Storm that hit the conscience of the world: the Independent year

Hurricane Mitch
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THROUGHOUT LATIN America, few are talking at the end of this year about Saddam, Bill or Monica. This will always be known as The Year of Mitch.

It was the hurricane they thought would never come but once it did, it became known as the one that would not go away. It was the fourth strongest hurricane on record. By 1 November most of the damage was done but the world barely took notice: this was the Third World and these were the original banana republics.

Three days after the event, we heard hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died in Nicaragua, mostly when a side of Casitas volcano, its crater full of water, collapsed, burying villages. But it was not until a Honduran official spoke of 7,000 dead in his country that the world took notice.

President Bill Clinton at first offered Honduras $2m or about 20p for every man, woman and child (pounds 1.25m). Long a fiefdom of US banana companies, the military and the CIA, it was understandably offended. As floodwaters receded, officials settled on a vague death-toll of about 10,000 but said a similar number were missing, making Mitch the worst disaster in the western hemisphere since 23,000 died when a volcanic mudslide buried the Colombian village of Armero in 1985.

Mitch's winds first hammered the Bay Islands, off Honduras's north coast, flattening houses on Guanaja island.

It was on Guanaja that the first cavalry arrived - the British Royal Navy. It will be a long time before the locals forget that the Union Jack was the first foreign flag they saw.

The Royal Navy and the marines were also first into the badly hit "mosquito coast" of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua, using helicopters to reach Miskito indians trapped by floodwater.

When it became clear that the floods had destroyed about 100 bridges in Honduras, the US finally stepped in. It sent several thousand troops to repair the country's ruptured infrastructure.

As the Americans laboured through the Christmas holiday, many Hondurans, their mourning period over, hoped the hurricane's legacy may eventually be positive: better roads and bridges, and a country finally on the world's map.

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