Dozens of people in the remote Guatemalan village of San Cristobal are still missing after a landslide swept through last week, leaving mud 50 feet deep in some places. Some of their relatives already think their loved ones are gone.
“There was a great tragedy here,” village resident Roland Calchak told Reuters. “I lost 23 members of my family. My father, my mother, my wife, my three children, grandchildren, sisters, sisters-in-law.”
More than 3.6 million people across Central America have been affected to varying degrees, according to the Red Cross. “We are talking about a huge impact across the region,” said Santiago Luego, of the Red Cross.
Dozens have been killed so far, and that number is expected to rise. The true fallout from this storm, though, might only be beginning.
Covid-19 will spread…but so will everything else
For the storm’s survivors, a deadly danger remains. Health authorities in Central America are deeply concerned about the potential spread of Covid-19 in Eta’s wake.
In Honduras, some shelters for storm refugees are crowded and poorly ventilated, and social distancing is often impossible.
“Just bringing them to safe ground has been a challenge,” said Mauricio Paredes of the Red Cross. “Now you have all these people together, so it’s a double challenge of not only protecting the people who have been effected but also protecting the first responders.”
Even before the storm, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala had poor public health systems that struggled in the fight against Covid-19. Local hospitals will now face the additional burden of other illnesses related to the storm and the flooding from dengue to cholera to yellow fever.
And while children are usually spared the worst from Covid-19, that will not be the case with other diseases. “We’re going to get a perfect storm or a pandoras box of diseases that predominantly affect children,” said Mark Connolly, the UNICEF representative in Honduras speaking to CNN.
Connolly says more children could die across Central America if urgent aid, things like water purification tablets, water filters, and the overall swift repair of neighborhood water systems, is not delivered quickly.
The Red Cross says the scale of the problem is so immense, it plans on conducting sustained operations for at least 18 months with the target of helping 75,000 of the worst affected people in those three countries.
With nothing holding them back, many will head north
In the three Central American countries hit the hardest, there are no widely effective social safety nets. The ability of these federal governments to respond with the resources needed to mount a substantive response is limited.
Any vast fleets of trucks or planes with supplies that do arrive will come largely due to the efforts of NGO’s and whatever generosity richer countries are willing to offer.
Rebuilding in many of these communities will be extremely slow, if non-existent. With no jobs, no homes, and no clear vision of what the future holds, there will be little choice for many but to leave. The destination is obvious.
“Lots of these families lost everything,” said Connolly. “So, now their only hope might be to get a loan for a few thousand dollars and migrate north to Mexico and the United States.”
What awaits those migrants at border crossings is unclear. Mexico, for example, has all but closed its borders to Central American migrants over the past year, a Trump administration demand backed up with economic threats like tariffs on Mexican imports to the US.
And should they be let into Mexico, what fate awaits them at the US southern border? The Trump administration has all but halted immigration there, denying entry to those trying to be let in on everything from humanitarian grounds to political asylum.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will reverse many of Trump’s policies. But with the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to rage in the US, it is unclear what the new administration would do with large numbers of new migrants.
A schooling crisis
Others will choose to stay put, despite the devastation around them.
Adults will try to go back to work, try to get food and water on the table. But for the region’s children, there is another looming crisis. Millions of kids have already been out of school since the spring due to Covid-19 closures. Now, getting back in the classroom will be even more uncertain.
“The situation in Honduras, for example, was that before [the storm] there were about 6,000 schools without running water,” said Connolly. “Now you can multiple that by several times because the water systems have collapsed in multiple areas.”
Many schools were also damaged or destroyed during the storm. And those that weren’t have often been turned into shelters for struggling families.
All of that combined could add up to even lengthier delays before kids can get back to learning.
Central America is no stranger to devastating storms. Hurricane Fifi killed thousands in 1974. Hurricane Mitch wiped out hundreds of thousands of homes in 1998.
The true damage from Eta likely won’t be known for a while. But a powerful storm combined with the worst pandemic in 100 years will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the region.
And the situation might soon get worse. The National Hurricane Center says it is very likely a hurricane will develop in the Caribbean in the next few days with most models in agreement that it will make landfall next week in Northern Honduras.