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Locals Help Central America Rebuild

November 12, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ Law students dug with shovels Thursday alongside roaring earth-moving equipment, trying to rid Honduras’ capital of thick layers of mud left by Hurricane Mitch.

In Honduras and Nicaragua, where nearly 10,000 people died in the storm’s fury, much of the recovery effort now involves sheer hard work by thousands of ordinary citizens.

``We will rebuild,″ insisted Francis Juarez, a law student whose hands were blistered from shoveling the foul-smelling black muck. An 8-foot-high watermark on the wall behind her showed how high the Choluteca River rose on Oct. 30-31. The river normally flows two blocks away and 15 feet below.

``I had never seen my country like this,″ said Hector Duran, an engineering student standing in 2-foot-deep mud. ``I did not realize the damage was so bad. If we all make an effort we will come out ahead.″

In a radio broadcast Thursday, President Carlos Flores Facusse appealed to the United States and other countries to increase aid to his stricken nation and forgive its debts.

But he also called on his countrymen to ``redouble your efforts and your work to rebuild the country as rapidly as possible.″

``The time has come for us to jointly face the apocalyptic reality of our villages and cities ... and try to create a Honduras that is renewed, vigorous, modern and better,″ Flores Facusse said.

Despite the recovery efforts, the nation’s top business group urged the government to extend a curfew and state of emergency imposed Nov. 2 to try to prevent looting.

Without unlimited police authority to arrest and jail suspects, ``there will be chaos, desperation and more robberies,″ said Rigoberto Stefan, vice president of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council.

Meanwhile, aid continued to arrive from across the globe.

The Rome-base U.N. World Food Program announced it would distribute more than 100,000 tons of rice, corn, fish and oil over the next six months in the hurricane-hit countries.

``With emergency assistance, these people are at extreme nutritional risk _ in addition to facing the threat of cholera and other diseases,″ said Catherine Bertini, the agency’s executive director.

Flores Facusse said repairs could cost four times Honduras’ $1.2 billion annual budget. He urged the United States and other countries to forgive Honduras’ $4.3 billion in debt, grant it free-trade status and help with ``a massive supply of fresh resources to aid in rebuilding the country.″

He also asked the European Union to lift limits on banana imports from Central America _ although officials say this year’s Honduran crop is virtually lost.

The United States is part of the Paris Club of creditor nations, which announced Thursday it would likely grant debt relief to Honduras and Nicaragua when it meets in early December.

France on Tuesday canceled debts owed by Nicaragua and Honduras, while Ireland, Britain, Italy, Mexico, Jamaica and dozens of other countries have sent help.

Officials put the Honduran death toll at 7,000, with another 11,000 people injured, 10,000 missing and 800,000 houses damaged. In Nicaragua, the death toll was 2,362 dead, 287 injured, 970 missing and 36,000 houses destroyed or damaged.

Several hundred people also died in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Honduras’ recovery efforts have been set back by a destroyed road system and widespread devastation in Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, where seven of 10 bridges were badly damaged.

Tegucigalpa is still practically without piped water. A contaminated lake, created when a massive landslide poured into the Choluteca River, covers nearly 35 million cubic foot, engulfing homes and streets.

Mexican Army engineers worked Thursday to move boulders and tons of dirt to try to widen the course of the river, while students and other volunteers dug with shovels in a light drizzle amid the stench of open sewers.

Walter Francisco Martinez surveyed what was left of his two tiny businesses: a fried chicken stall and a watch repair shop destroyed by the flooding and looters.

``I started this business without a cent years ago,″ he said. ``This was our life. We will do it again.″

``Luckily, we have the formula to rebuild,″ said. ``Hard, honest work.″

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