Central AmericaTrip: Remarks by the President in Roundtable Discussion with Hurricane Mitch Survivors

Office of the Press Secretary
(Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

For Immediate Release March 8, 1999


Auditorium, Cotton Research Center
Posoltega, Nicaragua

3:45 P.M. (L)

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Here you have four people, Mr.President, who have suffered the indignities of nature and HurricaneMitch: two women from the same area we visited today. You heard thestories there in Posoltega. As we were saying, it didn't look at alllike it looked today. It was like something out of Dante's Inferno.And Ricardo also -- and we wanted them to tell you very simply whatthey went through and what it is that they want. And also thislittle boy, Juan Pablo -- is anybody a relative of his? Yes, hisbrother is outside.

So talk very frankly with President Clinton now.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Could I just say one word? This isSenator Graham, who is from the state of Florida, in the UnitedStates. First of all, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Iknow it must be hard to relive your story. But I think it is veryimportant for us to be able to go home to the United States, havingseen not only the President -- who is my friend, I enjoy that -- butalso the people who have lived personally through this terribletragedy.

It is also important for the health of Nicaragua'sdemocracy that he and I, when we respond to this terrible tragedy,respond in a way that helps you the most and that is consistent withyour wishes. So I would like it if, in your own words, you couldjust tell us a little about what happened to you and your family, andwhat would help most going forward.

MR. SANTELIZ: Yes, President Clinton. First of all, wewant to thank you -- we want to thank you for your visit. We thinkit's extremely important at this point in time for us. Theassistance we have been given by your administration and by thepeople of the United States have been such that they have reanimatedus in our efforts.

To a certain extent, it has not been easy to forget thecircumstances that we've undergone. But, as I was saying to ourPresident, Dr. Aleman, hope is the last thing you should lose -- andtoday more than ever, because as you said, we have to strengthen thehope in our lives.

Mitch was the total tragedy, starting from the mud slidedown the Casitas Volcano. From the end of that until now-- an event that did away completely with our communities and didaway with everything we had and with a future that we'd carved outfor ourselves. It wasn't easy, because our communities livedtogether, worked together. And from international organizations wewould get assistance, like CARE, like Save the Children, likeMarina (phonetic), which has also strengthened aid to the environmenthere through forestation.

But at one point we were able to get through that verybitter situation, that terrible tragedy and that mud slide that wesuffered. This happened on October 30th, at 11:00 a.m., 1998. Wewere still very frightened, there was a lot of water. And we thoughtthat we were about to die, with everything that had happened. Whensuddenly we heard the thunderous noise from the volcano.

I remember, I was at home, in one of the devastatedcommunities, around 11:00 a.m. I was listening to the radio,listening to the news when suddenly I heard the mountain thundering.It was almost as if -- twice as loud as if all the helicopters hadsuddenly come down from the skies. I had never been as afraid in mylife as I was that day. I really felt that my life was slippingthrough my hands. And the neighbors all started shouting.

I remember I had my four year old son sleeping inside myhouse. And when I went out to the porch my neighbor, my brothers andmy brothers-in-law started shouting at me, "Get out of there, becausethe mountain is falling down." And I shouted at my wife, "We can'tget out." And she said, "RUN." I ran out, but suddenly, Iremembered my little boy was sleeping inside. I ran back, I pickedup my son. I threw a sheet around him and put him over my shoulder.

I left running, towards an area where on one side therewas a ravine, there was a ravine on the other side. And the waterwas higher than the ceiling. It was impossible to cross the river.My children ran along with me and they said to me, "We're going todie." And somehow or another, gathering all my strength together Isaid, "No, children, we will not die." But when we got there it wasfull and there I lost hope.

I thought that the mountain had all come down and it wasgoing to bury us. I remember there was some young people who werewith me and they wanted to jump in. Since I was in the back and Iwas holding someone I shouted at them, "No, don't jump in" -- becausethey were going to kill themselves like that. So we started walkingall along the edge, trying to find a farm. We weren't able to doanything. We were there from 11:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. on the30th.

When we saw that the water was not going down, we wentback. I said to my wife, "We won't be able to do anything here."Our children were very, very cold. So we decided to go back to thehouse. When we got back to the house. When we got back to thehouse, since I didn't have the strength to close and lock my house, Ifound people inside the house. I found a little boy -- bigger thanhe is -- about nine years old. His eye was cut completely all aroundhim, had no clothes on at all.

I started to look outside. I was very cold and all wet,and my children were, too. But when I saw these people wounded Istarted taking off my own clothes. Since I couldn't put my pants on,I cut them with scissors and I put them on him and I put my shirt onhim. He went to sleep, that day. Thank goodness, I had a sleepingpill and I gave it to the little boy so he could sleep. But thewater just kept rushing through.

The next day, on the 31st, Saturday, I spent all daywith the water up to my waist. I had taken my children, I had takenwounded people. We had taken about 15 wounded people already. Itwas a tragic moment. It's very difficult to forgetthat.

And now we are slowly recovering, because in spite ofeverything -- we lost relatives, I lost 22 relatives of my own; mywife lost 45 relatives. And that's how it happened. It was truly atragedy. And there is still more sadness. I had to take my wifeaway to Leon because she was extremely nervous. She was reallyoverwrought and I didn't want her to suffer a crisis, to have abreakdown. So now we're trying to recover our lives, slowly butsurely.

We've abandoned our homes, because they're right on theedge, just 30 meters from the -- that's where the water came by ourhouse. It was tragic.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And of your -- how many people died?

MR. SANTELIZ: Forty-six.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what family suffered the most?Rolando's family and El Porvenir is another place that disappearedcompletely.

MR. SANTELIZ: I remember that when -- I found people, Ifound about 50 people, those are the ones who got out and theyweren't touched because they ran as soon as it started.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many people do you think died inboth communities?

MR. SANTELIZ: Well, Doctor, I think -- these were verybig communities. It's impossible to calculate. I don't know whatthe census are. But I think there must have been about 4,000 peopledied.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Do you think many people are buriedthere?

MR. SANTELIZ: Many, many people are buried there. Andmany were able to go out through the --

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what about this child?

MR. SANTELIZ: This was Rolando's boy. He was there inthe village. The story of this boy was very, very sad. We rescuedhim on Sunday, the 1st. We went out, because we couldn't get in.And we found this little boy under some enormous branches, treebranches. And this was all he had, this was the only thing we couldsee. He was calling his brother that he was with, Ecedro (phonetic).The only thing you could see was his eyes and his nose; and we founda little girl with him who died immediately, as soon as we got herout of the mud.

And, thank God, as I told you, all these organizationssupported us. The main organization that helped us completely,immediately, was Save the Children. I remember all the assistancethey gave us -- water, nourishment, utensils for cooking. Theyhelped us a lot -- CARE, as well. And the support of the Army, thesupport you gave us with the planes. But I never lost hope. When Iwas running I kept thinking, this current has already gone down tothe road. They are going to realize what's happened and thehelicopters will come. But if it doesn't stop raining it's going tobe very difficult.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many survived from thischild's family?

MR. SANTELIZ: Just three. His mother and father died.Just him and two of his brothers and -- PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who is your older brother?

JUAN PABLO: Vasilio (phonetic).

MR. SANTELIZ: That's his oldest brother who survived.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who are you living with now?

JUAN PABLO: Vasilio.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How old is Vasilio?

JUAN PABLO: Twenty-one.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So he has two brothers now?

MR. SANTELIZ: One is 13 and one is 21.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And are both of them living with him-- he's living with both of them?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Are you going to school, Juan Pablo?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Why not, sweetie? You were going toschool back in --


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: No? Didn't you go to school back in-- but there was a school there, wasn't there?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Is your other brother going toschool?

JUAN PABLO: Tonio (phonetic).

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Tonio, is he the one going to school?

JUAN PABLO: No, he's not.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many of your brothers andsisters died?


MR. SANTELIZ: And his mother died.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And you have uncles and aunts?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Did your father have any brothers orsisters? What about your mother?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where are your uncles and aunts,did they die?

JUAN PABLO: Yes, the whole family.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So now it's you and your twobrothers?


PRESIDENT CLINTON: And you have to stay close withthem.


MS. PANTOJA: I thank you for -- for our great goodfortune being here with you. What I can tell you is that when themud slide happened, I wasn't there then because I was being attendedat a clinic, I was about to be operated on. And that's what savedme.

But from what people tell me, she was dragged by thatmud slide and these people all tell me that it sounded to them likeit was a whole group of helicopters coming from the sky. And whenthey heard that noise they turned around and her husband told her toget out. And she picked up her little girl, but then she saw the mudslide was coming down on them. I didn't see it-- but I was from Rolando, I wasn't there at that point. But I lostmy children, my grandchildren, my sisters, my brothers-in-law, mysons-in-law and my daughter-in-law. We weren't able to do anything.We weren't even able to pick them up, dead or alive -- we didn't knowwhere they were.

And my two sisters had a shop there. And my sister hadfour girls who were studying in Leon. So I went to my mother andfather, and these girls, because they weren't well at all. And someof my children were looking for them. But it was impossible, wecouldn't find them in the hospitals or anywhere. There was no way tolocate them. My children who survived were trying to see how to getin, and then they would get into the mud -- and they'd get very deepinto the mud, it was very dangerous. Since it was a Sunday -- youcouldn't even recognize the bodies anymore -- and so we weren't evenable to give them Christian burial.

That's the story I have to tell.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many survivors from Rolando doyou think? How many people in your community there?

MS. PANTOJA: In Rolando I think there were about 2,000of us -- 2,500, maybe.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many do you think were alive-- like you, who were able to get away before it happened?

MS. PANTOJA: Well, there are several survivors becausesince there was a lot of rain the crops were finished -- the beansand the corn and everything. So all the people had gone to CostaRica to find work so that they could eat.

So only -- that's why many women were widowed and manymen were, as well, because their families had left.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Do you think there are more than2,000 people who died in Rolando?

MS. PANTOJA: No, it must be about 3,000, between thetwo communities.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Rolando and which other one? MR. SANTELIZ: El Porvenir is the othercommunity. There were 46 who died there. And Versaillo (phonetic)was also affected in part of that community. MS. PANTOJA: I have faith in God, and in you. We'redesperate here because we were left with nothing at all, absolutelynothing. There we are, living in those shelters, in those tents.And I thank you and the government and all of the organizations, likethe Red Cross and Save the Children, who have brought us food. Ithank God for that.

And more than anything what concerns the people now istheir shelter, a place to live so they can have a little house -- sowe can see how we can work to get ahead. Because we lived off of ourfarming there and we don't have anything to live off of now; we haveno way to work. And basically you know that to work you need to havesome kind of money to start off. And I have about six people --nieces of mine who survived, apart from my own children, and I needto work so that I can support those children.

I hope that your government and you, as well, you allhave good hearts and I hope that you will help us.

MS. ACOSTA: I thank you for being here with us. Inspite of all the sorrow and all the tragedy that we've suffered, forthree days I was terrified -- Friday, Saturday, Sunday -- I'm sorry,I was buried in the mud. It was cold and wet. I lost 28 people frommy family -- my four children and my husband. And in spite ofeverything I had the hope, buried as I was, that I'd be able to findthem. But I never was able to find my family.

Then they took me to the hospital and I waited and askedall my friends there to look out the window and to look in otherrooms to see if they could find my family. It was impossible to goto find. I hope that we will be helped, as the President has alwayshelped us, so that we can get ahead.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: No one from your home was saved, mydear? No one?

MS. ACOSTA: My sisters were saved because they had goneto work in Costa Rica. But the people who were living there, whowere still there from my family, I'm the only one who survived.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where were you?

MS. ACOSTA: In El Porvenir.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And that's exactly where the mudslide went through?

MS. ACOSTA: When it came through it was a terriblenoise of helicopters. My husband went out and he shouted at me,"Sweetheart, run." And I grabbed my little girl and I ran out. Butwhen I ran out the house had been destroyed and I was dragged by thewater. I lost my little girl and I never found her again.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And your husband died, too?

MS. ACOSTA: Yes. And my little girl was shouting atme, asking me to save her -- but the water was dragging me away and Icouldn't do anything. I was struggling to try and stand up again,but I couldn't do anything, I couldn't see anything.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who rescued you?

MS. ACOSTA: I was rescued by people from the Red Crosswho were there, and some people from the area. Two people from thearea were there, as well. They found me. I was terrified and theywere able to get me out, they were able to dig me out of the mud. Iwas there stuck for three days.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So what are you going to do now withyour life?

MS. ACOSTA: I still have problems with one knee. Iwant to get well and I want to fend for myself, because now I havenothing and no one left. All I want to do now is work to survive andjust get by.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: She said, "I just want to work untilmy day comes to go."

MS. ACOSTA: That's all I'm waiting for.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what's wrong with your leg?

MS. ACOSTA: I had a cast on this leg and it wasn't setproperly. And so now they have to x-ray it again and see what theycan do.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where are you staying now?

MS. ACOSTA: I'm over there in the shelter.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, the President wasexplaining to me when we were coming out that the people need notonly homes again, but homes that are close enough to land which canbe farmed again. Because a lot of this land which is covered by themud, even though it's dried out, it may or may not be suitable forcrops now. And a lot of trees will have to be replanted to guardagainst further flooding.

So I think we in the United States have to try to getsome financial help to the President to do that. And then you willhave to work together to identify the land where the people can farmagain; and then the houses can be built.

You were explaining that to me, on the way out, what youhave done -- find the land.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Yes. We have to be able to recoverand to be able to dig deeper channels. Because otherwise you'regoing to suffer flooding here again. And we need to improve on that.

What's the name of this co-op that's over here? No,down here. El Tanke (phonetic). Let's see who's dealing with thatover there. But there are individual cases like her -- she's alone,she has no husband or anything. And this little boy with hisbrothers. Let's see what else can be done. These are differentthings. And you -- you can still work and do things and you stillhave part of your family, but there are some people who arecompletely on their own.

Let's see what we can do to rehabilitate your leg. Andyou're still young. There are many things that we can do. There'ssome kind of work that we can find for you. You have no child whosurvived?

MS. ACOSTA: I had four.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: All of them little?

MS. ACOSTA: The oldest was 13. My little girl was 7-- 13, 12, 10 and 7.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And how old are you?

MS. ACOSTA: I'm 29.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You're still young.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: So you became a mother when you were

PRESIDENT CLINTON: What about you, Juan Pablo? Do youwant to say anything to us? Do you want to say anything to yourPresident about this terrible thing?

JUAN PABLO: I lost my whole family and I miss them --my mamma and my pappa.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Where are you living, Juan Pablo?With his brother?


MR. SANTELIZ: Yes, he lives at the co-op there with hisbrother.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many people are in that co-op?Fifty people, they said? And all these new people are coming in?You said that there are 2,500 people in a block. Will they acceptthem there?

MR. SANTELIZ: I'm going to give you my opinion. Ithink that what we need here for this problem is we need to sit downand talk to them and say, let's visualize. What's your point ofview; what is their point of view; what about the opinion of theorganization -- any organization, international or a governmentorganization, whatever.

So I think it would be easier to sit down and talk withthem to see what's the possibility; to find out what the alternativesare. Because maybe they won't all be admitted; because maybe there'ssomebody who doesn't --

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: I want to explain to you more or lesswhat I understand from what they were saying. I was telling thePresident when we were going over there this whole sector that wasdestroyed was all co-ops. And they were destroyed.

But here in the Posoltega sector, down there, where theydidn't have the problem with this mud slide, there's a propertythat's 2,500 blocks that provide -- that's about 2,000 acres -- onlyin the hands of about 50 people. And there are survivors from thiscommunity, about 300 people. And what they're asking for is toconvince the other 50 who are over there that they should carry outsome kind of agrarian reed reform, so that they give these peoplesome work, so that they can all get three or four hectares perfamily. But the matter is convincing these people, convincing those50 who have 2,500, and have them admit these 300 new families.

But we still have political problems here. These areco-ops -- and I'm talking very openly here in front of everybody.Those co-ops maybe aren't going to admit any of them because they'regoing to say, oh, no, they want to take away my land. But thequestion I want to ask you here is, are they cultivating all thatland or not?

MR. SANTELIZ: To be honest with you, what I'veunderstood so far is that the land has actually been rented to otherpeople, it's been leased to other people who have money -- so theycan plant peanuts or whatever.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: The co-ops, themselves, are doingthat?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: We have to sit down and talk withthem so we can convince them.

MR. SANTELIZ: I think what we need to do there is sitdown, as I was saying, to see what points they propose, see what theywant to do.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what about Juan Pablo's brothers?Have they already been admitted?

MR. SANTELIZ: No, they're in the same situation.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: So you're like squatters?

MR. SANTELIZ: No, I'm not there. I was given a parcel,it's 12x20, by an organization from the U.S., as well -- inWashington. An Evangelical church gave us a little plot of land,about six blocks of --

PRESIDENT CLINTON: World Vision, was it World Vision?

MR. SANTELIZ: It's managed by the EvangelicalConference of the Assembly of God in Washington.

So since we didn't have anything we said, okay, give mea little plot of land where I can go, and that's where I am. Theonly thing is that we're all so very much reduced right now and we'reunder so little plots of land.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: How much land did the average familyfarm before the hurricane and the mud slide?

MR. SANTELIZ: About five or six blocks -- what theycall blocks, which are actually more like hectares.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Ten acres? So the average familyhad 10 acres?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Per family, that's what each familyhad.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And then this block, you say, withthe 50 families, they have an average of 25 hectares?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: It's, like, 100 acres per family --this particular group.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So they could actually sell it out?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what they're doing is they'rerenting out the land that they're not farming themselves.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So it's your proposal for thegovernment the buy this land on behalf of the other people, if theywill accept them?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: That would be the ideal situation.The problem is that the co-op with those 50 people -- and it's very,very good land, they know that land, very fertile land. This co-opgot it back in the Sandinista days. So I don't think they're goingto want to give it up. They're not going to give it to anyone orsell it.

They prefer it, as he was saying, to rent it, to leaseit, because it's better business for them. We'll see what measurescan be taken. And the discussions we're trying to hold -- we'll seehow we can change this. Because the other problem we have, Mr.President, is there's land, but not in this area, not on the Pacificside.


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: This has been traditionally farmland. But we'll see what solution we find. Faith in God.

Juan Pablo, you have to go and study now. Do youpromise you're going to study?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Are you going to study? You promise?


PRESIDENT CLINTON: You can learn a lot and pray to Godto take care of your mother and father. And they will know and bevery proud of you.



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Central America Trip: Remarks by the President to U.S. Troops and the People of Honduras

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Central AmericaTrip: Remarks by the President in Roundtable Discussion with Hurricane Mitch Survivors

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