Hurricane Eta is the worst storm to hit Central America since Hurricane Mitch in 1998—the most destructive natural disaster to impact the region. Experts believe the economic toll could be greater than the damage inflicted by Mitch in some areas. The 12th hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, Eta has affected more than 3 million people in Central America, and caused massive devastation and destruction. To date, more than 200 people have died, though the full extent of casualties is still unknown. Over 100,000 families have been displaced or forced to abandon their homes. Their crops and livelihoods have been destroyed, and critical infrastructure such as bridges and roads were washed away or damaged beyond repair.
Honduras was the worst affected by the hurricane, with initial estimates of 1.8 million people impacted, 68 communities with a total of over 102,000 people left incommunicado, 220,000 hectares of crops affected, and 684 homes, 113 roads, and 31 bridges damaged. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city and an economic hub, suffered extensive flooding, including the San Pedro International Airport. In Nicaragua, an estimated 1.2 million people were affected; in Guatemala, that number is estimated at over 300,000, with around 16,777 homes damaged and another 670 homes at risk. In a region already dealing with weak infrastructure, systemic corruption, COVID-19, and pre-existing humanitarian needs, the ravages of Hurricane Eta is cause for grave concern.
It is critical for local and international authorities to coordinate humanitarian assistance to the most affected populations. This assistance should include food, water, blankets, and sanitation kits, including PPE. Medication is also desperately needed to treat diseases as a result of the flooding and to prevent further spread of COVID-19. While international agencies have announced some relief initiatives, the response has been slow and insufficient, and the response of governments lackluster. Without substantial and comprehensive assistance, more lives will be lost and the economic impact will further push desperate people to migrate to survive.
This process will need significant oversight and control mechanisms, and transparency to guarantee that aid is efficiently and appropriately used, and to guarantee that aid is not embezzled. Central America has already seen cases of significant corruption and graft in the regional response to the pandemic. In Honduras, for example, the National Corruption Council (CNA) uncovered a massive mismanagement of COVID-19 relief funds by Invest-H, Honduras’ strategic investment body that spent $84.6 million on virus response measures. But much of these funds were spent on overvalued medical equipment that arrived late, incomplete, or simply did not function. This is particularly concerning given the recent government announcement that Invest-H would handle rebuilding bridges in communities affected by the hurricane.
The response to Hurricane Eta will also need the direct involvement of international and national civil society organizations familiar with the communities and their needs and vulnerabilities. Civil society can play a critical role in ensuring that aid reaches the most remote and affected populations and that their immediate needs are properly met.
Only three other Atlantic hurricane seasons on record have had at least 12 hurricanes, and Eta is the strongest Atlantic hurricane to occur this late in the calendar year since 2016. Forecasters are predicting that a new storm, Hurricane Theta, may travel the same path as Eta towards Central America with potentially similar impacts. More lives, housing, and infrastructure could be damaged. The U.S. government and other international donors must respond urgently with humanitarian assistance and coordinate a long-term recovery effort similar to what was done after Hurricane Mitch over twenty years ago.