The name is deceivingly benign, more appropriate to a favorite uncle than to an agent of mass destruction. But when Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America late last month, it left in its wake a toll far greater than the estimated $4 billion in properly damage. More than 10,000 people died, most of them in Honduras, with hundreds of thousands still at risk from disease. Another 10,000 are missing, and millions are homeless. In response, President Clinton pledged $80 million in humanitarian aid to complement the million-plus tons of clothes, food, bottled water and medicine that have already been sent by U.S. agencies overwhelmed by calls from people wanting to help. "Never in our history have we had this volume of calls—100,000 in a five-day period," said Ann Stingle of the American Red Cross. "Because it was in our backyard, Americans have responded." What follows are four stories from Honduras of charity, bravery and the will to survive.
A Paradise Lost
As guests and staff take refuge in bunkers, Mitch turns an island resort into a landscape of ruin and death
In the brilliant morning sun on the tiny Caribbean island of Guanaja, 25 miles north of mainland Honduras, Don Pearly strokes Pepito, a scarlet macaw that has lost many of his extravagant tail feathers. "He was so nervous during the storm, he plucked them out," explains Pearly, 61, manager of the island's Bayman Bay Club, where Pepito is mascot. "But he's luckier than most of the island's wildlife. The other day I found a flock of green parrots on the ground, all dead." The island itself didn't fare much better. Once a verdant hideaway, it has been transformed into a gray-brown wasteland. "It's as if a giant smashed it," says Pearly's wife, Eli, 48, "then took a blowtorch to all the trees, plants and grass."
Miraculously, only 8 of Guanaja's 9,000 inhabitants were killed. Still, the living tell harrowing tales. Four American couples came to the Bayman Bay Club for an idyllic week of diving, fishing and strolls on the beach only to find themselves fighting for four desperate days just to survive. "It was the most horrific experience of our lives," says Greg Haslinger, 31, of Spring, Texas. The weather was calm on their first day, Oct. 25, though in retrospect, Haslinger's wife, Lori, 27, recalls ominous signs. "We did three dives, and there were no fish where it should have been thick with them," she says. "Maybe they knew what was coming."
That evening the vacationers enjoyed a lively beach barbecue and limbo dance, unconcerned because Mitch was so far north. The following day, unexpectedly, the storm veered directly toward them, and guests and staffers were herded into two concrete-reinforced cabins. By that night Mitch was blowing gusts up to 280 mph, moaning, says Pearly, "like a deep pipe organ." The Pearlys, Haslingers and nine others, huddled in their 15-by-25-foot shelter. With water seeping through the walls to pool on the floor, the metal door shut tight and mattresses covering the windows, it was dank as a tomb and nearly as suffocating. "Whenever we thought the wind had eased," Lori says, "we tried opening the door a crack, all of us getting close to get a whiff of air."
On Oct. 29 the skies lightened, and it seemed Mitch had passed. But it was only the hurricane's eye. Not until two days later was it safe to emerge. "We walked out in a daze, as if we were the first visitors to Mars," says Don Pearly. The guests left for home, while the others were left to piece the Bayman Bay Club back together.
Amid the ruins were signs of hope. In the hollow of a broken tree, Eli Pearly found a newborn kitten, which she named Baby Mitch. "He's the new beginning," she says. "Little by little all the beauty will return."
Clearing the Way
Seabee Kathryn Allen, head of the Navy's relief force, helps clean up the wreckage and reopen the roads
When a 126-member unit of the U.S. Navy's Second Naval Construction Brigade, otherwise known as the Seabees, cleared a dirt road to an isolated village in central Honduras, it didn't take long to see the fruits of their labor. "It allowed the first vehicle in weeks to deliver food and drinking water," says Lt. Comdr. Kathryn Allen, the officer in charge of the Navy's disaster-relief efforts in Honduras. "An old lady gave me a big hug and lots of thank-yous. The whole town—men, women, kids and donkeys—all came out to greet us."
At 34, Allen, who grew up with three younger brothers in Smyrna, Ga., is an 11-year Navy veteran who worked in the Philippines after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo and in this year's clean-up efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges. Though being female makes her a rarity in the Seabees, it also brings a unique perspective to her work. "I'd like to be a real mom someday," says Allen, who is so far single. "In the meantime, that doesn't mean I can't feel maternal toward my job and my troops."
Delivering the Goods
Globe-trotting relief worker Tom Turley rides through the rubble, bringing vital supplies to those whose homes were destroyed
Boyish despite thinning hair, relief worker Tom Turley, 33, navigates the shards of wood, glass and metal that litter a hillside in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, where José Hernández's house once stood. "I'm sorry," Turley says in Spanish, surveying the scarred earth after delivering a package of beans, cooking oil and baby food. "I'm lucky," replies Hernández, 27, an artisan. "We're all alive." Four children in his neighborhood died when the terra-cotta roofs of their homes collapsed in torrential rain and buried them. Of their own ordeal, Norma, 28, Hernández's wife, recalls, "The house began to move. Right after we left, it started to slide away, then collapsed and disappeared under the mud." She, José and their daughter, Marlen, 5, now share a converted classroom with two other families.
"They're living way out on the edge," says Harrison, N.Y., native Turley, a veteran of a dozen relief missions for the nonprofit group AmeriCares. Single, he relaxes by rock climbing and running with the bulls at Pamplona, Spain. "I like to push the edge, too," he says. "But the big difference between me and José Hernández is that I can choose to live dangerously."
The Last Detail
To comfort the living, Harry Oakes Jr. and his search dog Valorie hunt for the dead
Harry Oakes Jr. knows his search along the rubble-strewn banks of the Choluteca River is futile. "We won't find anyone still alive," says the 42-year-old professional search-and-rescue expert from Portland, Ore., who paid his own way to Honduras. "But at least maybe we'll bring some peace to families who want to bury their loved ones." At his side is Valorie, a 4-year-old search dog who, in 988 missions following avalanches, earthquakes and bombings, has found 117 people and 264 pets—some dead, some alive. On this trip, the Border collie-kelpie mix, whom Oakes trained after finding her at the pound, has located more than a dozen bodies. "She's done excellent work," says Oakes, a former police officer, "but it's been a tough, tough day."
Just a week before, this divorced father of a 16-year-old son was watching news of the Honduran devastation from his living room. Now, the lingering scent of death is taking its toll on man and dog. Valorie is "very depressed and jittery. She shows it by whining and barking," says Oakes. As for her master? "When so much death gets to me," he says, "I cry—and keep working."
Richard Jerome and Susan Schindehette
Reported by Ron Arias in Honduras
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