A Traumatic Odyssey in Urraco
The community of Urraco in the Sula valley was among those hardest hit by the raging waters that overflowed the banks of the Ulúa River. Seventy-year-old Jesuit priest Chema Cabello— "Cabellito"—was there, a witness and protagonist in one of the numerous stories that testify to the Honduran people's pain and heroism during Hurricane Mitch.
José María Cabello
North Urraco has an urban population of nearly 7,000 inhabitants and serves as a communications center for 42 communities, with a total population of some 34,000. Urraco's landscape is defined by endless plantations of bananas and African palms, while the transnational Tela Railroad Company has shaped the region's economy and history and left its stamp on the people's character and culture. Salaried workers carry out demanding, carefully orchestrated tasks and earn more than the peasant farmers who work the cornfields with their machetes, but they are slaves: work in the packing houses begins at 7:00am and ends at 7:00pm. A second "social class" is made up of the members of the mechanized HODUPALMA, with 32 associated cooperatives.
The third "social class" in Urraco is made up of the poor peasant farmers who work small cornfields. They came to the region as migrants looking for land and work. Displaced from their own culture, with an adventuresome spirit and an individualistic frame of mind, they are marked by the struggle to survive at any price. Many of them live by supplementing scanty yields from corn cultivated in abandoned lowland plots with temporary work in the Tela. It's almost a miracle that they survive. Other members of the community include merchants, teachers, artisan manufacturers, cobblers, seamstresses, tailors, self-taught mechanics. They also include people who have achieved a relatively solid economic position thanks to cattle or the cultivation of plantains.
Ulúa: a powerful dragon The Ulúa River reigns over Urraco's geography. From its source in the mountains some 300 km. away, it fills El Cajón dam then flows into the broad Sula and Urraco valleys, where it snakes along like an enormous, powerful dragon. In calm periods, people use the water for irrigation and catch a variety of fish from the river that gently sweeps away the garbage from the towns that lie along its banks. But when heavy rain and hurricanes come, the Ulúa rumbles like a powerful dragon, bringing death and destruction.
Urraco's people went through an unforgettable drama together when the rain brought by Hurricane Mitch caused the Ulúa to overflow its banks. The tension was palpable all over town as reports of the hurricane began to come in. No one was surprised to see the river swell and begin to flood the town. The people are accustomed to the river's fury, to leaving their houses, losing furniture, clothes, chickens, pigs and the like. They know what it's like to spend hours living like cave people in the surrounding hills. But no one imagined that, this time, everything would be different.
General anxiety In the days leading up to the dragon's great onslaught, people went down to the river every day to measure the water level. The first dramatic moment came when the water rose four meters above its normal level and reached to within 30 cm. of the bank. Measurements were taken where the Ulúa passes through the center of town, and the danger was clearly very serious. At that point, the river runs just two meters below street level. If it were to overflow there, the consequences would be catastrophic. The torrents of water would surge with enormous force and the dragon would swallow up virtually the whole town. Most people would be killed, except for those fortunate enough to climb up onto high trees or the rooftops of a few houses.
Given this possibility, a general call went out to the population and an emergency committee was formed. Everybody went into action; except for babies at the breast, everyone worked day and night. In three days we filled over 1,500 bags with sand and gravel and piled them up into a wall along the river. The women and children opened the bags, the men shoveled in the sand and carried them on their shoulders. It was an extraordinary effort, carried out with a great deal of sacrifice and solidarity.
The first exodus: Seek higher shelter The first exodus began when the hurricane's heavy, persistent rain began to flood Urraco. Men, women and children gathered up all they could. They carried little bundles of clothes, chickens with their legs tied together, a table, a rebellious pig struggling on the end of a rope, some corn, rice and lard to eat. At first they sought shelter in the school and the churches. They were also welcomed by families and relatives who lived on streets higher up, which we thought were beyond the water's reach.
As evening fell, the streets became a whirlwind of people. Everyone ran about, anxious, nervous, wet, looking for shelter. The electricity and water had been cut off.
Then night fell, and in the midst of the darkness, all we could see was the dim glow of stoves where people were cooking rice and beans and perhaps a plantain for dinner on little four-legged cast iron grills. There were no tortillas, since the mill wasn't working and there was no time to knead cornmeal anyway. The shelters were a jumble of people commenting, yelling, complaining bitterly about the future, lamenting what they had lost. The night went on, a perpetual vigil amidst children's sobs and the adults' bitter predictions. On the hilltops, men planted four stout posts with pieces of nylon stretched across the top to keep out the rain. Others turned their trucks into houses, or searched for some hollow between the rocks to defend themselves from the rain.
Second exodus: Save the Children No other hurricane had been as violent as Mitch. Even with half the streets in Urraco flooded, people still felt safe on the three highest streets. But the water kept pouring down and soon led to a second exodus. The water in the churchyard swirled around people's ankles, then up to their knees. So once again, everyone gathered up their clothes, domestic animals and corn and began to look for higher spots. Comandancia hill, Canales hill and especially the hill to the hospital began to fill with people. All were crammed together. There wasn't a free spot of land.
I was responsible for ensuring the lives of 14 children in the church's feeding program. We had taken them to a house in the second highest street.
Later that night, with water almost up to my knees, I thought I could get to sleep without taking a bath. I was getting ready for bed by candlelight when I became aware of the sound of the current and the sudden rise in the water level. When I reached the door, I couldn't open it. Worried, I jumped with a great deal of effort from the high part of the house to the ground, where the water was already up to my waist and the current was really strong. It felt like the powerful Ulúa was dragging me off. I instinctively looked around for help, but found myself alone. But danger gives us greater strength; I fought against the current, and slowly made my way up to the higher streets.
Third exodus: To the hills! In previous years, the water never reached beyond the park. The church, the school and three streets had always remained as isles of safety. But this time was different. As the shelters became useless, a third exodus took place. We headed to the hills and the high area in the Suyapa neighborhood, on the way up to the hospital. Once again everyone hurried off, carrying their clothes, corn, chickens, cooking pots, whatever they could. A feeling of terror and anguish grew. The water had already reached the second street in the high part of town. All of the houses that had not been flooded were filled with friends, relatives and refugees. How high would this great lake that was forming continue to rise?
When I left my house I found myself at the end of the railroad line and took refuge under a tin roof where some 25 people who had fled in the second exodus were sheltering. Everyone was panicked. Some didn't know where to go. I was near the house where the children from the feeding program were staying. We became really desperate when around 11:00 at night, amid the darkness and heavy rain, a first shot rang out, then a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth. All Urraco trembled. Five shots—the red alert! Then from a car's loudspeakers came the emergency committee's warning: "Attention! The Ulúa River has overflowed its banks to the north and the south. Take to the hills!" Urraco was becoming a small island surrounded by water.
I started the pick-up that I'd left by the children's shelter. The nurse and the cook and I carried the sleeping kids to the truck. The rain was coming down hard. We didn't have an awning in the back so we crammed them into the cabin, and threw two cribs and the gas stove in back. All 14 children wouldn't fit in the cabin so there was no other choice than to make two trips. I barely had time to get all the children out before water flooded into the house where they had been staying.
The hospital I brought them to was packed full of refugees, you couldn't squeeze even a pin in between them and everyone was in a state of extreme panic. It was a beehive, filled with agitated comings and goings, people shouting, calling to their children, sobs, livid faces—a beehive full of anguish.
A time of hunger Of the six parallel streets in Urraco, only one remained above water, near the railroad tracks. It was the only dry piece of land in town. We began to feel the pangs of hunger. There were no shops or food. No money to buy anything. Money had become worthless. Families began to eat their chickens, those who had them. Others killed a pig and sold the meat cheap. Most of the cattle had been lost. One rancher lost 120 head. The few cows that remained alive in the "island" of Urraco had nothing to eat. Not even leaves. The calves drooled and fainted and fell to the ground. The specter of hunger came over us then like another, even more terrible hurricane.
After two days like this, we saw a helicopter fly over our island, but it couldn't find a spot to land and so continued on. Finally, after another two days, another helicopter came. People rushed over in hopes of finding food, and the military commando had to impose order. To everyone's distress, they brought only 150 rations of food. And there were thousands of us.
Urraco became an island Completely incommunicado by land, we were stranded on the island that Urraco had become, in the middle of an enormous lake. To reach land, we would have to cross more than 15 km. of water. People began to look for the town boats. Everyone wanted one, loaned or rented at any price.
Some people wanted to reach other high spots of land, where stranded cattle were dying of hunger, to see what they had lost. Others wanted to go home, to see if they could recover some of what they had left tied to the roof. Others to search for people who had disappeared. The boats spent two days traveling between three bridges of death, looking for people who, in trying to save a bicycle, had lost their lives. The current dragged cadavers along, amid the branches and trees. Still other people wanted to find out for sure if a relative had died in a neighboring community, like Estero de Indios, where the current had swept everything away. Terrifying thoughts filled many people's imaginations at night.
Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, we had to find a way to survive. The shops were empty. The corn was gone. There was no rice. No lard. And the body wouldn't wait. What to do? The only way out was by water. By land, it was impossible.
The next day, several helicopters flew over again and one finally landed in the muddy grass of a nearby field. People ran towards it frantically, searching for food. But again, it brought only 150 rations to distribute among 900 families.
Tension and anguish continued to grow. One group, on its own, tried to make it to El Progreso along the railroad tracks, but couldn't get through. By that time, no one was paying any attention to the emergency committee. Anarchy set in.
Improvised sailors Finally we decided to head out across the water. We would have to travel some 15 km. to the community of La 28 and another 12 km. from there to the paved road, to catch the bus to El Progreso. Twelve men climbed into don Adrián's stable, flat- bottomed boat, young sailors in search of adventure and older men who planned the trip. We left Urraco and made our way through palm plantations. The water covered the trunks of the palm trees all the way up to the fruit. We had to row, since the pole we'd cut to help push the boat along was useless in the depths of up to four meters.
The palm leaves got in the way so we cut them back. They were filled with a multitude of survivors: spiders, insects of all kinds, ants with strong jaws that rained down on us and bit us mercilessly, and snakes gliding across the water, poisonous snakes that swam quickly and climbed into the trees. Among them we saw yellowbeards, with their quick, mortal venom. They were the ones that worried us most. We rowed down the country lane we had crossed so many times by bicycle, motorcycle and car. We were in the midst of a huge expanse of water, broken only by the treetops offering shelter to small animals. In one of these, we saw a little cat holding on fast in the fork of a branch, looking after us with pleading eyes.
Distressing return Our first expedition was a success. We reached El Progreso and after so many days of solitude in Urraco, it was a strange sight: streets filled with people buying nervously. There was food: rice, flour, lard. We called the United States from doña Lola's house. Sister Laurinda, with her unfailing solidarity, sent aid. That saved us. We couldn't get anything from the food distribution centers in El Progreso. They were already filled with their own refugees and were also relying on the helicopters for supplies.
With the money we'd brought, we bought 17 quintals of food. Then we borrowed a truck to carry this cargo to the "port" of La 28. In La 28, we loaded up the goods and agreed to take another three passengers in the "boat." This time it was a rough canoe with a curved bottom that kept rocking from side to side. It was hard to balance the cargo and the passengers. There were fat and thin ones, including two women, doña Marta and a young woman.
We began the trip back under a great deal of nervous tension. Someone said several times, "If you can't swim, you'd better not come." The two women and four men confessed that they couldn't. The canoe kept tipping back and forth. Tragic thoughts crossed my mind. This could easily turn into a fatal tragedy, I thought, with five or six people dead
We went on like this for hours, our hearts jumping with each tip of the boat, until finally we reached the landing point in Urraco. We saw the little cat in the tree again. She had been there for five days already, but traveling as we were, we couldn't do anything to help her.
Everyone to work! The whole town was waiting for us. The helicopter had brought another 300 rations, which had been distributed among the people in two neighborhoods. There were still a lot of families that hadn't received even one ration of food. People were so desperate for food that, during the distribution, the emergency committee lost patience with the crowd of people pushing, shouting and complaining. The president resigned, other committee members got frustrated and the highly emotional criticisms made for a very negative atmosphere.
A new call went out to the population. The emergency committee was strengthened and people's spirits calmed down a bit. People started to become aware of the situation, and with the food we bought in El Progresso, a new phase in the work began. "Stop crying and get to work!" was the new slogan. The next day, 45 men went to check out the bridge at Río Abajo, which had been swept away by the current. Along with the bridge we had lost the main line for drinking water and the situation was critical. The contaminated water we were drinking caused diarrhea, especially in children. All sorts of garbage had collected in the lake created by the flooding: filth from the animals' corrals, houses, overflowing latrines, dead animals, drowned people . . . The worst damage was done by microbes that attack the soles of the feet and leave the skin all red and swollen and covered with ulcers so that each step hurts. Nearly all of us were limping. Fortunately we found some tubes of cream and everyone rubbed a little bit on and relieved a bit of the pain.
The warmth of the sun's rays After the first trip on the river we made others. We managed to get more provisions and distribute something to all Urraco's neighborhoods, where over 5,000 people had been affected. On our last voyage, we saw the little cat still clinging to the branches of the same tree. The poor thing had broken a record of hunger, sleeplessness and martyrdom. This time we stopped the boat and one of the "sailors" climbed like a monkey up the tree. The cat fled to another, weaker branch. Our companion shook the branch until the cat fell into the water. We picked her up and brought her with us to El Progreso and then to Urraco. She was completely traumatized. She lay quietly in the rays of the sun, alongside the children. What was she thinking? Her trauma was extraordinary, beyond her understanding. The same was true of all Urracans, all Hondurans and other people all around Central America. But animals and human beings grow in the face of adversity. And after this unexpected and unforgettable adventure, the people of Urraco have put a great deal of spirit into the task of reconstruction.