SAN JUANCITO, Honduras — It was a sure sign of trouble when Wilmer Pineda's sixth-grade teacher frantically knocked on his door at twilight. He just didn't know how much trouble.
The Las Flores and San Juan rivers that met a block from his house were rising rapidly, the teacher reported. His family had to flee.
That night last October, tropical storm Mitch washed away Wilmer's home, his school and his future.
Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans face similar losses from the storm, which killed 9,000 people.
Still, the loss of educational opportunities for children like 15-year-old Wilmer may turn out to be the most serious long-term legacy of all, authorities warn.
In Honduras, the country hit hardest by the storm, future carpenters, electricians, secretaries and business managers are leaving school or in danger of quitting.
A deluge of dropouts--whether grade school or college--jeopardizes an ambitious government plan to industrialize and develop this poor country, where the average person has only a fourth-grade education.
Authorities estimate that because of Mitch, at least 10% of Honduras' 1.8 million schoolchildren will be absent during the semester that began recently.
The missing students are young people like Wilmer, who wanted to learn how to make furniture. Instead, he must haul sand for a $1 a day to supplement his father's erratic earnings as a brick mason.
"We had planned to send him to vocational school to learn a trade, but we cannot after this," said Wilmer's mother, Ramona Diaz, gesturing toward the sandy ravine where 70 houses, including theirs, used to be.
The story is repeated throughout the cities and countryside of Honduras.
Some May Start but Not Finish Year
Like Wilmer's mother, the Nava family, ranchers in the eastern province of Olancho, are telling their children they cannot go to school this year.
Other families, like the Pinedas' neighbors, the Madariagas, decided that their children could start classes as long as they also picked coffee to pay for their school supplies.
Some storm victims are depending on promised donations of book bags, pencils and notebooks. Authorities warn that there is a serious risk that children who start the year so precariously may not finish.
Education Minister Jose Ramon Calix has been forced to turn his attention from long-range reform aimed at attracting industry and providing much-needed jobs, to cobbling together a viable education system this semester and persuading storm victims to keep their children in school.
The storm wiped out 500 schools, soaked 5 million grade-school textbooks and flooded the Education Ministry building, destroying records and the computer system.
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, dormitories that housed 4,000 students from hamlets too small to have high schools were washed away.
Classes were suspended for the last month of the 1998 term because schools that survived the deluge became homeless shelters. Although school officially was to start in February across the country, many schools could not begin classes until this month in order to give officials time to relocate the homeless.
In towns like San Juancito, where schools were destroyed, civic leaders found temporary classrooms in the offices of community organizations. The Education Ministry has offered to pay for rebuilding the nine-classroom school in this mountain town about an hour's drive from Tegucigalpa. Calix estimated that the total cost of repairing damage to Honduras' educational system will reach $50 million.
Just as important as the buildings is the damage to the household budgets of poor families like the Pinedas.
Such families struggle to keep their children in school uniforms, notebooks, pencils and erasers in the best of times.
Their children typically work part-time as soon as they are big enough to hold a hoe in the country or a box of chewing gum in town.
When times get tough--and they are tough now--parents pull children out of school to minimize expenses and increase income, as Wilmer's mother did three years ago.
That time, he lost two years of school. Now that he has finished grade school, he is not likely to go back. Even though the vocational school is free, his parents would have to buy his materials and do without his wages.
Under those circumstances, many parents see an education beyond primary school as a luxury.
Diaz, who has five children younger than Wilmer, said: "I just hope that God will help me get them through sixth grade."
Calix has been fighting that mentality since he was appointed education minister last June.
About 85% of grade school-age children attend classes, but just 35% go on to junior high school. And only half of those finish the equivalent of ninth grade.
"They end up with no middle school education and no trade," Calix said.
Before Mitch, he had planned to persuade poor families to keep sending their children to school by beefing up vocational education programs that would allow them to eventually earn higher wages.