In the dark of night, October 30, 1998, nearing the hour of 10 p.m., Benicio Lopez, 34, heard three large abrupt sounds, like the sound of wood snapping, and ran out of his house barefoot. Minutes later, his home in Colonia Humuya, Honduras, was destroyed and washed away as the River Choluteca quickly rose.
"I never expected it, Mitch, to be that bad. There was little wind and it was just raining but not hard. I had no idea what was to come. Luckily I had moved my wife Maria and two children earlier in the day to the CRS [Catholic Relief Services] office in Tegucigalpa. I refused to leave myself, but my son Issac had just turned 1 month old and I wanted them in a safer place," says Benicio.
According to the National Hurricane Center, based out of Miami, Florida, Hurricane Mitch is the second-deadliest Western Hemisphere hurricane on record. It is estimated that more than 11,000 people lost their lives. The deaths, as well as vast loss of crops and infrastructure, were due in large part to the slow movement of the storm, which dropped massive amounts of rain and caused flooding and mudslides across Central America, primarily in Honduras and Nicaragua.
"Hurricane Mitch struck a Third-World region and set it back decades," explained Dennis Feltgen, public affairs officer and meteorologist at the center. "The official toll is more than five times what the U.S. suffered from Katrina."
Home and Store Lost
Benicio has been an employee at Catholic Relief Services for 18 years. At the time Mitch struck, he was 24 years old, working a security detail at CRS. He also ran a small, 20-square-foot store or pulperia from a room in his home.
"I was still selling goods at 9 p.m. Then the rain started to get stronger. I looked out the window and saw the water coming up fast. Really fast." The nearby river had crested and was rising. As the storm drifted slowly across Honduras, rainfall observations neared 36 inches in Choluteca, and according to the National Climatic Data Center, over 25 inches of rain fell in a six-hour period. Total rainfall has been reported as high as 75 inches for the entire storm.
Benicio had no time to save any belongings. He lost everything. In spite of the conditions, he spent the night helping his neighbors.
"The next morning we were preparing a flight with medicines and food supplies to go to the north coast," says Jose Romero, CRS project coordinator and a colleague of Benicio's. "We had no idea at this point that Tegucigalpa had been affected so badly. Then we heard about the Choluteca river and immediately thought of Benicio, so I got in a car with some co-workers and went to find him. I was so relieved to find him. I thought he had drowned. There he was though, disheveled but helping people. Everyone was so disoriented, in a state of shock. It had a tremendous impact on me."
Friends Help Rebuild
Benicio's family spent six months living at the CRS office, until they were able to rent a one-bedroom house in Colonia Los Pinos. After hearing of Benicio's plight, CRS personnel in the United States began to collect donations from employees, enough to allow Benicio to buy a tract of land in Colonia Los Pinos. He then began the arduous task of building a concrete foundation on the land, one slab at a time, digging through the mountainous terrain. Every weekend a group of co-workers would travel to his new home site and help him with the construction. They would mix concrete and use nails, aluminum and wood all donated by Benicio's CRS colleagues. Wall by wall, they built a new three-bedroom home in two months.
"They saved my life. Took care of my family. Without their support, I could have never made it. They gave me hope for the future," says Benicio.
Hilda Perez is a photojournalist who recently traveled with CRS to Central America