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Mission accomplished: The United States completes a $1 billion hurricane relief and reconstruction program in Central America and the Caribbean

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The ruinous track of Hurricane Georges, September 20-26, and the even more devastating path of Hurricane Mitch, October 23 - November 3, 1998. A category 3 hurricane when it hit the Dominican Republic, Georges caused extensive damage as it moved slowly over some of the most populated and productive regions of the country. When Mitch struck Honduras the following month, it was a category 5 (the most intense on the hurricane scale). Though Mitch lost strength inland, its heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding and mudslides while it was stalled over Central America.

The Disasters

In September and October 1998, two hurricanes - Georges and Mitch - successively battered the Caribbean and Central America, leaving more than 19,000 dead or missing, displacing over 3 million people, and causing more than $8.5 billion in damage.

Georges struck the Dominican Republic on September 22. During the 16 hours that the hurricane traversed the country, 130-mile-an-hour winds destroyed one-third of its forests and 90 percent of its crops. Torrential rains caused hillside villages to collapse; sea surges obliterated miles of coastal housing.

The Dominican Republic bore the brunt of Georges, though en route the hurricane had pounded Puerto Rico and the Eastern Caribbean - St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Antigua, and Barbuda - and continued on to wreak havoc in Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas.

The worst was yet to come for the 1998 hurricane season. Mitch, the deadliest and most devastating Atlantic hurricane since 1780, emerged during the last week of October. It hovered off the coast of Honduras on October 26-27, generating winds up to 180 miles per hour and extraordinary rainfall. The hurricane then roiled over Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala at a ruinously slow pace, exiting Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula five days later. In parts of Honduras and Nicaragua, two feet of rain fell each day; some locations recorded accumulations of more than six feet.

Heavy rains swelled rivers into torrents that buried or demolished villages and towns. Floodwaters scoured away so much topsoil or deposited so much gravel and debris that farms and plantations were abandoned. Deforested mountain slopes could not sup-port the weight of waterlogged earth: land-slides swept away homes and destroyed rural road networks. In urban centers, surface water and pressure on underground pipes ruined water and sanitation systems.

The single most horrific event occurred in Nicaragua on October 30, 1998, when the side of the Casita volcano collapsed. Loose volcanic ash accumulated from centuries of eruptions became a deadly flow of mud and debris known as a lahar. During the night, it hurtled downhill at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour for seven miles, burying 2,000 people in the villages of El Porvernir and Rolando Rodriguez.

Mitch wiped out decades of investments in hospitals, clinics, schools, markets, municipal buildings, rural electrification, and irrigation systems. The hurricane also made rebuilding efforts more difficult by destroying equipment needed to repair and reopen roads.

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