Eta, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season’s record-tying 28th storm, began affecting northern Honduras as a Category 4 hurricane approaching the north-eastern shores of neighbouring Nicaragua on 3 November, bringing torrential rains that the United States’ National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast could leave as much as 635mm of rain and cause wind speeds as high as 275 km/h.
During its slow three-day journey over Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, Eta downgraded to a tropical storm and then to a tropical depression, drenching much of Honduras and causing rising river levels, flooding and landslides across the country. These impacts collectively created a host of overlapping humanitarian needs for hundreds of thousands of people in vulnerable communities now facing the grim reality of recovering from Honduras’ worst natural hazard in more than 20 years.
For many in the worst affected areas, Eta evoked horrific memories of Hurricane Fifi in 1974 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998, both considered among the most destructive storms to ever strike Central America, with death tolls numbering in the thousands. Mitch, considered the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, cost Honduras decades of development. Daily figures from the Permanent Commission for Contingencies (COPECO) have steadily risen each day to account for as many as 2.94 million affected people as of 12 November, roughly 30 per cent of the country’s population.
While Eta’s material damage, which authorities are still quantifying due to ongoing access constraints to cut off communities, may not match Mitch’s nationwide level of destruction, the potential impact may potentially be worse, given pre-existing vulnerabilities stemming from recurring climate shocks, deteriorating economic conditions, high food insecurity, forced displacement and chronic violence.
Eta comes as Honduras deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated these vulnerabilities. As such, response to Eta must build on longstanding humanitarian response efforts from partners who are well-versed in the scope and scale of Honduras’ multidimensional needs and who are best positioned to provide immediate life-saving assistance and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in communities reeling in the wake of Eta’s devastating impact.
Between incessant rains, widespread flooding and landslides, Eta caused damage across nearly all of Honduras’ 18 departments. At least 745 communities across 155 of Honduras’ 298 municipalities report varying degrees of damage. The extent of this damage beyond the rolling count of affected people and official death toll of 74 people may not be known for weeks, as COPECO currently reports damage to 150 roads as well as more than 60 damaged or destroyed bridges, obstacles that have limited access to critically affected communities and isolated more than 103,000 people. With tens of thousands of people still cut off with unknown access to food or safe water for consumption and sanitation, the real number of affected people and number of deaths attributable to Eta may never be known.
Eta has thus far driven at least 42,000 people to 425 shelters, giving way to one of the most critical humanitarian priorities to respond to while authorities scramble to reach all Eta-affected communities to save lives and assess the true level of the storm’s overall impact. The convergence of large numbers of people in shelters, limited shelter management capacities, urgent food security, water, health and protection needs and the COVID-19 pandemic stand to create a complex series of interrelated needs that only amplify one another’s consequences.
With each passing day revealing the true magnitude of Eta’s impact, the long-term consequences and concerns over impacts to livelihoods and physical and emotional well-being become clearer. Clean-up efforts may take months. The slowly receding waters, which have already contaminated water supply and distribution infrastructure, will almost assuredly wipe out crops and harvests, placing food security and livelihoods in jeopardy; initial reports already cite losses of, or damages to, some 318,635 hectares of crops. The standing water also provides disease-carrying vectors with ample breeding grounds in a country that experienced its most severe dengue outbreak ever as recently as 2019, which saw 112,000 cases and 180 deaths.
These impacts and their still-unfolding consequences, together with the COVID-19 crisis, pose a new set of backbreaking challenges in a country where there are already 1.6 million people with humanitarian needs and 3.0 million people with critical problems related to resilience and recovery, according to latest calculation incorporating the impact of COVID. Prior to Eta and to the COVID-19 crisis, unemployment stood at 1.5 million people, with 26 per cent in the formal sector and 74 per cent in the informal sector. ILO estimates indicate youth unemployment stood as high as 10.2 per cent in 2019. Protracted drought and recurring flooding had left 962,000 people in severe food insecurity, 1.7 million people had WASH needs, and chronic violence affected about 485,000 people, with forced displacement affecting about 245,000 people.
Most affected areas
The northern Atlantic departments of Atlántida, Cortés, Santa Bárbara and Yoro took the brunt of the known damage and collectively account for just over two million affected people, more than two-thirds of COPECO’s national count as of 12 November. Cortés, home to Honduras’ second largest city and the country’s industrial centre of San Pedro Sula, has at least 80 per cent of all sheltered people.
Parts of these four departments comprise the highly flood-prone Sula valley, an agriculturally fertile area that is home about 30 per cent of Honduras’ population and represents about two-thirds of Honduras’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These areas, among the most densely populated in the country, will likely see losses in agriculture, livestock and livelihoods that will come to bear on food insecurity and poverty and potentially drive increased displacement and migration. The affected area also concentrates heavy industry, agriculture at small and large scale and mining, meaning that risks of chemical contamination as a result of the impact of the storms on these sites cannot yet be ruled out.
Other areas with significant impacts include Gracias a Dios in the north-east, whose 16,557 evacuated families are second only to Cortés and El Paraíso in south-central Honduras, whose nearly a quarter of a million affected people trails only the four Sula valley departments.
As with any emergency, Honduras’ vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected. These high-risk groups include people in extreme poverty, indigenous populations, Afro-Honduran ethnic groups, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), pregnant adolescents aged 11 to 19, single female heads of households, children under five, undernourished children, people with disabilities and the elderly, groups. These groups will require concerted efforts to obtain sex-and-age-disaggregated data (SADD), as well as disaggregated data on ethnicity, disability and other characteristics to identify differentiated needs and better target response efforts.
While Eta poses a serious threat to all these groups, the broadest vulnerability is poverty; Honduras already has one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean at 54.8 per cent, a number the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates may reach as high 57.8 per cent, excluding the impact of COVID-19 confinement measures. Honduras’ Human Development Index (HDI) rating of 0.623 places it second only to Haiti as the lowest in the entire region, with its Inequality-Adjusted HDI of 0.464 evidence of the tremendous inequality in human development which continues to plague the country.
Geographically, the Garifuna Afro-Honduran communities are mostly located along Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast, while the Tawahkas and Miskitas indigenous groups are mostly found in Gracias a Dios, areas that took on significant amounts of rain. Indigenous and Afro-Honduran populations already face a general lack of access to essential services such as water and sanitation, either due to lack of coverage in their remote rural communities or due to deficient infrastructure in poorer urban neighbourhoods they have migrated to, some on account of violence and land appropriations. Indigenous people also face higher poverty rates than normal, with estimates of at least 71 per cent of indigenous people living below the poverty line.
Additionally, Atlántida, Cortés and Yoro have high rates of returning migrants and IDPs, given their proximity to the western border with Guatemala and status as a migrant transit point, creating inherent vulnerabilities that leave this group doubly exposed in emergencies. Over the long term, Eta has the potential to spur even more migration from Honduras, with the possibility of creating tensions with neighbouring countries in the context of COVID-19, as witnessed during the recent migrant caravans. The added hardships will inevitably cause forced displacement and increased cross-border movement. Historically, massive migration flows from Honduras to the United States grew considerably in the years following Mitch under the US’ Temporary Protection Status (TPS) programme that allowed for legal residence. Despite suffering comparatively fewer effects from Eta, Guatemala already announced it will request TPS for its citizens, with Honduras potentially following suit.
Eta’s short – and long-term impact on food security may disproportionately affect children under five in Honduras. Just under a quarter of all children under five suffer from stunted growth. Rates of chronic undernourishment and stunted growth are as high as 48 per cent some areas, a characteristic closely correlated to poverty given the disparity in stunted growth rates between the highest socioeconomic quintile (8 per cent) and the lowest (42 per cent).
Access to WASH, food and health services, protection and COVID-19 prevention measures, both outside and within shelters, are immediate priorities following Eta’s life-threatening flooding and landslides. Based on preliminary field reports, there are serious concerns over Eta’s consequences on access to safe WASH services after considerable damages to fresh water storage and distribution infrastructure, short – and long-term food security following widespread damages to crops and cattle, access to and continuity of quality healthcare services amid reported damages to health centres and affected healthcare staff, adequate shelter spaces with sufficient resources, capacities and measures in place to mitigate COVID-19 spread and ensure safe and dignified short – and long-term stays for people who will have no home to return to and adequate protection for vulnerable groups within and outside shelters already at high risk over endemic violence.
While the interrelation of typical post-hurricane needs requires agile and effective coordination, the interrelation of these needs in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents atypical response considerations and an even greater integration of inter-sectoral response.
While past and current deployments are yielding valuable information, there are still several gaps in assessments that humanitarian partners are working to fill. Some 20 teams comprised of Humanitarian Country Team organizations with a presence in affected departments are carrying out Multi-sector Initial Rapid Assessments (MIRA) to complement field deployments. Personnel from the CONADEH human rights ombudsman’s office are also in the field supporting assessments.
Food Security partners are working to carry out a rapid needs assessment, as well as a damage and loss assessment for the agricultural sector. Health partners are currently conducting a rapid assessment to support epidemiological surveillance. WASH partners are evaluating damage evaluations in specific communities and temporary shelters. Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) are undertaking evaluations to assess emergency communications needs.
WFP is supporting evaluation needs with a rapid assessment targeting key informants across 105 priority municipalities determined according to existing flood vulnerabilities and historical emergency indicators, parameters that have placed several municipalities in Cortés, Atlántida and Gracias a Dios as critically affected areas. This rapid assessment is gathering key information on needs ranging from food security to protection, migration and material damage recovery, among others, to support intersectoral analyses.
The Regional Assessment and Analysis Cell (A&A) was launched before impact to provide actors with the latest information, facilitate preliminary impact scenarios and exchange information. This cell offers support to local and regional actors using local, regional, and global sources.
ECLAC is initiating a Damage and Loss Assessment (DaLA) mission to evaluate the economic and social impact of Eta, with a regional focus on the most affected areas. The assessment will analyze the impact of Eta on the country’s infrastructure as well as the social and productive sectors.
Efforts are well underway to support the Government’s response efforts both before and after their call for international assistance despite the numerous access challenges. There are more than 50,000 frontline response personnel and volunteers. Humanitarian presence, including international organizations, national NGOs and faith-based groups, has grown to include nearly 300 response activities from 22 reporting organizations working in 52 municipalities across 16 of Honduras’ 18 departments. The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) deployed a team of specialists to support national and local coordination, Emergency Operations Centre operations in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, assessments and analysis and information management.
The Government, who activated an initial US$2 million emergency fund at the onset of the emergency, has been active in delivering tens of thousands of units of relief items, food and water supplies and biosecurity equipment to affected communities and people in shelter. Government teams are also working to rehabilitate roads, damaged water systems and houses in badly affected areas. Authorities are facilitating the arrival of international assistance through simplified customs mechanisms that will allow expedited entry and reception.
Humanitarian organizations have spared no time in mobilizing national and global internal resources and personnel to provide Honduras with material and technical support, thus far delivering a reported 45,000 litres of water, nearly 18,000 hygiene kits, health kits and/or food kits and deploying 100 staff to support various operational needs related to WASH, Protection, Food and Nutritional Security, CCCM, Health, Logistics and Coordination/Information Management. Some partners have already explored their own global financing mechanisms, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) US$21.9 million multi-country appeal for Eta that include Honduras.
Bilateral support has come in with a shipment of food supplies from the Government of El Salvador, mobile response units for health and operations and 55 response personnel from the Government of Colombia and support from the United States’ Honduras-based Joint Task Force-Bravo in rescue and logistics operations. The regional Central American Disaster Prevention Coordination Centre (CEPREDENAC), the Central American Integration System’s (SICA) intergovernmental disaster risk management body, is also supporting Government response efforts.
Honduras is also receiving generous financial support from foreign nations and international institutions, either individually or as part of Central American relief funds for Eta. The European Union is mobilizing an initial US$1.77 million for Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to address urgent WASH, health and protection needs, the Republic of Korea is allocating US$700,000 across five Central American countries affected by Eta, including Honduras, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided Honduras with an immediate US$120,000 for initial relief purchases. Switzerland pledged about US$547,000 towards the IFRC regional appeal.
International financing institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank (WB) and the Central Bank for Economic Integration are committing their coordinated support via short-, medium – and long-term action plans for humanitarian and reconstruction financing for Honduras, as well as Guatemala and Nicaragua. CABEI has already granted Honduras US$500,000 to support humanitarian actions.