MIAMI — Comparing the massive destruction Hurricane Eta caused in Honduras last week to that of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2019 and that of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez pleaded with South Floridians on Friday for supplies to send to the wrecked Central American country, which has another hurricane brewing on the horizon.

"What we're seeing in Honduras today is a tragedy," said Suarez at a news conference held at Miami Fire Station 7 in Little Havana. "So we're asking all Miamians to do what they've always done, to really search deep in themselves and to compassionately donate."

Eta, an "extremely severe" Category 4 storm with winds as strong as 140 mph, first rammed into Nicaragua Nov. 3 and then pummeled across Honduras, gravely affecting 16 out of 18 of its departments.

The hurricane, the worst natural disaster for Honduras in more than two decades, has killed 62 people so far and displaced tens of thousands. Some people are still missing or are incommunicado, and rescue missions are still under way. Millions still don't have power or access to clean water.

The already bleak situation, described by Hondurans as a "humanitarian catastrophe," could soon worsen if, as experts predict, another hurricane arrives soon. Tropical Storm Iota, which formed in the central Caribbean Sea Friday afternoon, could deliver even more devastation early next week as a major hurricane, after making landfall in La Mosquitia in the eastern coast of Honduras.

On Friday, Suarez spoke in front of a firetruck with Honduran leaders in South Florida, including the Jose Roberto Diaz Aleman, the general consul of Honduras in Miami, and Brenda Betancourt, the president of the Calle 8 Inter-American Chamber of Commerce.

"We're just going to drop it off to make sure it gets there and then come back," said Betancourt, a native of La Ceiba. "Whatever you have at home that is not being used and that you think you can donate, please bring. Just touch your heart."

Nonprofits and groups of people across the U.S. have already sent donations to Honduras. Other countries, like Colombia, the United Kingdom and Taiwan, have also helped.

However, Hondurans inside and outside the country have raised concerns about the country's customs process and how public officials have distributed the much-needed provisions, citing unnecessary bureaucracy and questionable protocols.

Iris Verdial, who migrated from Tela to Miami about 30 years ago, said she plans to donate to the Miami fire stations, even though she has no trust in the Honduran authorities. She said she still recalls how months after Hurricane Mitch, Hondurans found large containers abandoned in the northern coast with supplies that were never handed out.

Although she lost her job at a local hospital because of the pandemic, Verdial said she already did a Costco run for items to send to her home country. She gave them to a friend who organized the drive. She added that her friend in Miami and her sister in Alabama had to pay for private transportation to send the boxes.

"The government is offering to take it for free to Honduras, but who knows if it will actually get there or if when they deliver them, they'll claim it's from the government instead of us," Verdial said.

When asked about that, Diaz Aleman said the government tries to ensure all humanitarian aid can be used before allowing it inside the country.

"We have our process, like all other countries, to check that all products and medicines entering are in perfect condition. Can you imagine if an expired medicine caused someone's death?" he said.

He suggested anyone who has "the tiniest doubt" about how the products will be distributed can donate money directly to Hondurans or send it through other organizations, like churches.

Karen Pineda, a resident of El Hatillo, a mountainous community in Tegucigalpa, described the Honduran government customs regulations as "the cherry on top of the sundae."

She cited a controversy earlier this week that erupted after the government of El Salvador tried to send 124 trucks full of humanitarian aid but couldn't get across the border, because the Honduran immigration authorities said they didn't have the necessary paperwork. The next day, the trucks went through and hundreds of Hondurans celebrated with fireworks and a caravan at the border, according to local reports.

"This is scandalous," said the owner of an events business. "The government should be speeding up the customs process, not the opposite. If it wasn't for the private sector and for other citizens, for the international aid, this country would be lost."

That sentiment has been echoed by many in Honduras, who have adopted as their motto the popular Latin American saying "Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo," or "Only the people save the people."

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(c)2020 Miami Herald

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