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Half a Year After Mitch, Rebuilding Process Continues at a Crawl

Honduras: On tiny isle of Guanaja, relief efforts founder. At one settlement, construction stops after donated materials run out.

May 07, 1999|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUANAJA, Honduras — Carolina Suazo named her baby Brian, but everyone here calls him Mitchito--Little Mitch--for the hurricane that pummeled this island the day he was born and for two days afterward.

The 6-month-old baby's nickname is just one reminder of the drubbing this tiny island off the coast of Honduras took during the most powerful Caribbean storm in two centuries. Besides the naked tree trunks on the hillsides and the driftwood from smashed houses that still washes up on the beach each day, there are the lives that have been changed forever.

The months since the storm killed 9,000 people across Central America, eight of them here, have brought a mixture of blessings and hardships, nobility and skulduggery, along with the bittersweet hope seen in the foot-high pine saplings growing at the feet of once-majestic trees that are now leafless trunks.

Inland, a new, 120-family settlement called Las Brisas del Mitch--Mitch's Breezes--is growing on an abandoned airstrip. Two of the island's three main tourist resorts have reopened, providing much-needed jobs.

But poor fishermen are struggling to repair or replace their boats. Those who still have their vessels--the basic transportation on this island without roads--worry that they will be the next victims of the wave of outboard motor thefts that has swept over Guanaja.

And the distribution of donations has deeply divided islanders, leading to accusations of corruption and disorganization that echo those heard across Honduras and Nicaragua, the two nations most devastated by Mitch.

Islanders Improvise Distribution System

In mid-April, islanders impatient with the distribution system run by the Guanaja Ladies' Club, a local volunteer group, broke into 22 cargo containers that lined the shore and carried away what lumber, glass and nails they could. Family members in the Cayman Islands and the United States say they have collected donations that few people here have received.

"All the materials they have been sending have disappeared," said Marcelo Webster Moore, pulling nails from the scrap lumber of his old house, which was destroyed by Mitch, to use in building a new home.

The Moore clan has begun to rebuild the settlement of Mangrove Bight with help from a U.S. church group, but funds have run out. They have completed fewer than 20 of the 135 houses lost in the hurricane.

Like dozens of Mangrove Bight families, Moore and his wife are staying with friends. Those less fortunate are in tents.

Finally, a Home of Her Own

Eveline Moore, a 58-year-old grandmother, lived in a tent until three weeks ago, when she moved into a new house built by the volunteers from Global Challenge, a nondenominational assistance group founded by a Bozeman, Mont., minister.

"I put that tent in a bag and told my husband I didn't want to see it again," she said, happily gazing around her single-room house, about the size of a two-car garage. Hers was one of a dozen houses built by 200 high school students on spring break from Seventh-day Adventist boarding schools in Oregon, Michigan and Wyoming.

Work had stopped because building materials donated by hardware stores in Bozeman--a town of 22,660--and a German construction company ran out, said Dan Abbott, a building contractor who is overseeing the effort. Volunteers from Friday Harbor, Wash., arrived last week with their own lumber and nails, ready to build one house and help finish others.

The Honduran government promised to build 60 houses here, but so far it has barely begun restoring the public school. Confident of receiving more donations, Global Challenge plans to help out in the settlement of Savannah Bight and in Las Brisas del Mitch as well, Abbott said.

Projects based on volunteers working with local people seem to be those that turn out best, said Joaquin Wahl, one of about 100 foreigners who live on Guanaja. His hometown of Schwaebisch Hall, Germany, sent three containers of donations, including tools and an electric generator.

Wahl has helped with that effort while he rebuilds the bed and breakfast that he and his wife, Selena McLaughlin, once managed. The two have also been kept busy with a new addition to their family, McLaughlin's 4-year-old sister Lila.

She has been living with them since her mother, Miss Florentina, was killed and her father seriously injured when a house fell on them during the hurricane. Now they are in the protracted process of adopting her.

"Lila always has ideas," said McLaughlin, whose 3-year-old daughter, Angie, loves to follow along. One of Lila's ideas is to play hurricane. The girls jump on the bed they share, scattering their toys and clothes all over the room.

Then Lila directs: "Now we have to cry, because after Mama died, we all cried." She is the only one in the family who can tell the story of the hurricane without tears.

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