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After Hurricane’s Devastation, a Dilemma in Nicaragua: Rebuild or Relocate?

HAULOVER, Nicaragua — When the leaders of an Indigenous Miskito village returned to their homes days after Hurricane Iota struck last November …

HAULOVER, Nicaragua — When the leaders of an Indigenous Miskito village returned to their homes days after Hurricane Iota struck last November, they found their lush community in Nicaragua’s northeast laid to ruin — and the coastline itself transformed.

Their colorful, postcard-perfect wooden homes had been cut down, and the coconut-tree-lined beaches devastated. The surrounding mangrove forests that supplied protection and nourishment to the village, known as Haulover, were battered and broken. Drinking wells were contaminated with saltwater.

And a wedge of ocean the width of a football field now cut through the middle of town, leaving villagers with an anguishing question: Stay and rebuild, or resettle inland?

“I never imagined arriving in the community and not finding any points of reference,” said Marcos Williamson, an ecologist at the Regional Autonomous University in Puerto Cabezas who is leading an environmental assessment. “It was like a bomb went off that practically disappeared the community.”

Hurricane Iota, the most powerful hurricane of the record-setting 2020 Atlantic season, made direct landfall Nov. 16 on the impoverished northeast coast, forcing thousands to evacuate.

More than two months later, Haulover’s 300 or so families are split over whether to rebuild on the same vulnerable coastline or to relocate a few miles inland, behind natural barriers that protect from a storm surge.

About 60 families have decided to resettle inland, but doing so will probably require adopting farming practices — a complicated transition for an Indigenous people with a strong reliance on the sea.

Despite the increasing dangers posed by climate change, many Haulover residents are reluctant to seek higher ground.

“People from here prefer to stay here,” said Jomary Budier, a lifelong resident. “If they want to take us somewhere that’s far from the ocean, they’re not going to go.”

It’s a decision that nobody wants to make.

For many of the Miskito, retreating inland would mean not just partly abandoning their livelihood — fishing for snapper in the sea, bass and shrimp in the lagoon — but also leaving behind the resting place of their ancestors.

One day late in December, María Pereira watched as a group of men turned her father’s crypt right side up. Hurricane Iota had left some of his bones strewn in the mangrove trees.

“We’re searching for the remains of my father, who died four years ago,” Ms. Periera said. “We feel that his soul is lost, that he keeps searching for his place of rest.”

Iota, which reached sustained winds of 160 miles per hour, was by far the most powerful November hurricane on record. It surpassed Hurricane Eta, which lashed Haulover and the same area of Nicaragua’s coast just two weeks earlier.

The two hurricanes displaced tens of thousands of people across Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, killing about 200.

While no one died in the storms along Haulover’s coast, few communities suffered such complete devastation and environmental degradation.

Mr. Williamson, the ecologist, worries that the twin hurricanes might have been a harbinger of things to come. He recommends a higher, inland location. The original Haulover, located on a narrow sand strip between the ocean and a brackish lagoon, no longer appears sustainable.

“Climate change affects everyone, but it doesn’t hit us all equally,” Mr. Williamson said. “The poor communities, those that are isolated, are the ones that we see are ultimately impacted the most by climate change. The thing that worries me is that the world is not becoming aware of this.”

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