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'It Never Be the Old Bluefields' : Nicaragua's Different City Shattered by 'Big Breeze'

October 28, 1988|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua — When Bluefields celebrated its 85th anniversary as a city last week, it was a funky fishing port with a reggae beat and an Afro-Caribbean visage--a crazy quilt of brightly painted wooden houses and magnificent churches sprawled along a bay. Long in decay, it was still proud to be different from the rest of Nicaragua.

The anniversary festivities, and much that was Bluefields itself, came to a traumatic end last Saturday at 2:47 a.m. That was the time frozen on the clock tower of the Roman Catholic cathedral when Hurricane Joan swept ashore with what residents now recall in awe as "the Big Breeze."

Today, the city looks as if it has been razed by a megaton bomb set off in the bay. The storm's 135-m.p.h. blast, which was likened to the roar of a jet taking off and lasted 11 hours, toppled or smashed all but about 100 of Bluefield's 6,000 homes, uprooted trees and sent virtually every roof flying. The scene is dizzying: What little still stands is tilted at obtuse angles.

"The breeze come plenty hard, man," said Reynaldo Sambola, a 28-year-old fisherman with the lilting English of the Black Creole dialect. "My house blown down to nothing. Whole coast is wrecked, man. It take three, four years to build back up, in my way of thinking. But it never be the old Bluefields."

The wreckage here is perhaps the most poignant legacy of a season of rambling killer hurricanes. Scores of settlements from Barbados to the Texas Gulf Coast were battered, as they are each year in late summer and early autumn, by tropical storms. Although Joan took just 13 lives here, the locals, known as Bluefilenos, say it eroded two pillars of a culture already declining under Sandinista rule.

One pillar is its architecture. Gone is the best-known landmark, the century-old Moravian church with its white New England wood frame and maroon trim. Of 120 Caribbean-style wooden buildings marked for restoration before the hurricane, 117 were destroyed, including the Croddell Hotel and the Tropical Club. Although traditionalists resist the idea, city officials say Bluefields will be rebuilt mostly of prefabricated concrete.

In a more subtle shift, the hurricane is expected to drive blacks from Bluefields in larger numbers than the mestizo, or mixed Indian-European, people who have slowly outnumbered them here in the past decade. Black people have stronger family ties to the United States and Canada, and many talk of emigrating to escape the desolation.

"Bluefields will develop more and more along the lines of a mestizo town than a Creole-African town," said Edmundo Gordon, a University of Texas anthropologist who studies Nicaraguan coastal people. "This disaster will make it more like any other Nicaraguan town."

Early British Settlers

Bluefields, named for a Dutch pirate called Blauveldt, was first settled by British lumberjacks and privateers who attacked the Spanish fleet 400 years ago. When the British left in 1894, descendants of their African slaves came under the rule of Nicaragua's Hispanic majority.

For most of this century, Managua ignored Bluefields, which still has no road to the rest of the country. Ships brought goods from all over the world, while U.S. fishing and lumber companies dominated the local economy.

Things changed with the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. Insensitive to local traditions, the new rulers quickly antagonized the anti-Communist coastal people with commercial restrictions and plans to bring in Cuban teachers. After some native boys joined the U.S.-backed Contras, Bluefilenos were burdened with military conscription, a large army presence and an influx of war refugees that swelled the population from 25,000 to 38,000.

Tensions have eased since Managua put Sandinistas who are Creole natives in local leadership posts. A 1987 autonomy law promises local elections and greater self-determination for coastal people. But the voting, scheduled for next March, has been put off indefinitely by the disaster.

Given the lingering climate of mistrust in Bluefields, it was not surprising that few residents took seriously the hurricane warnings issued last week from Managua, even when President Daniel Ortega arrived in person to dramatize them. Besides, they reasoned, no hurricane had ever struck this far south in this century. Fifteen of the 34 evacuation boats left town empty.

"First of all, we don't know what a hurricane is, really, and second, the government is always telling us things that are foolishness," said fisherman Deny Hill.

Many Bluefilenos now credit the Sandinistas' talent for meticulous block-by-block organization for preventing a greater tragedy. A committee in each neighborhood identified those who had refused to move into sturdy shelters by Friday evening and sent rescue gangs to pull them in by rope through the howling midnight storm--a heroic effort that saved scores of lives.

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