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CRIES IN THE DARK: Reconstruction after Hurricane Mitch

By : Kurt Rhyner

Disasters are always caused by a combination of factors, and the natural phenomenon that brings them on is usually just a catalyst. The underlying cause of most disasters is poverty as mostly the poor segments of the population usually live in high risk areas where their shelter all too often cannot withstand even light winds, small inundations or medium earthquakes. When Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in October 1998, all countries were ill prepared. A few weeks earlier, the authorities of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, had attempted to simulate an evacuation, but it had met with a great degree of resistance from the public. When Mitch hit, unprecedented masses of water raced down the mountainous river beds. People were taken by surprise, as no efficient organisation existed. Everybody ran for their lives. Houses slid down hillsides, rivers swept bridges, houses and people with them. Six years later, Tegucigalpa looks very similar to the days before Mitch. The steep hillsides are covered with a potpourri of dwellings, from miserable huts to solid upmarket houses. Regulations were passed in the year 2002 to prohibit construction in high risk areas; however, enforcement is difficult, especially when existing buildings are renovated and even enlarged. Theoretically it is possible to evacuate high risk areas. Nonetheless, such drastic measures are virtually impossible to implement, as no mayor or police chief would survive such an action in office. The paper presents a case study which shows that the underlying problems of poverty and the non-availability of suitable land for people to relocate from high risk areas can usually not be overcome by post-disaster reconstruction programmes. A mitigation strategy is thus to empower inhabitants of high risk areas to improve their own situation by affordable access to information, advice and suitable low cost construction materials through "Building Advisory Services" and Ecomaterials producers within the neighbourhoods.
Keywords : Disaster Prevention, Vulnerability, Low-cost housing, Ecomaterials, Building Advisory Service

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