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Disaster in Guatemala

January 19, 2006

Paul Pitcher - Guatemala

I had started to write my reflections for September about watching from the outside as the destructive forces of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita reeked havoc upon the United States but this last week, those thoughts have been swept away by the torrential rains that, seemingly overnight, have transformed Guatemala into the scenes of the southern states that I watched on CNN.

Yesterday I stepped with my fingers crossed onto a bus to travel from my home in Quiché to Antigua since today I am going to the airport and picking up a delegation from the states, which is coming to work, hopefully, on ACG's organic farm. I had my fingers crossed because the massive mudslides, falling boulders, and flooding had knocked out the Interamerican highway in many places and that's the road I had to take to get to Antigua. If I had tried to make the trip on Thursday I would not have made it and as we crept further and further away from Quiché, down the mountains and out into the country I saw why.

The images from the Guatemalan news agencies in the paper and on the television were every bit as horrifying as what I saw yesterday, though I know that I passed no where near the worst parts. About every kilometer there was another enormous mudslide, some of the heights of the brown masses coming close to, if not exceeding the height of the bus where I sat packed in with around 80 other people since the buses are running very infrequently now.

Out of the mud poked roots, treetops, and huge branches randomly positioned like pins stuck in a pin cushion. In some places erosion caused by the rains has taken pieces of the road down the mountains and our passage was treacherous as we came within inches of a 1000 foot drop off. Rivers race down the mountains where there was nothing before, carving new paths in the land. Existing rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, all bodies of water are now bursting at the seams and flooding the countryside, especially the lowlands.

At one point we looked down into a valley where pieces of houses were strewn everywhere, a huge truck was stuck on its side in a big pool of mud in the middle of a river, flipped over buses just lay by the side of the road. Droves of people just stand by the sides of the highway, looking at the destruction.
Official numbers are uncertain at this moment. Last night CNN reported that 250 were confirmed dead in all of Central America due to the storms but this morning the Guatemalan newspaper reported that 200 had been killed along last night in a mudslide in San Marcos adding to the 130 that were already confirmed dead in Guatemala. Another mudslide in Santiago, Atitlan where I have friends killed more that 60 according to the figures.

I imagine it will be a long time before we have a death toll because the resources of Guatemala to deal with a catastrophe like this are so limited. Many mountainous areas of Guatemala are currently cut off from the rest of the country because bridges across the gaping valleys have been destroyed, parts of the country still remain under water, and entire villages have been wiped off the map.

The reality of the storms is becoming more and more evident with every passing minute and, as I said, it snuck up on us overnight. And the reality of Guatemala's ability to confront this type of disaster is also evident. The newspaper articles this morning are littered with calls from the population for the government to come and help them but Guatemala just does not have the economic or material resources to make a huge difference though I guess it's trying. Again, it is the poorest populations who are suffering the most.
Personally, I as well as my friends and family here in Guatemala are fine as far as I know but communication lines are down and traveling within the country is limited, you can't reach parts of the west coast. My home in Quiché has only had, in comparison, a little rain though it has rained constantly for the past week, knocking power out 3 to 4 times a day. And, unfortunately, the rains continue. It has been raining heavily this morning. But we are struggling forward; we will see what happened in the next few days since the weather is finally supposed to let up, though it shows no signs of doing that right now.

My friends here at ACG always say that the last thing they will ever lose is hope, so in this time of disaster, which now is affecting so many countries that hope is what we need to maintain. I thank all the people who have sent concerned emails and for all those in solidarity with those countries affected by natural disasters around the world. I will try to keep you updated on the situation here.

Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG).  He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.

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