International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

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Prevention Pays

Natural Disasters and their Impact on the Region in 1998
ECLAC Notes, March 1999. Full text available at:

In 1998, Latin America and the Caribbean suffered the onslaughts of nature as rarely before in the region’s history. "El Niņo" once again struck several countries, possibly with greater force than at any time since the mid-sixteenth century. In September, Hurricane Georges lashed several Caribbean islands, and a month later Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America in the worst natural disaster suffered by some of the countries of the isthmus this century. The scale of these disasters, and the kinds of damage they caused, showed the region’s extreme vulnerability to such events and underlined the indissoluble link between development, environ-mental sustainability and the risk of catastrophic damage.

The governments most affected by these disasters approached ECLAC –either directly or through the United Nations Develop-ment Programme (UNDP)– for advice in assessing damage and working out proposals for rehabilitation and reconstruction. Mi-ssions co-ordinated by ECLAC were sent to seven countries. Each of these missions prepared a detailed report for the government in question, based on a methodology developed by the Commission over more than 25 years of work analysing the socio- economic effects of natural disasters.

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In the early 1990s it was estimated that hydro-meteorological, seismic and vulcanological disasters caused losses of at least US$1.5 billion annually in the subregion, and claimed nearly 6,000 lives. ECLAC’s reports to the governments therefore put special emphasis on the need to draw lessons from these most recent, and especially severe, events.

The El Niņo phenomenon struck first. The product of alternating warm and cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, it affected the region with unusual intensity from the first quarter of 1997, causing damage in the Andean region that has so far exceeded US$ 7.54 billion.

In Ecuador, excessive rainfall (which in the port of Guayaquil reached an annual total of over 4,000 millimetres, a level occurring only once every 500 years) caused flooding, destroyed crops and town centres, triggered landslides, harmed marine fauna and gave rise to a wave of migration with far-reaching consequences. Sixty percent of the population suffered a deterioration in living conditions and 286 people died. Damage is estimated at US$ 2.87 billion and will produce a drop of US$ 660 million in the balance of payments, as well as a fall in the growth rate from 3.5% to 1.0%.

Hurricane Georges was the most destructive of ten tropical cyclones that formed between August and September in the Atlantic Caribbean region. With winds of up to 150 miles per hour, it crossed the islands of Antigua and Puerto Rico, then hit the Dominican Republic, where it caused 235 deaths, injured another 595 people, created 300,000 refugees and left damage estimated at US$ 2.19 billion. The next day, it continued its path of destruction in Haiti, Cuba and the state of Florida in the USA. Damage in the Dominican Republic amounted to the equivalent of 14% of the country’s gross domestic product in 1997 and nearly half that year’s exports.

But the most concentrated destruction was caused in Central America by Hurricane Mitch, which affected Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica, killing 9,214 people, injuring 12,845 and affecting 10.9% of the population of this area, which is only just beginning to recover from decades of armed conflict. Missions coordinated by ECLAC analysed the situation in all of these countries, estimating direct and indirect damage at more than US$6 billion.

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Honduras was the worst hit country. Mitch raged over its territory for more than two days, causing rivers to flood to levels unseen this century. The storm took a toll of 5,657 lives, 12,275 injured and had primary or secondary effects on more than 24.2% of the population, the highest figure for any disaster in the country’s history. Estimated damage amounted to nearly US$ 4 billion, the equivalent of 80.5% of GDP, with agricultural production and the transport sector especially affected.

ECLAC’s reports include estimates of damage and reconstruction costs by sector. The effects of the disasters on the environment are also analysed and a financial value placed on damage to the countries’ natural reserves. Finally, each report includes a series of projects by sector, intended to cover the two stages of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

For more information on documents relating to these natural disasters in Latin America,
consult the ECLAC Document Distribution Unit,