(SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras) — As the remnants of Hurricane Eta moved back over Caribbean waters, governments in Central America worked to tally the displaced and dead, and recover bodies from landslides and flooding that claimed dozens of lives from Guatemala to Panama.
It will be days before the true toll of Eta is known. Its torrential rains battered economies already strangled by the COVID-19 pandemic, took all from those who had little and laid bare the shortcomings of governments unable to aid their citizens and pleading for international assistance.
Shortly after Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández asked neighboring Guatemala for help rescuing residents stranded near their shared border Thursday, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said at least 50 people had been killed in landslides in his own country, most of them in a remote town rescuers struggled to reach. Guatemala’s national emergency agency later said only that at least 50 people were missing in San Cristobal Verapaz.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast that parts of Nicaragua and Honduras could receive 15 to 25 inches (380 to 635 millimeters) of rain, with 40 inches (1,000 millimeters) possible in some isolated parts.
A week of rain spoiled crops, washed away bridges and flooded homes across Central America. Hurricane Eta’s arrival Tuesday afternoon in northeast Nicaragua followed days of drenching rain as it crawled toward shore. Its slow, meandering path north through Honduras pushed rivers over their banks and pouring into neighborhoods where families were forced onto rooftops to wait for rescue.
Marta Julia Portillo, 62, fled her San Pedro Sula neighborhood before dawn Thursday with relatives. They paused at a gas station on dry ground until they were told to move on.
“We don’t know where to go because we don’t have any place to shelter,” she said. Her son, who stayed behind at the family home, told her water was up to the third floor.
“I would say the national capacity has been overwhelmed by the size of the impact we are seeing,” said Maite Matheu, Honduras director for the international humanitarian organization CARE. The group was using its network of contacts in Honduras to identify the hardest-hit areas and catalogue their most-pressing needs.
Honduras Foreign Affairs minister Lisandro Rosales said via Twitter that “the destruction that Eta leaves us is enormous and public finances are at a critical moment because of COVID-19, we make a call to the international community to accelerate the process of recovery and reconstruction.”
Observers are already anticipating that the havoc wrought by Eta will pressure more people to migrate from countries that are already some of the primary senders of migrants to the United States border in recent years.
“Now with this situation, this is going to be an exodus, a massive exodus of migrants toward the north,” said Matheu.
Late Thursday, Tropical Depression Eta had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and was moving north at 8 mph (13 kph). The forecast had it strengthening to a tropical storm before nearing the Cayman Islands Saturday and crossing Cuba Sunday. From there it could reach Florida or at least come close enough to assure heavy rains.
“Whatever comes out (of Central America) is going to linger awhile,” said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. “I’m not convinced we’re done with Eta.”
That’s because what’s left of Eta still has spin, which is hard to kill off, and that should help it reform, said NOAA hurricane and climate scientist Jim Kossin.
Once it reforms and heads toward Cuba, it could meander in the area for awhile.
“The winds aren’t going to be the problem. The rains are going to be the problem,” Klotzbach said.
Eta will be so big, wet and messy that it doesn’t have to make landfall in already rain-soaked South Florida to cause a mess, Klotzbach said.
“Slow-moving sprawling ugly tropical storms can certainly pack a precipitation wallop even if it doesn’t make landfall,” Klotzbach said.
Pérez D. reported from Guatemala City. Associated Press writers Marlon González in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.