Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 315 | Octubre 2007



A Month after the Hurricane The Worst Is Yet to Come

The tragedies caused by Hurricane Felix in a vast area of the northern Caribbean Coast have their own different qualities in Bilwi, the Mines, the seaboard, the inland savannah and the Río Coco. This is one take on what happened in the first month after the hurricane in three Miskitu communities of the north savannah: Sangnilaya, Iltara and Butku.

Salvador García Babini

Hurricane Felix slowly turned in toward the coast in the pre-dawn of Tuesday, September 4. The threat had become reality. It was only then that the confidence of most residents of Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) and the outlying communities that once again nothing would come of the warnings began to mutate into a hurried scramble for schools, churches, concrete block houses or cleared outdoor spaces where no trees could fall on top of them.

As late as 4 in the afternoon the day before the disaster, the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) held its first meeting with some of the main institutions working there. No one was very clear about which communities to evacuate or how and where to move them. There was still no sense of emergency.

Bureaucracy and lack of coordination kept everybody busy in the eternal creation of work commissions, while outside the building life went on as usual. Making matters worse, the chronic lack of electricity prevented the transmission of information by radio or television. The government authorities finally issued the red alert at midnight on Monday, just six hours before the hurricane hit land. People familiar with the region might say that everything happened at “coast pace.”

Day by day more dead and
more awareness of the disaster

The history of hurricanes that have constantly threatened the Caribbean region lulled people into a false sense of security. Many had come close to the city of Bilwi in past seasons without ever touching it. According to conventional local wisdom, the shallowness of the continental shelf in front of this area acts as a barrier against the winds, causing them to lose velocity as they approach land and shifting them further north. This time proved the exception to that theory. Hurricane Felix, whose nearly 140-mph winds ranked it as a maximum strength category 5, sped across that undersea shelf undaunted and made its violent landfall at Pahara, a community only 15 kilometers north of Bilwi.

The first information was broadcast from Managua: deaths had been reported in Bilwi. The news was gathered over the phone, through interviews with local journalists, workers from different institutions and anyone who had a cell phone at hand and felt like telling his or her own experience. But at that first moment no one really knew how much damage the hurricane had caused, or even what path it had followed inland. The information would only start dribbling in later until the enormity of the disaster would finally be pieced together. Throughout Tuesday, the national television channels only showed the satellite image of a spiral of colors over a map of Nicaragua. But Bilwi’s residents didn’t see that electronic version of what they had just lived through because the large number of fallen trees had cut off the city’s electricity and telephone lines.

Bodies soon began to be brought in from the Miskitu Keys, where hundreds of boat captains, canoe owners, lobster buyers, crack and marihuana dealers, divers, trades-women, cooks and prostitutes worked, often sleeping over in small wood houses built on stilts just offshore. Day after day it was announced that: “Last night they brought 19 bodies to the wharf...” “A little while ago they brought 25 bodies to the wharf…” The figures kept rising. One woman from the Keys who survived reported that 120 women died there. Perhaps that figure and others will be confirmed some day, but reality and the lack of credible censuses currently exceed the levels of organization and the capacity to provide definitive data.

The houses in the community
are like stranded boats

The hurricane caught me in Bilwi, but since January of this year I’ve been visiting Sangnilaya, Iltara and Butku, three northern savannah Miskitu communities 40 kilometers north of Bilwi, on the way up toward Waspam on the Río Coco. I went back up to see how everyone was as soon as I could. On Friday, September 7, I caught a ride out of Bilwi with a pick-up heading in that direction. Once outside of the city, driving further into the flat plains, I began to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sisin, Santa Marta, Auhia Pihni… no longer existed. Or rather they were there, but there were no longer any references. The huge trees you used to see from far away were gone; only some cement shells suggested where a church or a school had once stood; pieces of sheet metal flapped from the tops of still-standing pines; houses were scattered across the ground, or half collapsed, leaning to one side like a boat run aground; boards that had once been the walls of houses were strewn everywhere… Life had been transformed. Three days after the hurricane had passed, the disaster looked as if it had just happened.

The communities had become refugee camps. In Sangnilaya, only 10 of the 67 houses were still standing, while not a single one was intact in Iltara and Butku, which had had 19 and 28 houses, respectively. Greeting friends, listening to their stories, going house by house to see how people were, where they were sleeping, where they were cooking, what had happened to people’s relatives who lived on farms up in the hills… It was simply unbelievable.

I went directly to former wihta (community judge) Ángela Moody’s house, where I always stayed when I visited. Her house, or what remained of it, looked like an old beached boat. All that remained of the unfinished kitchen it had taken four months to build was part of the floor.

Miskitu families don’t live in overcrowded conditions for “cultural” reasons but because of the cost of building their own house. I already had the data: if you plan to use corrugated metal roofing—which people usually do—you need 20 sheets. It takes 20 gallons of gas, 6 of 40-weight oil and 4 liters of 50-1 oil to mill the 3,300 feet of lumber needed. Then to put the house together, you need 2 pounds of 2" nails, 3 pounds of 5" nails, 12 pounds of 3½” nails and 15 pounds of 2½” nails. And then there’s the rental of a chainsaw and its operator’s salary. The effort can take months, sometimes years. Knowing this helps you better understand the dimension of this disaster and the helplessness produced by seeing what had cost so much effort ripped up and spewed onto the ground in a question of hours.

Some horror stories

Miss Ángela told me that three children had died, all of them Miss Segundina’s. They lived in the most outlying house, on the other side of the baseball field. Like many other families in the community, Segundina refused to abandon her house for the school or church that night, partly disbelieving the danger, but above all fearing that her things could be stolen if left unattended for so long. By the time the winds increased around 6 in the morning, there was no way Segundina and her children could make it to a shelter. They went outside and crawled under the wood floor of their house which, in characteristic Miskitu and Mayangna style, is perched a meter off the ground on wood pilings. But the house didn’t resist the winds for long and came down on top of them. Segundino was sent to the Bilwi hospital with a fractured hip. Her three children were buried in the community.

Valeria Manuel didn’t leave her house until the last moment either. Once outside, she also took refuge with her family under the floor, but realizing that the pillars wouldn’t stand up to the beating very long, they crawled back out right before the house collapsed. Miss Valeria thinks God held her house up until they got free of it. Once out, she stuck her two daughters into a barrel-shaped cement structure to one side of the house they were going to use for a well. The rest of the family made a human chain and tied themselves to a thick, stubby coconut palm, then just prayed the tree wouldn’t be uprooted.

Miss Reina couldn’t make it to a shelter either so ran with her family out into the grasslands where there was no danger that a tree could fall on top of them. They sat in a tight circle and covered themselves with a sheet of plastic, holding it down with all their might. They were lucky that none of the sheet metal roofing flying all around sliced into them.

The other side of the Río Wawa:
cut off, devastated and hungry

Saturday, September 8. A group of men is working to build a community house, starting with an old cement structure that had never quite become a health post and using some of the long tongue-and-groove pine wall boards of the schoolhouse, which had been knocked down by the wind. Around them another group of men is commenting on the latest events, exchanging information about the situation in other communities they’d gleaned from the radio. Among them I recognize Emilio Taylor, who has a house in Sangnilaya but lives on his farm in Kukas Kiam, one of the hills on the other side of the Wawa River, where he and many others grow crops that they sell—or sold—every week in Bilwi’s market.

At noon on the day of the disaster, once the winds had calmed, Mr. Emilio had set off from his farm to see how his relatives and friends in the community had fared. He had to walk to the river and then travel downstream in a canoe. Just getting to the river, which is generally about a two-hour walk, took him nearly two days, given the number of trees that had fallen across the road.

An environmental nightmare

Listening to him, I began to grasp the environmental dimension of the disaster: 400,000 hectares of forest devastated; cassava, rice, plantains, palm fruit, fruit trees… all down, almost all lost; most wild animals surely dead and those that survived adrift, stripped of their habitat.

All institutions working in the area of forestry are still figuring out mechanisms for exploiting the downed biomass, which is expected to be one of the most controversial issues in the coming months, even years. We can expect interventions from all the different levels of organizations and institutions, from the World Bank, through the national and regional governments, the NGOs and territorial governments, right down to the community leaders…

Meanwhile, what are people going to eat in the coming weeks, months, year? What will they sell? Where will they get the cash to buy salt, oil, soap, clothes and medicines? How will they cover the fees of their children studying in the city? From a social reproduction perspective, Hurricane Felix destroyed the economic balance, the relationship, between the community’s needs and the forest’s resources, which translated into the material and symbolic goods they obtained in Bilwi. No one dares bring up the subject of the uncertain future. Their main concerns still have to do with the present.

Chaotic emergency aid in a world in motion

The fallen forest hasn’t only blocked the way to the plots up in the Tungla, Kukas Kiam, Wiwas and Likus hills. Hundreds of families that left their communities in the grasslands to live up there are still incommunicado and in serious danger, since they don’t have food and almost no one has been able to communicate with them. I say almost no one, because the communities have sent out expeditions to take them provisions and in a few cases have been able to bring some people back. The trips can last between six hours and two days, depending on the distance or on whether someone else has already opened a path through the tangle of trees and weeds.

Considering all this, the first offers of aid weren’t sufficient. When Regional Council member Garbash arrived on that first Saturday, Apolinar Taylor told him he needed gasoline and oil to cut through the fallen trees with a chainsaw to rescue his family, which was still out on the farm. They gave him 10 gallons of gas and two liters of oil. According to Apolinar, that would have gotten him 300 meters. In the end, they didn’t use the fuel and sent five men with machetes to open a path instead.

Negrito, Sangnilaya’s current deputy wihta and at-large member of the 10-community territorial government, was in Bilwi during the hurricane. Throughout that terrible Tuesday, he tried in vain to find some transport. The next day he contacted Garbash and Harold, two of the three Regional Council members who represent that electoral district. In the midst of the chaos and bureaucracy, and defying the order that nothing leave without the governor’s signature, they took off for Sangnilaya with 12 sacks of rice, 4 of beans, 4 of cereals, 4 gallons of oil, 70 bars of soap and 130 lbs of salt.

That was the first aid to reach Sangnilaya and its two neighboring communities. The regional NGOs Aikukiwal and Pana Pana passed through the day after that, and on Friday they were visited by Masangni, an NGO that offers the communities technical accompaniment on properly exploiting forestry resources. All three left some sacks of food for the communities and evaluated the damages.

On Saturday three people from the Puerto Cabezas municipal mayor’s office and personnel from the central government’s Emergency Social Investment Fund showed up to evaluate the damages. That same day the two Council members returned and left a roll of black plastic for makeshift roofing, but there was only enough for half the population. A couple of hours later, personnel from the Rural Development Institute, the National Forestry Institute and the Regional Council’s natural resources office arrived. Their objective: to evaluate the damages.

A brigade of three Cuban doctors and one from Bilwi set themselves up for the whole of that day. On Sunday the Red Cross appeared and then the Moravian Church. Both distributed medicines and evaluated damages. That same day a helicopter landed and gave each family a 20m x 20m canvas tarp to protect them from the rain. The canvas was stamped with the logo: USAID, from the American people. Sangnilaya, Iltara and Buku had never received so many visits in such a short period of time.

A movable statistical feast

The amount of aid that is arriving, the survival strategies and the social mobility—a true challenge for any statistician—have triggered a series of local debates about the preparation of the official census the community leaders present to the outside world. Ever since the hurricane hit, the response to the question “how many are we” has been changing. For example, in Sagnilaya the list has ranged between 814 and 544 inhabitants.

Such variable statistics have at least two explanations. In the first place, the community leaders think they’ll receive more products if they record more people, which was true at the beginning. Although it seems incredible, neither the mayor’s office nor the regional government had a census of the community. In fact the only institution working in the area that had one was the Catholic Church. In the end, the surplus that remained in Sangnilaya became a source of tensions: should it be divvied up or kept in a few hands? When resources are involved, distrust reigns.

In the second place, many families in Sangnilaya, Iltara, Butku and other communities in the northern grasslands area have relatives living in the hills. After the hurricane, some of these families came to their own community. Other more indecisive families have rotated from one community to another, visiting various relatives to see which ones offer the best options. Some who were living in Bilwi have come back to the community while others remain in the city, particularly young people studying in high school there. But the parents want to include them in the census, arguing that they had sent their children provisions to help them finish their studies prior to the devastation and had to continue doing so.

Life must go on

Sunday, September 9. Within hours families that had grown and multiplied in matrimonies, occupying different houses, were back in one space in line with the logic of maternal kinship: mothers, sons-in-law, children and grandchildren, all living together. Despite the trauma, most people haven’t sat around paralyzed. They are improvising small shacks using sheet metal roofing, boards and nails that they’ve salvaged; and that’s where they sleep, cook, eat and guard the few things the hurricane didn’t whip away. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen families that couldn’t recover anything are still sheltered under the school roof.

But despite the hurricane’s impact, life in Sangnilaya goes on and roles are maintained. In the morning, as always, the women light the fires and put cassava, rice or flour tortillas on to cook. The grandmother, who is the center of the family, organizes the food, administering the portions, sending off for the oil needed, authorizing a bit of sugar to be given to the neighbors. First she and her elder daughters cook for the offspring of the maternal line. Then it’s the turn of the daughters-in-law and their families. Meanwhile, the infants and toddlers are cared for by siblings who are only two or three years older. Children caring for children. Apparently there will be no classes until the next school year, although the Ministry of Education has pledged to rehabilitate the schools as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the teachers need support materials to give the classes and the students have no notebooks or pencils to note the lessons down. Life requires balance.

A group of youths play dominos on the tarp the gringos donated, betting a peso on each set. Some young people are repairing their bicycles; others are accompanying their fathers or grandfathers in search of bunches of pijibay or plantains from the fallen trees alongside the river. No one has any luck. They invite me to eat and tell me proudly: “We recovered this plantain today; it’s one of the last ones.”

“If we don’t plant, we don’t eat”

It’s 7 at night on September 15, and the formalities of Nicaragua’s independence celebrations are very remote to the families in Sangnilaya, Iltara and Butku. They are concerned about far more concrete things, including the urgent need to clear the road to their crops and start thinking about where to get seeds for planting. January, when the new cycle begins, is just around the corner.

Another concern is to cob together their own spaces so they can stop living on top of each other, which will require a huge effort and a big dose of creativity. They have to straighten old nails, saw any boards that weren’t split by the winds, unbend sheet metal roofing to tack up as walls, and cut the plastic sheeting and canvas to somehow tie down over the “new” house as a roof. It may only be provisional housing—more precarious than they had before, but it’s all they have, and they know from experience that promises don’t put clothes on their children’s backs. Who can say for sure when the new materials for building decent houses will come?

Through the darkness one can see cooking fires in all the shelters, announcing the joy of food. I stay for dinner at Roberto Sosa’s house. As we eat, he tells me how he lived through the hurricane in the hills and how he and his family took two days to return to the community. The worst is still to come,” he tells me with worry in his eyes. “We’re farmers and if we don’t start planting we won’t eat.” He knows how serious it would be not to clear the path to the plots, a task that could take over a week. But it would be even more serious not to have any seeds to start the productive cycle. The cassava has all rotted, the plantain trees were all blown down and the rice and corn have either gone with the wind or were eaten by the few animals that survived. With the forest devastated, their lives depend more than ever on clearing the path to the planting areas, getting seeds, planting everything again and avoiding the possible second tragedy of a fire getting out of control during the burning period, when the rainy season ends.

Getting used to meatless meals

The northern grasslands communities mainly eat cassava, plantains and rice all year long, as well as the starchy palm fruit known as pijibay and a few fruits during their particular seasons. But the most important food, for both its nutritional and symbolic values, is meat: a meal without meat is a poor meal. How long will they have to wait before they can hunt in the mountains again and bring their children back a deer, a local rodent species known as a guatusa or an armadillo? All the organic matter that clotted the Río Wawa has contaminated millions of fish. Even after the river recovers its organic-chemical stability, it won’t be able to provide enough fish to feed so many communities. The demographic pressure on the river over many years, particularly with the growing migration of mestizo peasants from the Pacific side who keep pushing the agricultural frontier further into the traditional indigenous territory, had already made fish an unstable and limited protein source even before the hurricane.

And to cap it all, the lost crops also mean a food shortage for what few pigs, cows and chickens survived the hurricane. It’s a tough blow for the household economy, since domestic animals are also a from of savings: only a few are consumed by the family itself; the rest are sold. In some cases monkeys, parrots and toucans are beginning to provide an alternative, but they will run out soon. What will happen then? Everybody knows that if animal protein is removed from a diet with otherwise limited sources of protein and vitamins, anemia is the almost inevitable result.

Growers, consumers and
middlemen are all affected

Historically, cassava and plantains have been two of the main economic underpinnings, both for the grasslands communities in the municipalities of Puerto Cabezas and Waspam and for many traders who buy up this produce to sell it in Bilwi’s markets and to numerous house-front shops. This cycle has now been threatened and the consequences are beginning to be felt in the household economies: whereas before the hurricane 10 córdobas bought you between 6 and 10 plantains, depending on how many came in from the communities, today the same amount of money won’t get you more than 3. Consumers, growers and middlemen are all suffering the consequences of this crisis. What will happen in the coming months? How will prices be regulated? Where will the products come from?

So far the only thing leaving the communities for Bilwi is charcoal and occasionally beef or pork, but these products obviously aren’t enough to return a minimum of economic stability to the family economies. On the one hand, the few animals remaining in the communities are only slaughtered to pay for some emergency; on the other, an oversupply of charcoal will bring down its price and, of course, the earnings from selling it. What productive options will emerge? Is the government working on serious plans to involve the communities in reactivating their own economic system?

Who will be in charge of the “credits”?

Via the National Disaster Prevention System (SINAPRED), the Regional Government has made a series of efforts to concentrate all information about the amount and destination of the aid coming in. Again through SINAPRED, it didn’t give local NGOs much space to help coordinate the emergency aid during the first weeks of the disaster. Helping people gives public projection and kudos, and the Yatama-FSLN alliance didn’t want anyone else sharing top billing with them. So the NGOs did what they always do: they worked directly in the communities. The mutual NGO-government distrust is an issue that predates the hurricane and involves an ongoing struggle to control information and resources in a single territory with a very restricted local political context, where everyone knows each other’s personal and professional history.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has reportedly provided over 60% of the food that has come in. Other large international donors that are helping include Plan International, Christian Medical Action, Catholic Relief Service (CRS), the Red Cross and the Moravian, Catholic and Baptist Churches. Apart from these institutions, with their huge fundraising and logistical capacity, solidarity has also come from sources perhaps less visible in the media and official statistics but just as important and sometimes even faster. Bilwi radio stations; NGOs with a local presence; small solidarity committees organized quickly in different cities in Europe, the United States and Canada; national and international universities; communities in Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean region and a vast number of individuals from Nicaragua and abroad have shown yet again that cooperation is one of the oldest and best human instincts.

…And the last shall be last

Up to now, looking at the whole emergency map, only WFP has made an effort to get food to all the communities affected. The rest of the aid has been channeled through the institutions already working on the ground—each with its own “target group.” This is because aid work is taken as a continuation of their normal projection and because there’s always going to be a greater commitment to those with whom working and friendship links have already been established. Logically, then, the communities less attended before the hurricane are receiving less attention after it.

When a hurricane destroys a territory, it particularly jeopardizes the security of those communities where the state is a mere rumor and there is no NGO presence. In the current health and food emergency the most vulnerable are the mestizo migrants from Waslala, Matagalpa or Siuna, whose squatter settlements near the Akawas, Kukalaya, Siksikwas and Wawa rivers, among others, often don’t even appear on the official maps and can be a two- to seven-hour walk from the closest highway.

These people are peasants forced by hunger from their places of origin, political minorities who have now set up in a region where the government and central decisions still have a strong indigenous leaning. Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera and other local figures would like that undefined space everybody calls “the Coast” to be only for that undefined concept everybody calls “coast people,” but the reality is much more complex and less dichotomous than some would like. I invite anyone to go to these forgotten communities of mestizo settlers to determine which of their historical economic and kinship alliances are “indigenous” and which are not.

What rules aid distribution:
political will, ability or right?

Tuesday, September 18. I’m in Sangnilaya talking to Félix Labonte, the current wihta, about the problems he’s having trying to do a definitive census when we hear the sound of an engine. “Seems a truck’s coming,” he says to me. “Let’s go see.” And sure enough, a truck with the CRS banner appears. Labonte introduces himself and a group of men start unloading water drums, pots, ladles, nails, shovels, hammers, picks, metal bars, blankets and chlorine.

Twenty minutes later two army trucks pull in bringing food sent by WFP: 71 sacks of rice and 19 of peas. Those three trucks no more than depart when a pick-up arrives. It’s Walter Treminio, from Radio La Porteñísima, bringing sacks of clothes and food collected by the station during a talkathon in Bilwi. The community applauds the effort. The previous day Plan International had come with food, plastic kitchen utensils, rubber sandals, sponge mattresses and flashlights, which the officials divvied up directly. Tomorrow what just arrived will be given out equally to everyone. In the Miskitu communities, the logic of equality trumps equity, at least when things are done publicly. It’s an internal conflict regulator.

I get back to Bilwi on September 22 and call my mother in Managua to organize another collection with friends to buy more mosquito nets. The first 73 she sent weren’t enough for the three communities. Then I head over to the Regional Government to hear the latest about how the aid is coming through. There I run into four mestizo peasants—two from Wakanbay and the other two from Guásimo and Salpaka, communities far from any highway or urban center. Leónidas González, from Salpaka, has been in Bilwi five days, going from institution to institution looking for rolls of plastic to take back to his people, who are sleeping out in the open. But no one has responded to his requests. He tells me he’s hoping someone will at least reimburse him for what he has spent during his stay. The others, in town for the same purpose, listen to him without interrupting, then the two from Wakanbay tell me that their community has only been visited once since the disaster nearly three weeks earlier, when it received some medicines, a little water and enough food for three days.

I wonder who’s controlling all of this; to what point the aid is public or private. Shouldn’t the Regional Government, which is the maximum authority, be ensuring that aid and health care get distributed fairly to all those affected? Is it an issue of political volition, ability or right? I don’t know the answer, but in the coming months, the health and food aid for all these communities is going to pose an enormous logistical challenge that will require a major dose of equity-based solidarity.

A new beginning?

One of the greatest challenges—or perhaps the greatest contradiction—that the institutions working in the affected zones will have to deal with sooner or later is to help the communities reestablish a minimum level of economic autonomy so they can start breaking the charity assistance chain, which is so comfortable for certain institutions but so costly for the communities’ future.

In countries like Nicaragua, with such high poverty rates and so many people trapped between corruption and lack of opportunities, natural disasters have at least two complementary and potentially positive consequences. The first is that they make more crudely visible the social conditions that structure people’s lives—the strengths and weakness, and above all the injustices that impoverish them. And the second is the mobilization of resources, organizations and projects for reconstructing the affected populations. While not original, it’s worth stating again that the way the communities are taken into account so they can participate in the reconstruction process will determine the quality and sustainability of what could be a “new beginning.”

All this is what I’ve seen and thought about up to today, September 27, three weeks after the hurricane’s passage.

Salvador García Babini is an anthropology student, in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean region doing field work for his bachelor’s degree.

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