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International Programs News & Views Volume 19

March 2000


As I flew over Lake Managua, on which the capitol city of Nicaragua is located, I could see that the water appeared to be dishwater brown. It looked as though some buildings might actually be in the lake water. I asked a woman sitting next to me if the lake was higher than normal. "Yes", she said, "the water rose because of the rains of Hurricane Mitch."

I was a member of a team conducting some Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) work and assisting the U.S. Agency for International Development (US/AID) in identifying and making recommendations to remove (mitigate) the exigencies we recorded.

"Hurricane Mitch" is known in many parts of the world as a storm that struck Central American countries in the latter part of October 1998. Hurricane Mitch hit these countries with winds up to 180 miles per hour and rains that caused severe flooding which resulted in lost lives, damage and complete loss of homes, infrastructure, cropland, forestland and other land. This was one of the most destructive hurricanes in recorded history. Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were all affected by Hurricane Mitch's destructive force. More than 11,000 lives were lost as a result of the flooding and landslides caused by the hurricane.

Our initial time was spent meeting with US/AID staff, Government of Nicaragua officials, non-government officials and private volunteer organizations. We obtained the maps and photos that we needed and left for Posoltega, which is a municipality similar to a county in the U.S. (There is also a small town named Posoltega approximately 80 miles northeast of Managua.) The driving time should be one and one half-hours; however, it took us twice this time to drive the 80 miles. Our driver was a soil scientist working at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He knew when and how loud to blow the horn of our vehicle as we came upon pedestrians, people herding cattle, and oxen driven carts. He took more risks than I would have, but all in all we arrived without incident.

What impacted me the most was my initial sight of the Casitas Volcano. I saw the massive scar that was left when the side collapsed. The torrential rains caused a landslide on the southeast flank of the volcano that quickly turned into a debris flow destroying everything in its path, including the villages of El Porvernir and Rolando Rodriguez. Approximately 2,500 people were killed by this debris flow. Much of the debris fell out as the waters lost their force and numerous hectares of cropland were damaged or buried by the debris.

We quickly learned that to be more efficient we needed to find someone who lived in the municipality and who knew where the major problems were located. Thanks to our guide, we were able to go to the areas that did indeed pose an immediate threat to loss of life and/or property. After our investigation, our team met with some of the local leaders and farmers and we reviewed our findings with them.

When we returned to Managua, we briefed the US/AID staff and submitted our recommendations, stressing the importance of removing the exigencies the team identified. The team also suggested that more EWP teams be requested to assist in EWP work in Nicaragua. The US/AID Mission staff in Nicaragua have been very pleased and impressed with the skills and knowledge the NRCS teams have shared.

Honduras was perhaps the worst hit of all of the Central American countries. It was hard to believe there would be so many landslides with as much vegetation as there was on some of the mountainsides. The amount and duration of the rains totally saturated the soil and even the best conservation practices could not have prevented the slides. The numerous landslides occurred in the mountainous terrain of the Honduras-Nicaragua border region.

Enormous amounts of sediment filled channels and damaged agricultural lands. Additionally, floodwaters destroyed buildings roads and bridges. The Gulf of Fonseca to the south was a cloudy brown because of all the sedimentation. The shrimp farmers in the area also lost their ponds and shrimp. Drinking water was contaminated and conditions became unsanitary.

NRCS was again requested to send technical people to assist with assessments and to develop a work plan. As a result of the assistance NRCS has provided to Central America, four long-term positions were advertised, and have been filled with three NRCS employees and one Forest Service employee. Also, many Spanish speaking individuals had and/or will have the opportunity for short-term details to Central America during the Hurricane Mitch reconstruction phase.

NRCS is a respected leader in natural resource conservation worldwide. It was a privilege to represent our agency in countries that needed NRCS assistance. Those employees who are detailed--not only to Central America but also to other countries--should consider the following thoughts:

  • You are in someone else's country. Live with the rules and customs that work for them.
  • When you are representing NRCS, you are wearing a technical hat. Stay away from politics--theirs and ours.
  • We are on their time and schedules. We must respect their routine and life that you are infringing upon.

Author: Manuel Ayala, Jr. (retired), International Programs Division, Washington, D.C.

Editor:  Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division