A “Natural” Disaster and its Aftermath
June 28, 2018

On June 3rd, Volcán Fuego near Antigua, Guatemala had its deadliest eruption in over 44 years. During the first days there was some international coverage, but this limited attention span quickly gave way to World Cup frenzy. What many missed was how unnatural this disaster really was – how government mismanagement and corruption has created much more suffering than the volcano could by itself.

First reports on death toll and disappeared seemed to be relatively low with about 50 dead and about 200 missing. Listening to survivors’ testimonies and the rescue teams’ reports, it soon became clear that the government had no interest in releasing the real numbers. Thousands are estimated to have been buried alive that day. But the culpability of the government goes far beyond underreporting deaths. 

Video: Plaza Publica

It was a Sunday during lunchtime when Guatemalan families typically get together at home to spend their only day off surrounded by their loved ones. Villagers from the village of Los Lotes – who survived the 300 km per hour pyroclastic flow of up to 700 Celsius – reported the presence of members of CONRED (government emergency response agency) since the early morning. CONRED ignored several warning from INSIVUMEH (official volcanic study agency) about intense activity in the volcano and instead of evacuating tens of thousands of people in the surrounding villages at the foot of the volcano, they told villagers to lock themselves inside because of toxic particles in the air. Hundreds and maybe thousands would have been saved if the government had issued a proper warning.

In contrast: a nearby luxury golf resort evacuated their 300 guests and staff just in time to save their lives. They had read the INSIVUMEH reports online. The resort was totally destroyed but zero deaths.

Pictures: David Williams

On that day everything changed. Chaos began. Governmental relief efforts basically disappeared and left the hard work to the Guatemalan people and NGOs. Thousands of people have since been evacuated and put into shelters, though many are more similar to jails than homes. Thousands of people sharing small spaces with little to eat, almost no bathrooms and nothing left but the clothes they were wearing on the day of the eruption. Thousands of volunteers got organized and have since then helped them out with medical attention, clothing, food and emotional support.

In the meantime life in the surrounding villages continues, where thousands of people remain in their homes, hoping that the next eruption won’t hit them. They are all at risk, but have nowhere else to go. They are constantly cut off from villages around them by huge swollen rivers without bridges. In the eruption they lost their crops and their homes to rocks and ash, taking with them their livelihoods. They are alive but lacking clean drinking water, food, medicine and so much more. 

Picture: Armando Pineda

Recovery is a massive task and there is no overall coordination. One of my biggest concerns are the children that lost their parents and are facing a future in government-run foster homes. People are traumatized and have not yet received enough psychological support. Not only does the government not respond to the disaster, they are also making things for volunteers more complicated. There have been reports of donations being dumped on the streets, of locking victims in the shelters and stealing donated medicine for their own use. People are very confused and frustrated and have started to protest against President Jimmy Morales again. 

People now will need a new piece of land to rebuild their lives with the help of international organizations and private donations. It almost seems like an impossible task, but their is hope amongst the people that are dedicated to help with a long term plan. Guatemalans are very strong and have survived other natural disasters and will therefore also survive this one. The big question is how.

If you are interested in donating this locally set up gofundme campaign is a reliable source. The money will be used toward the work of rebuilding schools, houses and basic infrastructure.

If you are in the area and want to donate some of your time the NGO World Central Kitchen  is an excellent opportunity to help out preparing thousands of meals each day.