Nature Strikes Central America

By Denis Düttmann (dpa)

Managua just after the 7.0 earthquake centered further to the northwest. Photo: Alejandro Sanchez/END
Managua just after the 7.0 earthquake centered further to the northwest. Photo: Alejandro Sanchez/END

HAVANA TIMES – An earthquake and a hurricane struck Central America on Thursday, striking at the same time from the Pacific and the Caribbean the narrow line of land linking North and South America, and once again showing its great vulnerability.

The earthquake of magnitude 7.0 shook El Salvador and Nicaragua from the west, while to the east Hurricane Otto entered from the Caribbean. The islands suffered three-and-a-half-meter waves, said the Mayor of Corn Island Rolando Webster. He added that there were torrential rains, heavy tide and strong winds.

By Friday morning, reports are still pending as to the actual damage caused and any loss of life.

In El Salvador, people fled to the streets when the earthquake shook the buildings. The head of the Ministry of the Environment (MARN), Lina Pohl, called the Salvadoran population to calm and detailed that after the earthquake minor tremors were reported. There are no signs of damage, but the situation will continue to be studied, he said.

In Nicaragua, a state of emergency was declared, government spokeswoman and first lady Rosario Murillo said. The “multi-threats” affect the region because it is a very vulnerable area and “we have to learn to face the challenges.”

The earthquake also generated a tsunami alert that was later lifted.

The coordinator of the National Risk Management Board, Denis Meléndez, spoke about the enormous challenge for the authorities. “We have a situation in the South and South Caribbean of Nicaragua with a hurricane affecting an entire area for which focused emergency plans were being developed and a plan was in place, but with an earthquake and a tsunami threat the thing changed because it forces the authorities and institutions needed to increase their capacity of attention to citizens with three scenarios at the same time, “Meléndez said.

“Otto” hit land lsouth of the Nicaraguan coastal city of Bluefields (destroyed in 1988 by Hurricane “Juana”) and the sector of Punta Gorda, near the border with Costa Rica, with winds of 165 kilometers (102 mph) per hour and gusts of 195 kilometers per hour.

Numerous people were evacuated, although not without difficulties. “Some are reluctant to leave, but the majority of the population is aware of the danger that is coming and voluntarily go with their children and their belongings getting on the buses and trucks,” said Miguel Torrentes Álvarez a city councilman of the border municipality of Colón.

Juan Aragón, from the nearby town of El Toro, had to walk half an hour over waterlogged fields to reach the meeting point to wait for the buses that would evacuate them. “It is better to ensure life and material things can be replenished,” he said.

Nevertheless, no serious damage has been reported for the time being. In the town of San Juan del Norte on the extreme southeastern corner of Nicaragua about 50 houses were damaged and the winds felled numerous trees. One woman died of a heart attack.

“Otto” continued on through northern Costa Rica, where authorities spoke of deaths and missing people, but without giving even official figures. As it passed over land the hurricane  was degraded to a tropical storm and then entered the Pacific Ocean with heavy rains.

The isthmus is often battered by natural catastrophes. El Salvador suffered in 2001 two major earthquakes that caused more than 1,200 deaths. The damage was estimated at $ 1.6 billion, more than 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Due to Hurricane Mitch, about 10,000 people died in 1998 in Central America and in 2005 “Stan” left 1,600 dead.

This time the consequences were comparatively slight, although in Central America there is never full security. The region is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most seismically active areas in the world, and each year has to deal with the hurricane season, which begins in May.