Across a sea of putrid mud a metre or so deep, Marvin Argueta pointed to the remnants of what a week ago was his home on the banks of the Chamelecón River. He had lost everything – but he still considers himself lucky.
“If we hadn’t got out in time, we all would have died,” said Argueta, 22, who along with his wife and four children abandoned their house when the flood waters reached waist height in the middle of the night. “A friend of mine lost his entire family.”
Argueta and his family are among hundreds of thousands in Honduras who lost everything they own in floods caused by Hurricane Eta. The storm made landfall off the coast of Nicaragua on 3 November as a category 4 hurricane before slowly moving across Honduras and then Guatemala.
“When we first came back to see our home we cried because everything was buried in mud,” said Argueta, who recently lost his job in construction and is now living underneath a nearby bridge with about a hundred other families. “We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
In Guatemala, scores of people are feared dead after rain tore off the side of a mountain, burying the village of Quejá. As the flood waters recede in Honduras the storm’s full toll there is starting to emerge. Although the official death count remains low, people are returning to what’s left of their homes to find Dantesque scenes of human and animal remains half-buried in mud, and there are countless others whose loved ones have disappeared.
In the valley surrounding San Pedro Sula, several rivers and flood canals overflowed so high that tens of thousands were trapped for days on rooftops without food or water. The total number of victims will likely never be known.
“I’m worried about my family because I haven’t heard anything from them,” said Raquel Aguilar, a resident of La Lima, one of the hardest hit communities in San Pedro Sula. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “The last picture they sent us all that you could see were the rooftops.”
Economists believe the loss could be greater even than that inflicted in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch, the most destructive storm to ever hit Central America and the second most deadly Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.
The brunt of the damage caused by Mitch was borne by the capital city of Tegucigalpa and the south of the country.
This time, however, the epicentre of the destruction is near the north coast, around San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city and economic motor, home to more than 2 million people.
“There are 13 communities along the tributaries of the Ulua River that are still mostly isolated and where many still are on the roofs of their homes waiting for a rescue,” said Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and director of the non-profit media outlet Radio Progreso.
The response by the Honduran government to the threat of Hurricane Eta – and later the destruction left in its wake – has been harshly criticised.