Hurricane Fifi – 1974

Fifi was designated a hurricane after it passed through Jamaica as a tropical storm and then reached maximum intensity when it raked the north coast and offshore islands of Honduras, before weakening after landfall in Belize. Renamed Hurricane Orlene, it later reached Mexico.

High winds and tides destroyed harbors, towns and crops along the coastal lowlands of Honduras, but it was the sustained torrential rain and subsequent flooding in the mountains that killed thousands, and left survivors destitute. In about 40 hours, 50 cm (20 in) of rain fell on the Sierra de Omaoa. Streams and rivers burst their banks, and walls of water deluged the fertile valleys, ruining the banana, coffee and bean crops. Flash floods and mudslides washed away villages and towns. The city of Choloma was engulfed during the night, and lost more than half its population.

International aid – including US helicopters, British infantry and powerboats, and a Cuban medical team – arrived promptly, although continuous thunderstorms and thick fogs hampered work. Each day, hundreds of bodies were found, floating bloated in the rivers or buried in mud. They were hastily buried, but the stench of death was pervasive. The merciless sun and the snakes and tarantulas fleeing flooded banana groves added to the general misery. Relief agencies rushed aid to starving, isolated villagers whose access roads had been destroyed along with homes, stores and crops. They reported fierce fights among people desperate for food or for places on rescue helicopters – and the flagrant misappropriation and hoarding of supplies by the Honduran military.

Hurricane Fifi was the worst natural disaster in the history of Honduras, the poorest of the Central American republics. The country was left with countless dead and homeless, and damages in excess of its entire Gross National Product (GNP).

When: September 14-24 1974

Where: Western Caribbean and Honduras

Death toll: Probably more than 8,000.

You should know: Because of its devastating consequences, the name Fifi was retired from the list of Atlantic hurricane names. The corresponding name is the rather more serious sounding Frances.

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