1998: Hurricane Mitch Devastates Honduras

Hurricane Mitch, one of the most deadly Atlantic storms in history, ripped across Central America for two weeks in October 1998 causing flooding and landslides which left 2.7 million people homeless and up to 19,000 dead. Damage to all the Central American countries was devastating, but hardest hit was Honduras, which found much of its productive land and its infrastructure buried below many feet of mud.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras one month after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. Copyright © Donna De Cesare.

At the time Honduras was the least developed country of Latin America and the Caribbean. Along with Haiti, Honduras had the lowest per capita income in the hemisphere.

In the first months after the storm US immigration officials began bracing for an influx of Honduran immigrants. Officials at the border in the Brownsville, Texas area reported a 61% increase in the number of Hondurans apprehended after illegally crossing the border during the last three months of 1998. Nearly 1,500 Hondurans were detained along the 100-mile stretch of the border at Brownsville.

Honduran immigration director Reina Ochoa reported in January 1999 that roughly 300 Hondurans were leaving the country each day, most headed for the U.S. Many had the mistaken belief that the work permits granted to Nicaraguans and Hondurans already in the US before December 30, 1998 would be extended to any new migrants affected by Hurricane Mitch.

The official count of Hondurans living in the US according to US Census statistics more than doubled in the decade between 1990 and 2000 from 80,650 to 217,659. The greatest upsurge occurred after Hurricane Mitch.