Time after time, Digna Arguello folded her hands in prayer and asked God to put an end to the tempest. But Hurricane Mitch just raged on, tearing at her tiny home in the remote Nicaraguan village of Chinandega, and dumping nearly a metre of rain a day on a broad swath of Central America. The deluge turned rivers into deadly torrents, triggering mountain mud slides that swallowed up entire villages and leaving a horrific human toll - more than 10,000 people killed and 1.5 million homeless. Arguello, the wife of a Lutheran missionary from Rimbey, Alta., got a glimpse of something like hell itself when the river surging through her town carried with it human body parts and corpses - some of them children lashed to trees by doomed parents who hoped their youngsters would float to safety. "People are dying in the mud," a shaken Arguello told Maclean's. "Many of them are missing arms and legs."
Packing winds that often reached 300 km/h, Mitch smashed into the eastern coast of Nicaragua and Honduras on Oct. 26. The hurricane, a deadly category-five storm - the strongest on meteorological scales - was one of the worst ever recorded. Normally hurricanes quickly track north across the region, but Mitch was held in check by an unusually strong weather front over the Gulf of Mexico. For the next five days, the storm pummelled the region, washing out roads and hundreds of bridges and destroying 70 per cent of Honduras's lush agricultural land. Twisted bodies, their arms reaching skyward through heavy red mud, littered the valleys where the rivers and mud slides had deposited them. The air was full of the stench of death from thousands of rapidly decaying corpses. "We have before us a panorama of death and ruin," said Honduran President Carlos Flores, as he appealed for international aid. "What took us 50 years to build has been destroyed in 72 hours."
The storm severed communications to remote villages, and as late as Nov. 1 authorities still did not fully comprehend the scope of tragedy. Nicaraguan officials at first even failed to declare a state of emergency. By Nov. 4, a massive international relief effort was finally mobilized - but it arrived too late to help many of those who lay dying from horrible wounds. Canada promised $8 million in aid plus 180 troops, including engineers and relief workers. The task is immense. Many of the homeless and injured remained stranded in remote mountain areas. With most of the roads and bridges in the two countries destroyed, it was going to take days to ferry the injured out. According to the United Nations, the damage is so extensive that it has set back development in the region by 20 years. "Honduras is mortally wounded," said Flores. "The great plantations of banana, melon and coffee no longer exist."
In some devastated areas where villages once stood, the army burned hundreds of corpses. Many lone bodies were interred in anonymous graves, with a simple marker indicating the spot. Digna Arguello's husband, Rev. Sandor Arguello, pulled scores of the dead and dying from the mud near Chinandega, about 100 km northwest of Managua. Thousands of other victims lay just beyond his reach, 20 km away at the foot of the towering Casitas volcano in Nicaragua's western mountains.
A lake had formed in the crater of the ancient volcano, but when swollen by the heavy rains, it broke through its walls, burying the towns below in an avalanche of mud, trees and rock. Sandor Arguello told Maclean's he joined other rescuers in an attempt to reach the villages where as many as 3,000 people were believed to be entombed, but they found their path blocked by a wall of mud.
Those who survived face a bleak future. Not only have many contracted debilitating illnesses such as dengue fever, cholera and malaria, thousands must also learn to live without their parents, children or brothers and sisters. Ten-year-old Norlan Javier Ocejo was one such victim. As a nurse lifted him onto his hospital bed in Chinandega, the open wounds across his back caused him to scream out: "I want my mommy." She was there, but Norlan was told he would never see his older brother and younger sister again. It was a scene repeated across the region. "Forgive me," said Dr. Manuel Carrasco Villela, wiping tears from his eyes, as he treated the dying in a hospital in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. "This is going to get worse."
The legions of homeless in both countries were also growing angry as they desperately sought food. "You are starving us to death," a crowd chanted at Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman as he visited the city of Leon. In Honduras, President Flores instituted martial law and told authorities to "act without thinking twice" to prevent looting. But the dispossessed may prove hard to subdue. "Many poor people are in terrible need," said Rev. Arguello. "They have no water, no blankets and no food."
Even as the homeless sought shelter, nature dealt Nicaragua a bitter second blow when a volcano known as Cerro Negro suddenly erupted, sending a flood of ash and lava down its north face. The volcano is only a few kilometres from the site of the massive mud slide, and it forced hundreds of villagers to flee in panic. As well, earthquake tremors were reported, bringing back memories of a 1972 Managua quake that killed 10,000.
Although damage elsewhere was not nearly as bad, Mitch claimed hundreds of lives in El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Belize. At first, the storm appeared to be running out of strength, but as it approached Mexico it gathered speed. Turning east, it battered the Florida Keys, knocking out power and uprooting trees before finally dying out in the Atlantic. For the people of Central America, however, the effects of Mitch's brutality will live on for decades.
Maclean's November 16, 1998