--Little Brian Suazo's birthday will always remind his family of the moaning winds that destroyed their house and swept away his crib when he was only hours old. He entered the world just as the 100-mph winds of Hurricane Mitch seized his home in Guanaja, the most eastern of the three Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. The winds continued for three terrifying days, battering the once-lush island in a preview of what lay ahead for the rest of Central America. Perhaps nowhere else are the abiding changes wrought by Mitch stamped more clearly. Gratitude that the storm killed only eight inhabitants easily gives way to fear that it ripped away the future for the remaining 8,000. Here, Mitch scattered the McLaughlins of Savannah Bight, a family clustered in one seaside neighborhood before a house knocked off its stilts killed the matriarch, Miss Florentina. Here, the Moore clan of Mangrove Bight spent three days standing up in a flooded kindergarten as Mitch splintered their houses and washed away their dream that even the children of poor fishermen could enter the computer age. And here, Carolina Suazo, whose life before Mitch was one of hardship and uncertainty, now grapples with raw survival as she seeks a way to support her newborn son and his sisters. These three families tell the story of Guanaja, home to the Caribbean's only pine forest, a speck of land whose inhabitants lived by fishing the seas and who dreamed of new prosperity from tourists visiting its beautiful mountains, coves and reefs. Now the trees are naked trunks. The boats are washed away. The beauty is smeared and pounded into pulp. Damage to the coral reefs that draw scuba divers here has not yet been determined. Above sea level, however, the tranquillity of an island with parrots and iguanas--and no automobiles--has been shattered. "Are tourists going to want to come here to see debris? No fire ever did what this did," said Walden Bush, who for 12 years has owned Island House dive shop on Mangrove Bight, the island's most remote settlement. Still, with jokes and faith, these proud great-grandchildren of pirates make light of their losses as they nail wooden planks back onto the frames of broken homes and wash dishes wherever they can find water that looks less dirty than the plates. The islanders' favorite post-Mitch pun is that this was not a hurricane at all. "This was a slow-cane; it wouldn't go," former Congressman Spurgeon Miller said of Mitch, which first struck Oct. 26 but then took on a snail-like pace even after it was downgraded to a tropical storm, making the deluge all the more destructive. As they bail water and wait in long lines for donated food, the people of Guanaja are quick to express their gratitude that the deadliest Central American storm in two centuries, which took 10,000 lives, killed relatively few of their neighbors. "It's a miracle that there were eight dead here and 8,000 telling the story," Miller said. "People were crawling from one shelter to another in the midst of the bad weather, and they lived. The Lord had a hand in this hurricane."
Residents Descended From
A quarter of a century ago, ship's cook Alsonm McLaughlin retired from the sea and brought his wife, Florentina, to Savannah Bight to make a new life. They built a little house on stilts over the water, where stiff breezes would drive away mosquitoes and where the tides would carry away waste like a sort of natural sewer system. McLaughlin's mother lived next door, and the home of brother Edney was close by. Their move was part of a long tradition of migration: Like most families on Guanaja, the McLaughlins are descended from the Irish and British swashbucklers who made their way here, often through the Cayman Islands or other British colonies. The pilgrimages continued even after Guanaja and the other main Bay Islands--Roatan and Utila--were ceded to Honduras by Britain in 1856. After that, Hondurans from the mainland also began to settle in Guanaja, especially in Savannah Bight. Still, the old family names and the tradition of speaking lilting Caribbean English at home continue, even though school is taught in Spanish. Alsonm McLaughlin supported his growing family by selling the day's catch in the village. Florentina helped by grating and rendering coconut to make oil for sale. "Sometimes, we would have 3,000 coconuts to grate," recalled son Armando, 27. Four years ago, with their three children grown, the McLaughlins had their bonus baby, Lila Adelina, named for her grandmothers. "What a blessing!" said McLaughlin, 62. "I cry when I think how nice she comforted me [when Florentina died in the storm]. . . . She said, 'Don't cry, Papi. I love you. Mommy is with Jesus.' From a little baby." That was McLaughlin's only moment of peace in three days of horror.
Running For Their Lives During Storm
Mitch struck on a Monday. Most of the McLaughlin clan holed up in Edney's home--until the roof flew off. Early Tuesday, they ran for cover underneath a nearby house built on high stilts, and when that structure began to sway they ran again. Armando took Lila's hand, and his father clasped Florentina's. As Armando and Lila ran, a plank hit McLaughlin on the head. He hesitated. In that instant, the house crashed down. "I had her by the hand, ready to run for our lives, and she found death," McLaughlin said, weeping. He remembers little about the next two days: There was unrelenting hunger and thirst. The physical pain of a dislocated collarbone, twisted ribs and cracked skull. And the emotional pain of losing his life partner. "It's a bitter pill because I had a nice wife," McLaughlin said. "We lived a long time together, and we lived nice." On Thursday, Mitch finally moved on. The 2,000 residents of Savannah Bight emerged to find 30 houses where 436 had stood. And Miss Florentina's sons and brothers-in-law began the long task of retrieving her bruised body. It was nightfall by the time they could put her in a simple plywood coffin and bury her. Daughter Selena, 23, who had fled to a more protected patch with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Angie, arrived as the last shovel of dirt was placed on her mother's grave. "My brothers were crying, and my father made no sense," she recalled. Selena's last memory of Miss Florentina was from the night before the storm, the gentle gesture of a grandmother sitting in a quiet, dark house, fanning young Angie with cardboard so the mosquitoes wouldn't bite her. In the days ahead, the McLaughlins, who had built their lives around the family colony on Guanaja, broke apart. Bight for the fishing banks off the coast of Nicaragua and Colombia, to try to earn money for reconstruction. Armando stayed behind to clean up and rebuild. He cobbled together a woodshed-size shelter from scrap wood and steel, his sweat mixing with tears. "Sometimes, when I'm doing this, I stop for a little while to think about my mother," he said. "She was a happy person and friendly. She would talk to anybody." Son Shadra, 22, took his ailing father to a hospital in Tegucigalpa--a terrifying plane trip to a capital made chaotic by Mitch's flooding. While Shadra struggled to find food and water to augment the hospital's provisions, McLaughlin watched four patients die in the beds next to him. "All the death and, oh, the stinking scent," he recalled. Upon his release, McLaughlin and his son rode buses and forded streams where bridges were washed out, and arrived in the coastal city of La Ceiba two weeks after they left Guanaja. There, McLaughlin is recuperating at the home of his mother, who has lived on the mainland since her husband died 10 years ago. McLaughlin now longs for the day he can be reunited with daughter Lila. The 4-year-old has been taken in by Selena and her husband, Joaquin Wahl. But now they too are wondering whether they will have to leave Guanaja. A small guest house and diving business are the sole source of the couple's income, but they see little hope of making money this Christmas season, or for many seasons to come. "I don't want to be a rat deserting a sinking ship, but tourism you can forget right now," said Wahl, a German and one of 100 foreigners who live on Guanaja. "I never came down here to make a lot of money, but now my family has gotten bigger." To support the extended McLaughlin clan, Wahl is thinking of going back to Germany for a while to earn money. That complicates little Lila's future. Selena wants to take her with them, but McLaughlin is reluctant to let his baby go so far away, even though he realizes that he cannot care for her right now. Mitch may force a family breakup, but Wahl is determined that the separation will not be permanent. "I may have to go to Germany, but I'll be back for sure," he said. "This is my home. I don't feel at home in Germany anymore. It's not just coconut trees and having a reef to dive from--it's the people."
Woman Doesn't See Island as a Paradise
Cradling her newborn son, Brian, Carolina Suazo also is making plans to leave Guanaja. Born and raised off the island on cays--10 acres that magically escape mosquitoes and sand fleas, where half the island's population crowds together--she does not see the paradise that drew foreigners such as Wahl here. Mitch is the drop that overflowed her bucket of troubles. "Normally, life here is hard work," said the 22-year-old mother of three. "Now, my goal is to fix my papers so that I can go someplace else to work." Even before she gave birth during a hurricane, Suazo's life was not going well. Ever since her father was killed on a visit to the mainland eight years ago, survival has been difficult for Suazo, her five sisters and their mother, Hipolita Castillo. Like most of the men who fish out on the banks, Brian's father is rarely around, and Suazo is uncertain whether the couple is separating or he is just working. She brushes away questions about him, as if to say he does not count. Before Brian was born, Suazo struggled to support herself and her two other children, ages 3 and 6, with a job at the Marcusa Fisheries, one of three plants on the island that thaw, clean, package and refreeze lobster and shrimp brought in by the boats. She worked from 7:30 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner, and earned about $50 a week--barely enough to pay her monthly rent of $48, a $15 electric bill, groceries and clothes for her growing children. As Mitch was pounding Savannah Bight, Castillo, a midwife, was helping Suazo give birth to Brian. A few hours later, the hurricane reached the cays. "The baby was born in the morning," Suazo said. "If he had been born at night, maybe we wouldn't be here telling the tale." The first night of the storm, they moved from one corner of the house to another, as the wind blew bits off the roof. When the fiercest gusts moved to the other side of the island, the family ran to the Roman Catholic church, a concrete structure. All Suazo could save were the baby's clothes. Suazo has remained in the church basement ever since, with her children, mother, sister, cousin and nephew. Fifteen-year-old cousin Wilson is the only family member working right now. He lifts racks of bread into a hot oven and takes them out, eight hours a day. Castillo, who used to take in laundry when she had a sure supply of water, keeps the family fed by standing in line every midday until the Guanaja Ladies' Club distributes donations. Just living day to day is hard, but Castillo knows that she needs to look toward the future. "The church has not said anything, but we need to worry about finding another place to live," she said. "I need to find a little spot and build something." She attends Mass every morning and does not seem concerned about Carolina's plans to find work off the island, leaving the children in her care. She said simply, "I have faith in God."
Keeping the Faith Despite Hardships
Across the island in Mangrove Bight, Guanaja's most remote settlement, the Moore clan keeps faith another way. Gathered under a U.S. Agency for International Development tarp on a Saturday morning, missionary Norton Perilla read Scriptures as 40 members of the Seventh-day Adventist congregation followed along in Bibles they had wrapped in plastic to save from Mitch. The hurricane took their church, the high school that international church volunteers had helped build and the 10 new computers that had arrived last month to bring their children into the cyber-age. Of the 146 houses that used to line the shores of Mangrove Bight, only 11 are habitable--and they now shelter 127 families. "Most of the houses were on the sea, and there's not one left standing on saltwater," said Marcelo Webster Moore, first elder of the church. Still, people here are receptive to Perilla's message of valuing life over the material things that the hurricane destroyed. "Everything we had is lost," said Eveline Moore, a 58-year-old grandmother, quickly adding: "I thank the Lord that our lives were spared." That sentiment is repeated all over Mangrove Bight, a poor village where nine of 10 families make their living from fishing. Significantly, only 19 families have left this debris-strewn beach. Those who remain agree with Webster Moore. "I feel like I couldn't stay someplace else," he said. "Everywhere you turn, we're family some way or another." The Moore, Jackson, Ebanks and Powery families have lived on this bay for nearly two centuries, intermarrying and building a tight, supportive community. The same four last names are repeated over and over, and to minimize confusion over identity, people here have adopted the Spanish custom of using both their parents' last names. "This is a good place to raise kids," said Cherry Powery Moore, Webster Moore's cousin. "Everybody knows them. We really had a good little town here." Mangrove Bight had no telephone service, but there was electricity at night and television four to five hours a day. People here had learned over the years to make light of hurricanes. "Fifi just took the roof off [in 1974]," Eveline Moore said. "Greta came four years after [on the same date] to sing 'Happy Birthday' to Fifi." Still, people here are finding it tough to laugh about Mitch just yet. "For four days, I was wet, with no food or water," recalled Powery Moore, who waited out the storm from Monday afternoon until Thursday morning with 200 neighbors and relatives in the school's kindergarten. "Those were the longest four days of my life. . . . We couldn't sit: There were always three to four inches of water on the floor. We just kept bailing. "The wind sounded like some wild animal howling," she continued. "Everything was white. You couldn't see." Once the rain stopped and they could look outside, it was almost worse. "Trees 100 years old were smashed up," said George Webster Moore, Marcelo's brother. "That was a hill full of little animals and birds. Now, not even a crow is left. It was so green in morning, with the smell of pine." City Hall has issued an order that no more houses are to be built over the water, where two-thirds of Mangrove Bight's homes had been located. But, said Eveline Moore, "we have nowhere else to build. The land belongs to other people." And after three weeks on land, she added, she is fed up with the mosquitoes. "We are going to break out in malaria," she predicted. Powery Moore, who has lived through four episodes of malaria on this island, shares that fear. "If I had the money, I'd go right back out [to the sea to build] again," she said. "There may not be another hurricane for another 20 years."
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