At least 22 dead in Central America after Hurricane Iota as rescue crews work through flooding and debris

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November 18, 2020

By Jimena Tavel, Jacqueline Charles and Syra Ortiz-Blanes, Miami Herald

Hurricane Iota’s death toll in the Central America region on Wednesday rose to 22, including two children, as survivors and rescuers continue to wade through murky waters and catastrophic debris.

Five people died in Honduras and six in Nicaragua, Gonzalo Atxaerandio, the Central America disaster and crisis coordinator for the Red Cross who is organizing relief efforts in Honduras, told the Miami Herald.

Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies for the Pan American Health Organization, said Nicaragua reported at least 10 other deaths. Four of those people died in a huge landslide.

Colombian President Ivan Duque had said on Tuesday that the Category 4 storm killed one person when it barreled through the Colombian archipelago of San Andres and Providencia, about 230 miles off of the northeastern Nicaraguan coast.

These fatalities will be added to the ones left behind by Eta, the other major hurricane that slammed into the area earlier this month. PAHO reported 150 people had died from Eta in Central America as of Monday night, before Iota made landfall in Nicaragua.

The organization estimates at least 6.5 million people in Central America have been affected in some way by Iota and Eta, which has sparked a massive humanitarian disaster. Ugarte warned the numbers could keep on mounting.

“There have been persons who have disappeared and right now multi-institutional teams are dealing with that crisis,” Ugarte said during PAHO’s weekly press update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the Americas.

Although the conditions are extremely difficult, particularly in shelters, Ugarte said “it is necessary to guarantee access to water, food, shelter of course.” PAHO, he said, is currently working with government officials and the United Nations to ensure that those needs are met. “Right now, there are very serious difficulties in accessing certain areas and the damage assessment will take place in the next few hours, perhaps even days.”

He said PAHO has sent Nicaragua personal protective equipment and other materials needed to deal with COVID patients. It will soon provide technical support and mobilize resources to guarantee essential health services to that country and others as well.

PAHO is also keeping a close eye on any increase in COVID-19 cases, Ugarte said, which can take some time to show due to the incubation period. “That has not yet been detected right now, but it’s highly likely it will increase over the next few weeks because it always takes some time from transmission for the cases to appear.”

Atxaerandio, with the Red Cross in Honduras, said Nicaragua and Honduras were the hardest hit by Iota among the seven countries in Central America. In Nicaragua, the destruction is centered in the northeastern coast, while in Honduras it encompasses the entire country.

Atxaerandio said he’s most worried about dams that are at near full capacity in Honduras, even as heavy rainfall continues in some areas.

Because shelters are over capacity in Honduras, so many people who became homeless after Eta weathered Iota in makeshift tents and tarps on the streets, he said.

“We’re very worried,” he said. “Obviously we’re trying to help them first, because their vulnerability is higher, but it’s difficult.”

Atxaerandio said he hopes the international community sends in more help soon, because “considering the tragedy we’re seeing, we don’t consider what we’re getting enough.”

Reynaldo Francis Watson, the former regional governor of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region and ex-mayor of the indigenous city of Puerto Cabezas, said he visited four hurricane shelters across the port city on Wednesday.

Watson estimated that about 5,000 to 6,000 people, a mix of people of all ages and genders from the city and from surrounding indigenous communities, had evacuated to Puerto Cabezas. Many refugees, he said, were still in a state of shock.

“People are not doing well, they are disoriented, worried, then they start laughing, then stop,” Watson said.

Two of the shelters he visited had serious damage to the roofs and infrastructure. There was no power. Rainwater leaks through the cracks and holes as gusts of wind chill the insides.

“People need water, food, mattresses, blankets, clothes. Some of them left their communities quickly and left everything because it was an emergency,” Watson said, adding some elderly do not have the medicines or adult diapers they need.

There is no social distancing or protective gear to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus. Five to six families are crammed in university classrooms that only fit 30 students.

In particular, Watson said, the neighborhoods in Puerto Cabeza closest to the docks and the beaches were most vulnerable to the storm’s power: He saw collapsed houses, century-old fallen trees, and people scouring the streets for essentials.

“People are looking everywhere for nails, looking for little things like that, some looking for food,” he said.

He criticized some local businesses for price gouging in a time of need, particularly for building supplies.

“They are taking advantage of the need of the crisis,” Watson said. “A yard of plastics that cost 30 córdobas is now selling at 85 (córdobas.) Almost three dollars a yard that previously cost less than a dollar.”

The damage in the indigenous communities south of the city, where both Eta and Iota made landfall, he said, is “very bad.”

The communities of Haulover and Wauhta ended up “at the bottom of a lagoon.” In the Miskito Cays, a low-lying archipelago where people live from fishing, Watson painted a picture of complete devastation.

“There were more than 300 or 400 little houses where people came to work. Everything went to the sea,” he said.

Watson was regional governor when Hurricane Félix struck the region in 2007. He believes that experiencing the massive storm 13 years ago helped residents of the indigenous region prepare better for Eta and Iota. Some people evacuated on their own and hunkered down with family in advance of the storm.

Still, he added, the losses from the back-to-back major hurricanes are larger than those of the 2007 storm, and he worries Puerto Cabezas and the communities nearby won’t receive the help they need as quickly as they should because the damage is so widespread.

“I don’t really know how the issue is going, but I see it as very difficult that the government has the capacity to attend to” the crisis he said.


©2020 Miami Herald

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Powerful Hurricane Eta Approaches Central America

November 3, 2020

By David Savona , Gregory Mottola

Hurricane Eta was crawling across the Atlantic Ocean towards Nicaragua on Tuesday morning with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. The Category 4 storm was expected to make landfall on northeastern Nicaragua today, and then was forecast to slowly drag across Central America all week.

The latest track from the National Hurricane Service, issued at 10 am, predicted the storm would only emerge from Central America on Friday evening or early Saturday morning. Of great concern is its slow speed—it was moving at only five miles per hour—and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall. The Weather Channel was predicting 15 to 25 inches of rain in Honduras and Nicaragua, with higher amounts possible in some areas.

Nicaragua and Honduras are both prominent cigar-producing countries. Nicaragua is the leading exporter of premium cigars to the United States, the country where PadrónOlivaAJ Fernandez and many other cigars are made by hand. Honduras is the No. 3 exporter, the home of such brands as CamachoAlec BradleyPunch and many other cigars. Rocky Patel is a brand rolled in both countries.

Nicaragua is also a major producer of cigar tobacco. The farms and large leaf plantations across regions such as Estelí, Jalapa and Condega are right in Eta’s path. Currently, planting season in Nicaragua is still in its early stages, with seedlings in greenhouses and some already in the fields. A hurricane of this magnitude could wipe out the season’s first series of crops.

“The planting season [in Nicaragua] has just started, so the damage from the hurricane will be minimal compared to the total planting area,” said Nestor Andrés Plasencia, who grows tobacco and manufactures cigars in both Honduras and Nicaragua. “We made the decision to stop planting the seedlings [in Nicaragua] in the field this week.”

In Honduras, where the season is further along, Plasencia is taking steps to increase water drainage in the tobacco fields. As for harvested tobacco already hanging in the curing barns, he’s heating his barns to remove any excess moisture. “We are also praying for the security of our people which is the most important thing right now,” Plasencia added.

Big Tobacco goes big in effort to quash law banning sales of flavored tobacco products

October 14, 2020

By Phil Matier

A coalition of big tobacco companies and small retailers is paying professional signature gatherers upward of $10 a name in an attempt to put the brakes on the statewide law barring brick-and-mortar stores from selling menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products.

With the Nov. 30 deadline approaching for submitting signatures to qualify the measure for the 2022 ballot, the high-dollar effort has become an interesting blend of California politics and potentially huge business profits, with a dash of coronavirus shutdown tossed in for good measure.

At issue: SB793, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August. Stores that break the ban on selling flavored tobacco and ecigarettes would face a $250 fine per violation.

Tobacco interests wasted no time filing the paperwork to put the law before voters in a referendum. They need 623,212 validated signatures to make the ballot. “The law goes too far and is unfair. Particularly since lawmakers exempted hookah, expensive cigars and flavored pipe tobacco,” said Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the California Coalition for Fairness, the group seeking to repeal the ban. “It will hurt small businesses and take jobs from licensed retailers who do sell tobacco products,” while still allowing for online sales, Miller said. “If the past is any indication, it will also lead to an underground market that could increase the access for minors.” Hill dismissed the pro-tobacco arguments as a smokescreen. “The goal is to keep kids from starting to smoke,” Hill said. “What 15-year-old is going to buy a $12.50 cigar or pipe tobacco? That’s ridiculous.” Hill said the coalition had another reason for launching the referendum — profit. If the referendum qualifies, the law, which is slated to go into effect in January, would be suspended until voters have their say in the November 2022 general election. And no matter what the outcome of the vote, the tobacco industry and retailers would get two more years of in-store sales until after the election. Getting the signatures of the required registered voters by the November deadline, however, is not coming cheap.

The Coalition for Fairness estimates that it will need about 900,000 signatures to ensure it has enough verified signatures to qualify for the ballot. Like most groups that place initiatives on the ballot, the Coalition for Fairness is using professional signature gatherers, those people you see carrying clipboards with petitions hawking various ballot measures outside of stores, farmers’ markets and other places people gather — or used to gather before the pandemic. But getting people to stop and sign a petition is not easy these days. And with a pressing deadline, the price per signature has gone from $3 to $4 to as high as $10 per name. Miller said she did not have the exact figure, but $10 a name was “a safe estimate.” That brings the estimated cost of just qualifying the measure to $9 million. Hill said the tobacco industry stands to “make a lot more than $9 million in the two years.” And it’s not like Big Tobacco is short on money.

According to the California secretary of state filings, the referendum drive already has a $14 million war chest courtesy of R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and their various affiliates. It’s not the first time an industry under threat by state lawmakers has used the referendum process to buy time and repeal a law. The plastics industry bought an extra two years with its attempt to overturn a ban on single-use plastic bags that the Legislature passed in 2014. In 2018, the state’s multibillion-dollar bail bond industry reacted to a state law to phase out the state’s cash bail system by qualifying Proposition 25, a referendum on the bail change that is on the November ballot. State Assemblyman Phil Ting said industry challenges are just one part of an initiative process that has gone wrong. “It’s unfortunate.

We originally designed a process to give ordinary citizens a say in our policymaking, but what I find is that only well-funded special interest groups have the millions of dollars you need to bring an initiative to the ballot,” he said. Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen says it is all part of democracy — California style. “You basically have three choices: Go out and buy and trade lawmakers, go to court or take it to the ballot,” Whalen said. “You aren’t going to change legislators’ minds about tobacco and a court fight is long and uncertain. This is the only effective way to undo what the Legislature has done.” Or, at the very least, buy some time.