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International Programs News & Views Volume 26

Sept. 2001

NRCS Collaborates with Other Agencies on Hurricane Reconstruction Efforts

Background

In late 1998, two hurricanes had a devastating impact on Central America and the Caribbean.  Hurricanes Georges struck the Eastern Caribbean, Dominican Republic and Haiti in September 1998.  Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in October 1998 with an impact consistent with the kind of hurricane that emerges only once in a 100-200 year period.

Impact of Hurricane Georges in the Dominican Republic 

Hurricane Georges damaged nearly 70 percent of the country and left more than 200 dead.  The hurricane severely limited the availability of potable water and sanitation facilities; damaged 90 percent of the basic food crops; left 600,000 Dominicans in need of food assistance; damaged 50 percent of the forests; and destroyed 25 percent of the roads and 60 percent of bridges.  Economic damage totaled $3.3 billion.

Impact of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras

Hurricane Mitch had a huge impact in Honduras. Five feet of rain fell on the country in one week--killing an estimated 5,000 people; temporarily displacing more than half the population of six million; and destroying homes, farms, and businesses of tens of thousands of people.  Transportation and infrastructure were severely damaged.  The agricultural sector, which accounts for the majority of Honduras exports, sustained about $1 billion in losses.   Economic losses were estimated at over $4 billion.

Impact of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua

Over 3,000 people lost their lives, with the most tragic loss occurring at Posoltega where some 2,000 people died in one huge landslide.  The productive sector was hit particularly hard. An estimated 11,500 hectares of agricultural land were destroyed.  Potable water and waste water systems suffered over $560 million worth of damage.  Over 500 primary schools were damaged structurally.  Total damages were estimated at $1.5 billion.

NRCS Technical Assistance

Since the initiation of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the damages incurred by both hurricanes, NRCS has been instrumental in providing technical assistance to Central America and the Caribbean.  This assistance has been in partnership with USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service/ International Cooperation and Development (FAS/ICD) and by requests from the U.S. Agency for International Development (US/AID) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)/ Dominican Republic.  

Soil conservationists, agronomists, soil scientists, engineers, and geologists are among the technical expertise that NRCS has contributed. These technical specialists performed a variety of tasks while in host countries. Examples include damage assessments; determining exigencies in critical watersheds; providing recommendations on rehabilitation; helping with the planning process to rehabilitate critical watersheds and agricultural lands; providing training; as well as implementing on-site activities for restoration, reactivation and soil and water conservation practices.  

Since April 2000, two NRCS employees have been serving on long-term assignments in Nicaragua. The non-governmental organizations and governments we have assisted were pleased and impressed with the employee's level of expertise and capabilities to get the job done.  Every NRCS employee detailed to provide assistance to these countries has represented the agency, USDA, and the U.S. in a very professional manner.

My Commitment to Conservation

In December 1998, Gary Domian, New Hampshire Assistant State Conservationist and I embarked on a challenging 2-week technical detail to the Dominican Republic.  I had never served on an international technical detail before so was hesitant when the request came from the International Programs Division (IPD).  

With the encouragement of other NRCS employees that have served on international details, I seized the opportunity. Our task in the Dominican Republic was to produce a report about the impacts of Hurricane Georges on soil erosion and sedimentation and damage to water sources as related to natural resources damage over the land.  Host country technical specialists from the Secretariat of State of Agriculture, the National Hydraulic Institute, and IICA joined us in forming a technical team to conduct the preliminary assessment of the impacts of Hurricane Georges.  

The team spent six days in the field assessing the natural resource conditions, damage to roads, bridges, dams, irrigation canals, agricultural lands, forestland and buildings.  We visited eight provinces and 24 villages and communities in seven major watersheds.  We developed a preliminary report and presented it to local authorities in both English and Spanish.  Special emphasis was placed on watershed exigencies that had an immediate threat to life and property.  

In addition to the report, we prepared a proposal to mitigate future storm events and to help improve and advance the current technology used in watershed management in the Dominican Republic. When Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, I was eager to provide technical assistance to the Central American countries, particularly Honduras, my native country. Hurricane Mitch had more damaging winds and rain than Georges and severely impacted Honduras and Nicaragua.  

In January 1999, I had the opportunity to serve on an interagency team with representatives from FAS and the Forest Service.  Our task was to provide detailed information to USAID/Nicaragua and USAID/Honduras regarding types of technical assistance USDA could provide with the reconstruction efforts of Hurricane Mitch damage.  We prepared a scope of work for a long-term natural resources advisor in each country and provided technical options for carrying out a rehabilitation program for post-Mitch.  

This initial effort led to the NRCS present involvement in Honduras and Nicaragua. The experiences in natural resources conservation, watershed management, soil quality, as well as previous experiences doing research and development with a variety of agronomic and horticultural crops, definitely proved to be an asset during these details.  Familiarity with the host countries' culture and being bilingual in English/Spanish was also an advantage. 

These assignments have been challenging and rewarding professional experiences.  The experience and education gained on these details cannot be earned in any academic institution.  I am very grateful to NRCS for allowing me the opportunity to participate in these details.  I encourage NRCS employees to take advantage of these opportunities so they may broaden their professional capabilities and personal lives. 

Author:  Manuel Rosales, Conservation Agronomist, Akron, Colorado 

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