Kathryn Dowling is a member of the Medical/Science Commission of the Humanitarian Law Project currently living and working in some of the hardest hit areas of Hurricane Mitch and now the storm front that hit the last few days. An environmental toxicologist, Dr. Dowling lived in Nicaragua in the 80's and traveled to Chiapas on the May, 1998 HLP delegation.


Leon, Nicaragua
May 4, 1999

On the eve of the six month aniversary of the Volcan Casita disaster (Oct 30, 1998), I returned to the Posoltegan refugee camp named "El Virgen". I observed conditions very similar to those that I saw both 1) three weeks and 2) three months following the disaster. The people continue to live in tents or in dwellings constructed of nothing more than posts and sheets of black plastic. At the end of the dry season, the heat and dust is intense.

The rainy season to come is sure to exacerbate incidences of communicable diseases, and the conditions in the refugee camps will provide little if any protection from contaminated water. The huts of black plastic, especially, are in no way sufficient protection from the force of the tropical rains that typically continue through October. Doctors and other faculty from UNAN-Leon continue to volunteer their time tending to the refugees. They report cases of malaria, hepatitis, and rubeolla. Fortunately, there are still donations of medical supplies available to treat refugees in the camps' makeshift medical posts.

In addition to the necessity for permanent shelters, the need for food is becoming more and more urgent. Roughly one month ago, the Mayorality of Posoltega ran out of all food donations it had stored. The only ongoing program is a food-for-work exchange administered by Save the Children. Each family is obliged to work 80 hours per month for a basic food basket of rice, beans, corn, and cooking oil. Milk for the children is not included, nor is any type of vegetable. To date, the Nicaraguan government has provided a grand total of $1 per refugee in relief for the close to three thousand survivors of the El Casita volcano collapse. These refugees are totally dependent on foreign donations, and these donations are running low. In the meantime, dozens of containers full of spoiling supplies sent weeks or months ago sit untouched in the port of Corinto (as reported in early April by Robert Lopez of the Los Angeles Times).

Signs in the last few days are that the rainy season is beginning already, quite early this year. The rains are still sporadic, but strong enough to presage the return of invierno. Children are currently receiving classes outdoors under makeshift sheets of plastic or in the ruins of what previously were school buildings. The non-permanent nature of these shelters will subject classes to the vagaries of the rainy season.

The people are still very traumatized by what they have suffered and are very afraid of the rains and the possibility of more hurricanes. They speak of their fear of rain, especially at night, when they are in total darkness because there is no electricity in the camps. The day after my visit, the first heavy rain arrived, with lighting and thunder, at night. I lay awake a long time in my dry comfortable house and thought about what the refugees must feel like, wet, cold, and in the dark, afraid that what they survived last year could happen again.

Kathryn Dowling, Ph.D., Visiting Professor
Departamento de Medicina Preventiva
Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, Leon