By Laura Gottesdiener and Lizbeth Diaz
MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - It took Luis Salgado years of manual labor to save enough money to open a small fresh produce store, so when torrential floods swept away $1,500 worth of apples, bananas and other fruits, he decided there was no longer a future for him in Honduras.
Salgado had already been struggling to eke out a profit after measures to curb the novel coronavirus such as additional cleaning cut into his meager revenues. But the destruction of Hurricane Eta in early November left him in debt and unable to feed his three children.
So he set out with three neighbors to try to cross Guatemala, then Mexico and eventually find work in the United States.
"First the pandemic, and then the hurricane ... we have no money for our children," he said on the journey north.
Back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota internally displaced more than half a million people in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, according to International Organization for Migration data. The U.N. agency said at least a third could be displaced for more than three months, hampering their ability to earn a living and rebuild their lives.
"Every day, about 20 new people arrive because they lost their land, their homes, and their crops in Honduras and Guatemala," said Gabriel Romero, the director of a migrant shelter in the southern Mexican city of Tenosique.
Thousands more Central Americans say they're planning to join northbound caravans with names like "Caravan for Flood victims" scheduled to begin departing from Honduras in the coming weeks, according to conversations in Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to coordinating the efforts.
Such a mass movement could become a major test for the incoming administration of U.S. president-elect Joe Biden as it tries to undo some of President Donald Trump's most severe anti-immigration measures without turning pent up pressure into a border crisis.
On the election campaign trail, Biden promised a $4 billion plan to address underlying factors driving migration from Central America. Advocacy group Refugees International says such relief, while welcome, will take years to have an impact.
Even before the storms, Central American nations were reeling from economic crises brought on by the pandemic and mass unemployment led to a steady increase in migration north.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not yet released November data on migrants caught crossing from Mexico, though experts say factors including immediate disruption to mobility during the storms may have temporarily slowed the overall rise in numbers.
Honduran farmer David Tronches said he had no choice but to migrate after Eta's deluge flooded the corn and bean fields he'd sown to feed his family, including an infant daughter.
"We plant and harvest to sell and to have enough to eat," said Tronches, 20, speaking from a makeshift migrant shelter in the northern Mexican city of Saltillo. "Without the harvest, what are we going to sell? How are we going to eat?"
Outside another shelter in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, which serves as a transit hub for migrants heading toward the Texas border, people swapped stories and videos about the storm's catastrophic damage.
"This is where my house was," said Marlen Almendarez, 30, showing fellow travelers a video of a mud field strewn with soggy piles of clothes, part of a refrigerator, and other remnants of the one-time neighborhood in the municipality of La Lima, southeast of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
"My bed where I slept with my son was thrown all the way over there, to the Oxxo!" she said, gesturing at a convenience store over 50 meters away.
Riccy Martinez, 25, who said she also lost her home in the floods, shook her head.
"You'll see how many people are going to start coming because they lost their homes," she said.
'NO CHOICE EXCEPT TO FLEE'
Julio Almendarez, a resident of San Pedro Sula suburb Chamelecon in Honduras, said he was forced to flee to a storm shelter after a river burst its banks during Iota. While inside the shelter, he said, he and hundreds of other displaced residents held a meeting and decided to form a caravan to leave Honduras on Dec. 10 with the aim of reaching the United States.
"I decided to leave because we lost everything," he said, adding that he's trying to collect enough money to pay the buses fares required for parts of the journey.
Other migrants bypassed the storm shelters, where aid workers fear the overcrowded conditions could lead to a new spike in coronavirus cases, and hit the road immediately.
Kevin Ventura, 25, from the central Honduran city of Intibuca, said he'd already begun considering migrating after receiving death threats from a gang that sought to recruit him to sell drugs. When Eta's winds brought a tree crashing into his family's house, forcing his mother and grandmother into a storm shelter, he worried it would be too easy for gang members to find him there. Instead, he quickly hopped a bus headed towards the Guatemalan border.
Giovanni Bassau, the regional representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said there has been gang activity, including violence and extortion, inside the storm shelters in cities where such semi-organized crime has long held sway, and that he expects the hurricanes to worsen the instability that allows such groups to flourish.
"If you have a community that is run, to some degree, by the gangs, all you're doing when you add shelters and flooding is making things worse," Bassau said.
"It leaves people with really no choice except to flee," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; additional reporting from Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Tamara Corro in Veracruz, Mexico; editing by Grant McCool)