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Fresh start for housing Honduran engineers are working hard to find a solution to the acute housing problem left by Hurricane Mitch. Matthew Jones explains.

Most of Central America was affected in some way by Hurricane Mitch, but in Honduras the damage was particularly severe. The 560km wide storm was the fourth most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. It moved slowly around the country for three days changing location at an average speed of 10km/h and left almost no part untouched.

Unusually it was not high winds which caused the bulk of the damage; by the time Mitch hit the mainland the wind had significantly abated from its peak of 290km/h. Most of the damage was caused by torrential rain - between 600mm and 1,200mm of it. This caused flooding and landslides on a scale never seen before.

The legacy of this violent meteorological event, which weather experts believe should occur only once every 1,000 years, has been to leave more than 6,500 Hondurans dead and about the same still missing. Early estimates put the cost to the economy as high as 1.9bn.

But as the clean-up continues, an increasingly urgent problem for the Honduran government is what to do with the 600,000 people made homeless - most of them poor, forced to live on unwanted land close to rivers.

Throughout the country hundreds of camps for displaced people have been set up as a short term measure. But cramped conditions and poor sanitary facilities have lead to social and health problems. Food rations are also sparse - only a small bowl of rice and re-fried beans a day - and people are understandably becoming restless.

The Olympic Village in Tegucigalpa is being used to shelter around 2,000 people, and is one of the largest and best equipped camps in the country. But even here up to seven large families have to cram into 10m long tents with little more than the dirty blankets they could grab as they left their homes.

Rogetio Garcia lost his entire family when his house on the banks of the river Choluteca was washed away. Yet he says unless something is done to improve conditions soon, he will return to the same site to rebuild his home.

'I have had enough of being here. It is worse than where I used to live,' he says.

Garcia is not the only one who would rather risk living by the river than staying in the camp. According to camp helper Unires Lopez, some people have already left and those who remain are demanding to be given new plots of land.

'People are not satisfied with what the government has done for them so they are making their way back to what is left of their homes,' she says.

The newly formed special cabinet for reconstruction (News last week) is aware of the problem, and says a new planning law will stop people returning to areas in flood plains or prone to landslides. According to cabinet member and minister for public works, transport and housing Tomas Lozano, the Mayor's office in each town will have to evaluate the risks to property and designate 'green zones' where construction is prohibited.

In tandem with this, central government has said it will implement housing programmes in safe areas, although with so much infrastructure repair work needed, the big problem is finding the money.

'Right now we are proceeding to get funds to reconstruct the housing lost in the floods, but we are a long way from meeting demand,' says Lozano.

Despite this, minister for international co-operation Moises Starkman claims the government will not just rebuild Honduras, but give it a re- birth. 'We want to change the social structure of the country, to get away from shanty towns and single room houses,' he says.

But this will be a stiff challenge: houses will have to be affordable for those who have lost everything, and yet durable enough to survive tropical storms, and be provided with water, electricity and local amenities.

To solve this problem the local ICE equivalent Colegio de Ingenieros Civiles de Honduras has already linked up with other professional institutions, including the architects, electro-mechanical engineers and agricultural engineers.

Executive secretary Omar Andino says: 'We are working as a team and hope to come up with a plan for low cost and speedy construction.'

Two modular designs are being considered; one using a steel frame clad with bolt-on 1.3m by 2.7m panels, and the other using 500mm by 300mm by 200mm building blocks which can be made locally from a mixture of earth and cement. The houses will be built on government land, and provided with basic but adequate water, sanitation and power supplies.

To keep the cost down to around 1,250 per house, people will most likely construct their own homes using an instruction booklet to be developed by the working party. This will set out safe specifications and working practices but be simple enough for the majority of people to understand - adult literacy in Honduras is only 27%.

Andino hopes that the government will also provide land for a training centre where representatives from each town can learn how to build the houses. These people will then become teachers, showing displaced people all over the country how to construct their own homes.

To the developed world, such self-build houses may seem crude - certainly they will not win awards for technical innovation. But for suggesting such a simple, speedy and appropriate solution to an acute problem the Honduran engineering community should be commended. These houses will restore a sense of pride to the people now stuck in refugee camps, and will certainly be safer than returning to the banks of flood-prone rivers.

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