UNHCR
Part three: Delivering Better

Disaster Response During a Pandemic: Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Choloma’s San Pedro Sula neighbourhood was among the hardest hit by Hurricanes Eta and Iota. In Honduras, climate change is one of many factors sparking displacement. With hurricanes and other extreme weather events becoming ever more powerful and frequent, increasing numbers of people in Honduras are fleeing their homes. UNHCR/Nicolò Filippo Rosso

In November 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota battered Guatemala and Honduras, capping off the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. The back-to-back storms compounded a challenging humanitarian scenario in a region still reeling from the devastating impacts of COVID-19. Despite the pandemic, local humanitarian organizations played a pivotal role in saving lives, providing humanitarian assistance through local partners and using technology to communicate with affected populations.

Eta and Iota made landfall as major hurricanes in Nicaragua on 3 and 16 November, respectively, before moving west over Honduras and Guatemala. The storms affected at least 7.3 million people in Guatemala and Honduras alone, including nearly half of Honduras’s population. Hundreds of communities hit by the twin storms remained cut off from assistance well into 2021.

With thousands of children, women and men displaced to temporary shelters, their increased exposure to COVID-19 and reduced access to critical health services became a major concern. According to PAHO/WHO, more than 400 health facilities across Honduras reported damage after Eta and Iota, with at least 120 health facilities rendered inoperative. Honduras and Guatemala alike suffered from weak health systems prior to the pandemic; these were already overrun when Eta struck. Honduras soon saw a second wave of COVID-19 infections after the hurricanes’ impact, leading to a rise in hospitalizations. In the aftermath of the devastation, the number of COVID-19 consultations doubled in the Cortés Department after the end-of-year holiday season.

Following Government requests for assistance, OCHA deployed staff members from the region to Guatemala and Honduras as part of UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams and as surge support, both onsite and remote. The unprecedented dynamics in responding to a large-scale disaster amid a pandemic created a series of challenges and lessons that will be carried forward into future responses:

Standard COVID-19 protocols must be in place and respected as a key first step in preventing aid workers from contributing to infection rates.

UNDAC and OCHA teams followed strict measures and procedures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, support duty of care and minimize risk for those on the ground delivering humanitarian response. Aid workers were regularly tested to monitor and prevent potential COVID-19 transmission and they limited the number of face-to-face meetings.

Local NGOs and private sector groups played a key role in responding to needs.

Localization became more important than ever, as COVID-19-related movement restrictions hampered international organizations and larger agencies. Local partners, grassroots organizations, community leaders, volunteers and CSOs informed operational planning and directly responded to the crisis. Localization of aid again proved to be paramount in delivering a timely, context-appropriate response, with local actors responding quickly, empowered by their first-hand knowledge of affected communities.

In Honduras, local coordination teams were established in Cortés and Santa Bárbara, the two most-affected departments. In San Pedro Sula, Cortés’s capital and the country’s industrial hub, OCHA set up an office with large spaces to facilitate meetings with partners in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Preventative health brigades were organized in the most affected communities, with direct support from the Ministry of Health. OCHA teamed up with local NGO ADASBA to lead the Local Coordination Team in a partnership that demonstrated how organizations in the field are essential to effective coordination during a crisis. UNHCR worked with local leaders to facilitate access to communities plagued by high levels of criminal violence and provide humanitarian assistance to people in need.

In neighbouring El Salvador, Save the Children used a cascade strategy, training volunteer leaders on responding to GBV needs, case management and protection. The volunteers then defined case identification criteria with local and municipal leaders and created approach strategies for face-to-face response via psychosocial support, cash transfers and/or shelter assistance.

Technology helped bridge distances, speed up community outreach and target specific groups, mitigating the effects of COVID-19 restrictions.

In Guatemala and Honduras, localization was accompanied by the effective use of technology to offset pandemic-related limitations. OCHA staff quickly adapted to facilitating virtual coordination and planning forums for local and global partners, based on protocols developed in the regional office. Organizations such as Action Against Hunger found that technology could offer direct virtual contact with affected people, particularly in urban areas. Technology also helped to shorten and simplify time- and resource-intensive processes, such as identifying target populations. Organizations in Guatemala set up booths in remote areas to conduct needs assessments and gather community feedback via mobile phones, thus limiting contact and potential exposure to the virus. PAHO in Honduras also implemented the Telesalud (TeleHealth) system. This allowed patients to receive remote medical consultations and save time and money, while reducing COVID-19 exposure for patients and medical staff.