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Hurricanes, Pandemic And Falling Economy Prompt Hondurans To Leave For The U.S.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Central American families continue to surge across the southern border of the U.S., seeking a decent life free of hunger and fear. The largest group is coming from Honduras. It's the second poorest country in the hemisphere, and it's been hit by a multitude of calamities from the pandemic to back-to-back major hurricanes. NPR's John Burnett has been looking into the exodus, and he joins us now from San Pedro Sula. Welcome back, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So you're on the ground there, talking to people. And what are you hearing about the reasons why many are leaving?

BURNETT: Well, there's not one reason. It's a combination of joblessness and misery and a loss of any semblance of hope. The final turn of the screw was a direct hit from two major Atlantic hurricanes, Eta and Iota, last November. And five months later, people don't call the disaster by the storm name like they do in the Gulf South. They call it by what it was - rellena - literally, the fill. In the Sula Valley, where I am, five rivers surged out of their banks and became a lake that covered everything - towns, banana plantations, even the international airport.

CORNISH: What's that area like now?

BURNETT: Well, I went to Ciudad Planeta. It's an impoverished, gang-ridden, low-lying part of San Pedro Sula. And they're still digging out of that stinking, dried mud. I met Blanca Marisa Balegas, a 41-year-old mother and tortilla seller.

BLANCA MARISA BALEGAS: (Through interpreter) Some were rescued, but some stood on tops of their houses for two to three days without food or water in the hot sun. We thought it was a flood, like something out of the Bible. It was terrible - dead chickens, dogs, pigs, cows floating in the water.

BURNETT: The thing is, Audie, today the neighborhood is fairly empty because so many people have left for the United States.

CORNISH: How have the hurricanes affected the economy of Honduras? I mean, we mentioned they were back to back.

BURNETT: Exactly. A senior State Department official told me that Honduras' gross domestic product has fallen 50%, and the U.N. says there are a quarter-million internally displaced persons and 2 1/2 million people expected to face acute food insecurity in the coming months. The folks here are just leaving, Audie. I met with Kurt Alan Ver Beek. He co-founded a nonprofit called The Association for a More Just Society, which has been trying to help Honduras for the last 20 years. He said any number of factors could be the breaking point.

KURT ALAN VER BEEK: We know people who have lost their jobs because, you know, the restaurant they worked was underwater. I know people who lost jobs because the owner of the restaurant died of COVID. All of those things combine. Your kids aren't in school. You don't have money to pay internet to have your kids in school.

CORNISH: John, is there any move on the international stage to sort of step up aid or support to Honduras? And in that, I include the United States.

BURNETT: Yeah, that's a super-important question. I was down here after Hurricane Mitch. It was historic. You know, 7,000 people died here. And afterwards, President Bill Clinton pumped a billion dollars into the region. Compare that to Eta and Iota. These were devastating hurricanes, but they killed fewer than 300 people in the region. And so these storms haven't gotten near as much international attention.

As for the United States, an official with USAID told me they've spent $28 million on immediate aid after the storms. And just yesterday Vice President Harris announced another $55 million for Honduras. It's part of a big package for the whole region. But Hondurans feel abandoned. I mean, literally, Audie, every single person I've spoken to this week doesn't know when they'll be able to eat meat again. It's rice, beans and tortillas, and some only have that once a day.

CORNISH: John, as you point out, lots of people are leaving the country. So how is that happening? How are they getting out?

BURNETT: You know, the large caravans have stopped for the moment because Guatemala is turning them back at the border. The people are undeterred. I went to the border town of Corinto, where I saw migrant families who were planning to make the 1,500-mile trek to the Texas border. They avoided the Guatemalan border guards by hiking into the hills to cross on these well-worn paths of orange earth in the coastal heat. But from there, they often didn't have a plan. This is Luis Alberto Enrique. He's a 32-year-old farmer who says he's given up. Between the storms, the gangs and his meager crops, he's leaving with his wife and two small daughters, with their pink Disney backpacks and favorite stuffed animals. They're trying to get to Houston, where he has family.

LUIS ALBERTO ENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) I heard on the news that there is chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border, but I understand that they're not deporting families. Hopefully we'll get there eventually, even if it takes us one, two, three months. We put ourselves in the hands of U.S. laws and of God.

BURNETT: Under current U.S. rules, they do turn away some immigrants under public health restrictions. But many families with small children are being allowed to stay.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett reporting from Honduras. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE BRUBAKER AND PHILIP GLASS' "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.