Hurricane season is in full effect. Even before the season officially started June 1, the Atlantic saw its first named storm: Subtropical Storm Ana. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has projected an above-normal hurricane season, and that’s a terrifying reality for those who lie in any potential paths.
In Central America, more than 7 million people were affected when Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck back in November. Today, the affected communities continue to reel from the loss—the Miskito people in Nicaragua and Honduras, especially. They’ve always lived with storms. What is new is their unforgiving frequency—and the mounting pressure from illegal land grabbers and narcotraffickers looking to kick them out of their homes. With little hope in sight since the hurricanes, some families are abandoning their homes and fleeing north. That’s climate displacement for you. Vice President Kamala Harris took her first foreign trip to Guatemala Tuesday; her pleas that Guatemalans “do not come” to the U.S. is unlikely to change that.
“These communities are trying to survive,” said Andrew Davis, director of the forests and government territory program at PRISMA, an environmental research group in El Salvador, in Spanish. “On top of all these threats and a government that is not supporting their rights, they have a hurricane.”
Welcome to The Frontline, where we hate hurricane season. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Central America is special to me. My parents grew up in El Salvador, and that’s where I first gained a sense of how intense global inequality could be. Central America is now one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the climate crisis. Last year’s hurricane season is a testament to that.
When Hurricane Eta hit on November 3, 2020, Reynaldo Francis Watson was huddled in his home in the city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, with about 40 others: his parents, some children, and elders from the Miskito towns of Karatá and Lamlaya. As a leader of the community, he was offering them refuge from the Category 4 storm that was bearing down on their villages. Francis Watson had lived through Hurricane Felix in 2007, which killed at least 133 people in the region, but he was left shocked by Eta, Iota, and the lack of aid that followed.
About half a year later, the region is still suffering. Many Miskito families in Nicaragua and Honduras are without roofs—some without houses altogether—having lost everything. The COVID-19 pandemic and pressures from narcotraffickers and illegal land grabbers are exacerbating an already-volatile situation. Some families are left with no other option but to leave their homes for a better life elsewhere, including the U.S.
Now, the threats they face may worsen. That all depends on Mother Nature. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting that this season won’t be as bad as the last, but it will be above-average. Even the rainfall the region has been seeing the past month is enough to trigger local anxieties.
“There’s still an emotional and mental toll,” said Salvador Casado, a coordinator with CARE Guatemala’s ECHO Alert Project, a rural health program, in Spanish. “The kids have trauma. When it starts to rain, they get scared and remember what happened with Eta and Iota.”
It’s not hard to imagine why. Barely two weeks after Hurricane Eta, Hurricane Iota rolled through on nearly an identical path through the region. And, well, Iota was the season’s strongest hurricane. After these two hits, the damage from flooding and landslides persisted across Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The result? Over $700 billion in damages. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. Honduras and Nicaragua were the hardest impacted. The pandemic and ongoing drought conditions didn’t help either, said Maite Matheu, director of CARE Honduras.
“I’m seeing figures that in my 25 years of living in Honduras I’ve never heard before,” Matheu said in Spanish. “Nearly 40% of the population [in Honduras] is at risk of food insecurity.”
Over 52,000 acres of bean and corn crops were lost in Honduras alone; in Guatemala, over 405,000 acres of crop. Food security was already an issue, but these back-to-back storms reversed any improvement the region was seeing last year. Today, hunger remains. In Guatemala, over 427,000 people—nearly triple the number prior to the storms—require urgent food assistance, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Overall, more than half of the population in Guatemala are facing some level of food insecurity.
“Every time a hurricane comes, we become poorer.”
Families continue to recover from the economic devastation wrought by these disasters and COVID-19. May 2021 was the deadliest month from the virus Honduras has seen yet. The rains of this season have already affected more than 107,000 people in Guatemala. To the east in Honduras and Nicaragua, however, the impacts have been unique for the Miskito peoples.
“You see a lot more abandonment from the state to these communities than you see in other zones,” Matheu said. “Their economic recovery is not a priority to the government.”
Francis Watson, the leader who offered shelter during Hurricane Eta, has seen these impacts firsthand in Nicaragua. His people are struggling to hunt, collect seeds, and fish. There’s not even enough trees for firewood anymore. The storms ripped everything down, also stripping villages of their treasured shade. As a result, they’re experiencing more heat. Mango and coconut trees that provided food are also gone. So are the mangroves that offered protection against storms and promoted biodiversity.
“Every time a hurricane comes, we become poorer,” he said in Spanish.
Nature has always been the Miskito’s greatest source of wealth. In Nicaragua, along the coast, the reefs and coastal brackish lagoon where people would go fish have been left desolate. Before, fishers would catch lobsters, shrimp, and fish, but those days are few and far between, especially with the destruction of their fishing equipment and ice.
“Their whole lives was fishing,” Francis Watson said. “All of that was lost.”
The lagoon, at least, is improving, said Marcos Williamson, a biologist and director of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast’s environmental institute, but fishing without proper tools becomes complicated. What hasn’t improved is the drinking water. When the ocean rolls in during a hurricane, all that saltwater enters drinking water wells. Community members are still traveling four to five hours to find a river where they can pull freshwater to drink.
“Water has become very precious at this moment,” Williamson said in Spanish.
What’s key for this hurricane season is organization. Some communities responded successfully, said Carlos Alemán, the coordinator of the Regional Autonomous Government of the North Caribbean Coast. He highlighted the fact that, despite the destruction, the Miskito saw no deaths during Eta and Iota last year.
“You wonder how it is possible no one died, and elsewhere in Central America, people did die,” Alemán said in Spanish. “Something we did worked and helped us to be prepared. There’s something to learn here about what we’ve done.”
Direct money and relief would help even more. Right now, there’s a lot of yellow tape in between monetary funds and these Indigenous communities. Levi Sucre Romero, the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, wants to see the system evolve as the climate crisis creates more urgent situations for his peoples across Central America. Indigenous peoples across the region need recognition from national governments and the international community. They’re sovereign entities, too, yet they have to jump through hoops to get a seat at the table. Even then, they’re abandoned.
They also need protection. Illegal land grabbers have become emboldened during the pandemic, and Indigenous communities have no capacity to prepare for hurricane season or climate change if they’re busy trying to protect their land and lives. Until this situation improves, the Miskito only have themselves to rely on. They have faith in the Earth and can only hope that this season is more forgiving than the last.
“Right now, what people are doing is praying,” Francis Watson said. “Praying, praying, praying so that another hurricane doesn’t come.”