U.S. Response to Humanitarian Disaster: Hurricane Mitch in Central America — David Wrathall

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history, slammed into the Caribbean coast of Central America killing or disappearing at least 19,000 people and displacing roughly 1.8 million. Mitch’s Category 5 strength and glacial pace created the conditions for catastrophic amounts of rain: one meter of water descended over Honduras in 72 hours. Honduras and Nicaragua suffered massive damage to economic and social infrastructure—roads, bridges, factories, hospitals and agriculture—at a cost of $8.5 billion. Hurricane Mitch’s devastating impact on Central America resulted in an unprecedented U.S. government (USG) response. Never before had a foreign natural disaster elicited such comprehensive action. Overall, the USG performed commendably and coordinated well with Central American counterparts, though interdepartmental cooperation was not without significant glitches.

According to protocol, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) leads the USG response to international humanitarian crises. However, Mitch quickly overwhelmed OFDA and the Honduras-based Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-B) as civilian and military officials struggled to cope with insufficient resources and interagency confusion. Presidential Decision Directive 56 had stipulated a framework for integrated USG responses to complex contingencies which could have been enacted in response to Mitch but, as the catastrophic scale of the hurricane became apparent, bowing to Congressional pressure, President Clinton appointed an ad hoc task force leader charged with coordinating response activities and reporting directly to the Office of the President. Similarly, an internal USAID report suggested that the transition from emergency response to long-term development lacked coherent policy guidance to harmonize the expectations of the USG, host governments and civil society groups.

The USG mission was well-spliced into the broader relief efforts, yet the response was slowed by poor assessments, lapses in leadership, confusion regarding departmental capabilities, and a misalignment of organizational priorities. These problems were illustrated by a counterproductive dynamic that unfolded between USAID and DOD during emergency response efforts. However, as mission success became less time-sensitive and USAID assumed a more central role, agencies collaborated more satisfactorily. Analysts point out that USG integration with domestic private donors, NGOs and media outlets, as well as international NGOs and contractors, was generally weak. Some analysts indicate that during long-term reconstruction, USAID’s integration with host state mitigation efforts sidelined civil society.

There were two principal strengths of the USG plan. First, America’s relief and reconstruction initiative was massive, comprehensive and magnanimous, employing a multitude of technical capacities from numerous government departments, including direct White House involvement. Second, OFDA and DOD benefited from established working relationships that predated Mitch with local authorities in host governments. Consequently, both organizations demonstrated effective coordination with host countries during rescue and reconstruction phases. However, the relief effort exhibited many weaknesses. Most importantly, the mission was constrained by the absence of an efficient contingency framework for mission leadership and resource allocation at the outset, and by a lacking external framework for harmonizing long-term development goals with host countries and indigenous civil society groups. In addition, OFDA and JTF-B suffered from a dearth of interdepartmental working relationships, which resulted in time lost.

The U.S. intervention muted the humanitarian crisis and put Central America on a path to early economic recovery. The scale and commitment of USG involvement also increased American soft power in the region and worldwide. Mitch reconstruction preceded a period of close ties between Central America and Washington, heralding advances in trade interconnectivity and facilitating increased cooperation in narcotics interdiction. The costs of failures in the USG approach were varied. For example, inefficient delegation of activities led to poorly engineered bridges and dreadfully designed resettlement communities. Bypassing civil society also undermined democratization in Nicaragua and Honduras.

This case study demonstrates the difficulty of constructing coherent, integrated U.S. government responses to natural catastrophes—events which are increasingly salient threats to America’s national security. In response to the Mitch disaster of 1998, on balance, America acted commendably though there was room for improvement. In all likelihood, storms like Mitch and Katrina will continue to result in massive socio-political upheaval, tremendous economic losses and massive human migration, all of which impact U.S. national security.