Hondurans' thoughts turn to home and to gathering aid

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007

TAMPA - Throughout the holiday weekend, local Hondurans and business owners watched the television with dread, fearing a repeat of nine years ago when Hurricane Mitch killed thousands and set the country back 50 years.

Hurricane Felix on Tuesday smashed into the coast of neighboring Nicaragua as a Category 5 storm before it crossed into Honduras and began to rake the Central American country with heavy rains.

"I had a bad weekend," said Jenny Rodriguez, 26, owner of Honduras Package Express on Busch Boulevard.

In between clients Tuesday, she called her mother and five siblings in the state of Yoro, in the west of Honduras. By noon, they told her it had not yet started to rain where they are.

Rodriguez feared for some of her clients' families, who live on the east coast of Honduras, close to where the storm came ashore.

The same helpless feelings washed over her in 1998. She watched from Miami as Hurricane Mitch followed a similar path as Felix, but stalled over Central America for about a week, killing nearly 11,000 people and leaving another 8,000 missing, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Rodriguez, a permanent resident, says her only consolation is knowing she can gather aid and get it to Honduras after the storm passes.

"It's the only thing that sustains me, gives me hope," she said in Spanish.

Lurvin Lizardo, head of United Hondurans of Tampa, said she hopes to start organizing an aid drive as soon as the storm passes and the damage is known.

Lizardo, who received Temporary Protected Status like a lot of other Honduran immigrants after Hurricane Mitch, puts the number of Hondurans in the Tampa Bay area at 4,000 to 5,000.

Her father and several siblings live in El Progreso, a city near the northern coast. She called them for regular updates until Tuesday morning, when the lines went dead.

Debbie Helms, office manager of Roatan Charter in Pasco County's San Antonio also held her breath watching the storm approach Central America.

Her agency books travel and diving packages to Belize and the islands off Honduras' north coast, including Roatan.

After Hurricane Mitch, business fell by more than half, and tourism took years to recover.

"It's never really come back the same," she said.

But by 1 p.m. Tuesday, she got word from Honduras that its northern islands dodged a bullet as the storm moved through the heart of the mainland farther south.

"I'm just trying to figure out where everyone is," she said.

Carmen Algeciras worried about long-term damage to the region's economy.

She is the director of the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program, based at Florida International University in Miami.

The program received a $4.2-million grant four years ago to send U.S. farming and agricultural experts to Central America. The volunteers provide advice and training for cooperatives, universities, farmers' associations and small-to-medium farm enterprises to help alleviate poverty and promote trade-based growth in dairy, horticulture and tree crops, like mangos.

"I am definitely worried about the impact this is going to have on the producers we've been working with," Algeciras said. "It's going right through the farms we've been working with to support. What those ramifications are going to be in the longer term, it's very unpredictable."

Times researcher John Martin contributed. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com

Fast facts

To help

Those interested in donating to aid victims of Hurricane Felix can drop off items at Sabor Catracho restaurant at 2202 W Waters Ave. in Tampa, or call the restaurant at (813) 933-5601.