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A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala

June 2, 2010

Three Days After Agatha
A Few Post-Disaster Reflections

As the fourth day after the passage of Tropical Storm Agatha through Guatemala begins, I want to share a few reflections on experiences I had yesterday here in Quetzaltenango. After a cloudy dawn, we had sunshine all day yesterday. The good weather made it hard to believe that we had just been through one of the worst disasters in recent years.

Traffic here in Quetzaltenango was back to near normal levels, though schools are still out and travel between cities is difficult. The shelves in the supermarket were also close to normal, though supplies of eggs, milk products, bread, vegetables and meat were still low. Gasoline trucks arrived in the afternoon, so there is now gasoline available.

The shelters here in Quetzaltenango were closed on Monday as people returned to their homes to begin the process of cleaning up. Yesterday I accompanied a small group from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to a neighborhood in zone 2 where 530 families had been affected by flooding. Up to three feet of water had entered the houses. Soldiers were controlling access to the neighborhood and helping shovel the mud out of the streets. The mud was drying, producing clouds of dust. Many people were wearing surgical masks. The soldiers had been on patrol since the neighborhood was evacuated on Saturday. Thieves had moved in even as the evacuation was happening.

We didn’t have much to share. Roberto Armas, the priest at St. Mark’s, is also a medical doctor. He had the children line up to receive antiparasite medication. Each child was also given 15 days worth of vitamins, as well as a hot snack. We also had bags of food, basically instant soups and purified water, to pass out. The food was gived by the Patriot Party, the political party that lost the last presidential election. The elections aren’t until next year and it’s illegal for political parties to be campaigning this early, but each of the bags had material promoting politicians. We opened the bags and passed out the food and water without the propaganda. Political parties here are not above trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability in times of disaster.

I came away from zone 2 with a series of impressions. One is that though the help arriving from outside has been minimal and not well coordinated, the neighborhood is organized and folks are working together. The primary worry of people seemed to be getting their homes cleaned out, a very difficult task with no water supply for the neighborhood at the moment. I was remembering how several churches I visited in the United States had put together clean-up kits for Church World Service. How nice it would be to have some of those kits. Garbage was piling up in the streets as people threw out what the water and mud had ruined. Some had moved their furniture outside and were scraping off the mud. The dominant sentiments I heard from the women who brought their children were exhaustion and frustration. They were also worried about the possible health effects on themselves and their children from contact with so much mud and dampness. The concrete walls of the houses are still retaining a lot of humidity.

The folks in zone 2 here in Quetzaltenango are victims not of a natural disaster, but of the lack of urban planning and poor civil engineering decisions made decades ago. Several years ago one of my students here in Quetzaltenango told me that much of zone 2 was a lake when she was a child. The lake was filled in and houses built without sufficient attention paid to drainage and the natural flow of water. Parts of zone 2 flood every rainy season.

Poor civil engineering decisions are not limited to Quetzaltenango. A sinkhole with a depth of 170 feet swallowed a three-story house in zone 2 in Guatemala City only five blocks from the CEDEPCA office. Initial reports indicate that a storm drain collapsed. Needless to say, my colleagues who work and live in zone 2 are worried about what might be going on under the buildings.

For those of us here with resources, the concurrent disasters of the eruption of the Pacaya Volcano and Tropical Storm Agatha mean minor or not-so-minor inconveniences. For some it meant not being able to get home for several hours or several days due to downed trees and landslides blocking roads. Judith Castaneda left her home Saturday morning and was unable to return until Monday night. It might have meant spending hours or days without electricity and/or water. It might have meant having travel plans interrupted. A group visiting CEDEPCA from Davenport, Iowa, was supposed to fly out yesterday. The airport did reopen at midday yesterday, but the group wasn’t able to get a flight out until Saturday. While thousands lost their homes and all of their possessions, our lives continue more or less as normal. And for the relatives of the 156 people who lost their lives, life will never be the same.

We’ve been talking here in the house about how to be prepared for the next disaster: non-perishable foodstuffs to have on hand, keeping the gas tanks of the cars at least half full, keeping cell phones and radio batteries charged. Already the pressure of daily routines is taking over, lulling us into forgetting just how vulnerable this region is to disasters.

While the violence of the volcano and rain occupied the headlines for several days, violence caused by humans has once again become the top news story here. A dismembered body found in Guatemala City, attacks against bus drivers. The levels of violence did drop during the story. If only the drop had been permanent.

The radio stations have shifted from reporting on the damage caused by the storm to issuing announcements from the government, church and other organizations asking for donations of foodstuffs, etc., for those left homeless. There is a tradition here in Guatemala of helping one’s neighbor, but such donations do nothing to decrease the vulnerability of families or increase the capacity of communities to response to disasters. Emergency aid is needed on a short-term basis, but it’s not a solution.

One of my colleagues circulated a note from an organization that is collecting cortes, the traditional cloth Mayan women wrap and tie around themselves for a skirt, for women left homeless near Lake Atitlan. Many times donors take no account of local culture. I remember an indigenous friend commenting after Hurricane Stan that his displaced relatives were given food that was very strange to them, not the food they were used to eating. Disaster response must be in harmony with people’s culture so that it doesn’t produce cultural disruption to compound the physical displacement people have already experienced in losing their homes.

I was not in Guatemala when Hurricane Stan hit in early October 2005. I asked my daughter, Tamara, to compare the experience of living through the two storms. She remembered that it rained for more days during Stan, but she thinks the damage, at least here in Quetzaltenango, was about the same. Last night President Colom said that Guatemala received 20 percent more rain during Agatha than during Stan; however, that rain came in only half the time of the previous storm. Since the rain had less time to penetrate the ground, the landslides have been less devastating than in 2005. Thus far there are no reports of entire villages being buried. But there was more flooding with Agatha.

Hurricane Stan also came at the end of the rainy season. Agatha struck right at the beginning of the rainy season. More heavy rains are expected in the coming days. The next few months could be very difficult. Hunger could affect many areas that lost crops. Not much rebuilding will be possible until the next dry season.

Members of the CEDEPCA staff are meeting today to develop a response to these disasters. We continue to dream of a Guatemala in which all live in safety and in dignity. Please continue to dream with us.

The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 277

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