November 10, 2005

Mexican Villagers Homeless After Hurricane

By Frank Jack Daniel

BELISARIO DOMINGUEZ, Mexico -- Thousands of Mexican villagers whose homes were wrecked by Hurricane Stan's flooding and landslides last month are clawing through the mud to rebuild on the same perilous mountainsides.

They know their homes are still vulnerable to natural disasters like Stan, which claimed up to 2,000 lives in Mexico and Central America.

But they have nowhere else to go and, like many of Latin America's poorest, little hope for government aid after years of promises that proved empty when disasters faded from the headlines.

Residents would like President Vicente Fox's government to provide new homes for their families, even as they remember how government help fell short after Hurricane Mitch flooded the area in 1998. Mitch also killed about 10,000 people in Central America.

"In 1998, the river burst its banks and knocked down my kitchen. We weren't rehoused. Now look," said corn farmer Adelina Vasquez, 61, sweeping her arm around the rubble filled shell of her home.

"When it rains, the river starts filling up again. It's frightening, but where else do we go?" said Orthencia Ramirez, gazing at the sheer mountains ringing the village of Belisario Dominguez, great slicks of mud streaking distant coffee plantations.

The mother of eight pointed out the shattered remains of a small wardrobe from her home, and said her husband's plot of coffee high in the hills had been mostly wiped out.

About 30,000 houses were either destroyed or left unfit to live in after Hurricane Stan's torrential rains flooded rivers and collapsed hillsides across Chiapas state, best known for its Mayan ruins and masked Zapatista rebels.

The local school was destroyed, its walls broken, roof twisted and classrooms filled with mud.

At least one family was killed in the landslide and some say around a dozen people died.


Chiapas' impoverished mountain villages are highly susceptible to landslides, even when the hills are covered with well-rooted coffee trees rather than the shallow corn fields found in much of the state.

Fox has promised around $800 million to rebuild in the state after being accused of abandoning Chiapas in favor of rebuilding Caribbean beach resorts battered by Hurricane Wilma later in October.

Further up the partially collapsed road to Belisario lies Motozintla, where residents say waves destroyed nearly 500 houses when three rivers converged and tore a strip several hundred yards (metres) wide through the town.

Authorities say only the water's slow rise saved Motozintla from a tragic death toll.

Efren Zunun, 36, stood this week on the road that now runs roof high past his general store and home. "My wife and I worked in Acapulco for nine years to save the money for this. I've lost everything I had."

He said he specially picked the location for his home after Hurricane Mitch flooded in the town in 1998.

"This place was untouched, and we thought Mitch was as strong as they come. This is three times worse," said Zunun, who had huddled on a hill under a piece of canvas for three days and nights, watching floodwaters pour over his home.

Nearby, a yellow digger slowly ate through a mix of boulders, sand and dirt thicker than the height of most men, and Zunun said he hoped to see the door of his store again by the weekend.

Downstream, Vasquez patiently hunted for mud-coated possessions beneath the smashed walls of her home, where uprooted trees and boulders lay out front and an upturned latrine lay in the yard.

"We had orange and lemon trees here, and a flower garden. I loved those flowers," she said.