Hurricane Mitch: Army starts to restore bridges

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The Independent Online
UNITED STATES army engineers - the so-called Construction Battalion - began building pontoon bridges yesterday and mending gaps in others throughout Honduras, a nation divided into isolated zones by the floods and landslides that followed Hurricane Mitch.

Linking up Honduran roads is the first phase of a national reconstruction plan likely to take several years.

The country remains in almost a state of siege with schools and colleges closed until next year and most crops wiped out. It will take three years to get the vital banana crop, the country's mainstay export, back anywhere near normal.

University students were ordered yesterday to do 40 hours of obligatory clean-up work a week to qualify for their degrees.

Many had already appeared in the streets as volunteers, with parties of volunteer workers who march to stricken zones carrying the Honduran flag and, in perfect formation, wield their shovels like rifles and sing the national anthem.

Mexican engineers brought in a giant construction claw in an attempt to clear an accidental "dyke" blocking the River Choluteca, which runs through the capital, Tegucigalpa.

The dyke was formed by debris, including rubble from demolished houses, vehicles, parts of bridges and bodies swept downriver by torrential floods 10 days ago. Huge rocks slid down from nearby hills into the river, near the city centre.

The dyke is holding the river back, building up pressure and leaving the low-lying park areas of the city still under water. Only the parapets of large bridges, almost all broken, are visible above the surface of the stagnant, dark-brown water, under which hundreds, even thousands of bodies could lie trapped.

The authorities are afraid to dynamite the dyke in case a new surge of water wipes out riverside shanty dwellings further downstream.

The country's National Election Council will hold a census as soon as possible in an attempt to confirm death figures, estimated at around 6,500 in Honduras, with 11,000 people missing, many in the capital.

Bodies still being found are stored in refrigerated container lorries holding 100 each before being dumped in mass graves of up to 25.

The city yesterday decided to name Vilma de Castellanos, widow of the mayor who died in a helicopter crash during rescue efforts, as her late husband's replacement, without an election, because of his popularity and widespread sympathy for her.

The Mayor, Cesar de Castellanos, was affectionately known as El Gordito (Fatty).

The Bank of Central American Economic Integration (BCIE) has issued $300m (pounds 180m) in credits to the countries devastated by floods.

The development bank's Costa Rican president, Jose Arevalo, said the money would help in "reactivating the productive sectors" of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

The funds from the BCIE, set up in 1961 to promote the flow of money to Central America, came on top of $201m the World Bank said it would redirect to the area and several hundred million dollars in aid promised from around the world.