and biosafety material to prevent COVID-19 infections.
Partner organizations in the region
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
Some of the most affected communities were those found in Alta Verapaz and Quiché, in the northwestern and northern regions of Guatemala. AFSC and the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC) responded to the emergency by providing Alta Verapaz residents temporary housing, hygiene supplies and materials for rebuilding their homes. Also, due to the impact on people’s livelihoods, pigs were delivered for breeding and production of fertilizer, as well as cabbage, onion, broccoli and celery seedlings. In the Ixil Triangle area in Quiché, AFSC distributed food to 200 families and joined efforts with Red de Jóvenes Ixiles Chemol Txumb’al to provide water containers in four communities.
Comisión de Acción Social Menonita (CASM)
In Honduras millions of people each year deal with extreme weather conditions, hunger, failed crops and violence – all of which have been made worse by climate change. CASM is the first organization in Honduras to be certified by The Adaptation Fund (AF) which finances programs that help vulnerable communities in developing countries adapt to climate change. CASM used the resources from the Central American Hurricanes Response Fund to implement projects to support the social and economic reactivation of families in the aftermath of Eta and Iota and prepare them to be resilient to future disasters.
Equipo de Reflexión Investigación y Comunicación – Radio Progreso (ERIC-RP)
Guided by Jesuit principles, the organization works for and with the most impoverished and vulnerable communities to promote the construction of a just and equitable society. Together with organizations of the Solidarity and Emergency Network (REDES), ERIC-RP launched an emergency plan to assist the population affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota at the right bank of the Ulúa river. With support from the Central American Hurricanes Response Fund and other local and international organizations, between November 2020 and January 2021, they distributed 10,000 baskets of food, water, clothing, hygiene and biosecurity supplies in 119 shelters, settlements and 31 communities. At the beginning of 2021 ERIC-RP implemented an agricultural reactivation strategy to compensate for the losses of 28,276 blocks of crops. Creole seeds of corn, beans, plantains and vegetables were supplied to more than 700 producers who lost everything. Producers have pledged to return part of what they received to form a collective seed bank once the harvest multiplies, to continue benefiting other people.
Organización de Desarrollo Étnico Comunitario (ODECO)
ODECO is formed by Afro-descendants to promote the development of their communities, advocate for the defense of their rights, culture, social inclusion and integration in the country’s development processes. Since the announcement of the imminent arrival of Hurricane Eta, the storms and tropical depressions that followed, alarms were raised about the impacts that it would have on the life and economy of the Garifuna communities, already heavily burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. From November 03 to 06, 2020, rains on the north coast of Honduras amounted to more than 300 millimeters of water, as a result of more than 72 hours of intense rain that left the Sula Valley specially affected in its economy and infrastructure. The Garifuna communities located in this area were under water as a result of the floods caused by the rise of the Ulúa and Chamelecón rivers, among others. It is estimated by local authorities that more than 1000 families suffered direct damage and 500 had to be evacuated. ODECO provided basic assistance to the Afro-Honduran communities through this crisis, which has shown once again the multiple and serious vulnerabilities that they face.
Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH)
OFRANEH contributes to the improvement of the quality of life and defense of cultural and territorial rights of the Garifuna people of Honduras. The rains, winds and floods from hurricanes Eta and Iota caused countless losses and damage to the Garifuna communities, primarily on the Atlantic Coast. Damages were registered to housing and infrastructure, to staple crops for consumption and roads leading to their communities.
At the peak of the crisis, OFRANEH provided basic assistance to more than 800 people in three shelters. However, even at the beginning of January 2021, two months after the arrival of Eta and Iota, Garifuna families had not received help from authorities to clean their homes or rent a temporary place to live. Resources from the Central American Hurricanes Response Fund were used to support these families to buy food, medicines, clothing, tools for cleaning their flooded houses and transportation from San Pedro Sula to Vallecito for families who could not return to their homes.
OFRANEH has 52,572 members (25,920 men and 26,652 women) in 46 communities, in 5 of the 18 departments. To coordinate actions, it has an inverse pyramidal structure in which the maximum authority is the grassroots base, that is, the 46 Garifuna communities that form the organization and express themselves through representatives in the General Assembly.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
In Nicaragua CRS currently works in the departments of Estelí, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa, Jinotega, and the Autonomous Region of the North Caribbean Coast. Resources from the Central American Hurricanes Response Fund were used to support 300 families living in poverty and extreme poverty to recover their livelihoods and replace the productive assets that they lost as a result of hurricanes Eta and Iota. Complementarily, CRS is working with Growing Hope Globally (GHG) to conduct participatory processes at the community and family levels to define resilience plans to increase production at critical times of the year by implementing greater diversification and agricultural and agro ecological management.
With partner Caritas Estelí, CRS identified five municipalities in the north of the country, where the food security situation was extremely critical: San Lucas, Las Sabanas, Totogalpa, Yalagüina and Somoto. The families at these municipalities, after years of drought, faced the loss of their seeds for their main crops -corn and beans- due to the hurricanes. Families received high quality seeds of basic grains (corn / beans / white sorghum) to ensure the continuity of the agricultural cycle and thus food security.
Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho
Funds were used primarily to provide humanitarian assistance to members of the network and their families in Guatemala and Honduras. The already challenging conditions under which they live and work deteriorated further with the pandemic, turning more precarious with the pass of Eta and Iota. The hurricanes made even more visible the tremendous difficulties that organizations face to conduct their work, as well as the impossibility to do so if their basic living conditions are not safe nor stable.
What is the situation today?
Since the beginning of the year, communities themselves have raised the need to promote an advocacy strategy for the authorities to fulfill their responsibility to prevent and reduce vulnerability to rains and hurricanes. This involves shoreline repairs, rivers dredging, reforestation of upper river basins and a housing program. Any other action would be useless if their homes, their land and their lives are still in danger. Communities ranked the request for the repair of the damaged retaining banks of the Ulúa and adjacent rivers as top priority, since as long as that did not happen, many communities would continue to be in danger from a simple rain. Organizations in the region are clear that supporting these demands is a priority.
What is next?
The last months have been intense work of community organization, mobilization, awareness, communication and dialogue with the authorities. There has been progress, such as the commitment to include in the public repair plan several communities that had been ignored. Also, the works to repair the boards of rivers has started. Even so, the achievements are still limited and the scenarios challenging: authorities have not fulfilled their commitments, there is lack of transparency in the public procurement processes and even police repression at demonstrations. Some of the repaired river bordos have been labelled “made of sugar” by community leaders to illustrate the poor quality of the work. At the beginning of the rains in June, some communities were again isolated because rivers overflowed. The countries and people that are most affected by climate change are usually the poorest in the world, those who have contributed the least to the problem.
Communities in Central America are experiencing the effects of climate change, including prolonged droughts, rising sea levels and unpredictable rainfalls. Adapting to our changing climate is vital for people to remain to live in their hometowns, farm their land and raise their families. The effects of both COVID 19 and Eta and Iota have revealed the profound inequality and the need to implement strategies to strengthen the livelihoods of the most vulnerable. It is the start of the annual hurricane season again and there is a high possibility that new environmental phenomena will impact the same affected regions than last year. Communities do not give up and neither do we. Our work will continue to support them.
 Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
 OCHA, 2020 Hurricane Season, Situation Report no. 4