My morning coffee was more satisfying than usual this morning, enjoyed as it was under the brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies that reigned over Guatemala City.
It was early. It must have been because, by mid-morning, the fresh air would thicken to a humid haze. By lunchtime, the sky would yield to clouds gathering in preparation for the afternoon rains. Will it be an evening of drizzle or downpours? We never really know until it falls. It’s that time of year in Central America.
Just when you think you’ve mastered the pattern, there comes a crystal-clear day, like a bonus from God to be enjoyed by the masses. Such a day last happened a few Sundays ago. June 3, 2018, to be exact. Bright skies offered us a clear view of the volcanoes Agua and Pacaya, which occupy the horizon north of my home.
That was the day an eruption of Volcano Fuego, just behind Agua, changed life for thousands of Guatemalans. From our house, it looked like Agua was erupting. It wasn’t the first time Fuego lifted ash or steam high enough for us to see. But this was different.
That it was three weeks ago seems incredible. I remember the day so well, and how social media posts regarding the eruption changed from complimentary to awestruck before radically changing tone.
When Fuego became a killer, the alarm went out quickly, but way too late. The truth is, we didn’t know exactly what was happening for hours. What seemed like an unusually large ash cloud was actually a super-heated flow of muddy ash, sand, and gasses pushing rocks ahead of it.
Those directly in its path had no chance of survival. Those on the fringes had only a slightly better chance.
Hundreds of rescuers rushed in. Some did not make it out. Two firemen, a ConRed worker, and a national policeman are among the dead and missing. In the following weeks, their coworkers exhausted themselves looking for miracles.
Officially, the recovery effort is over now. San Miguel Los Lotes has been wiped off the map, declared uninhabitable by the government who is looking for a place to build a new community for the survivors.
But the reality is that the recovery has not slowed down for dozens of family members and friends digging through hardened ash and still-smoldering mud. Fuego mocks their devotion to lost family with continued ash plumes, lava flows, and tremors on top of the oppressive humidity and dust.
For these survivors, it is still June 3, 2018.
Grieving in Guatemala
The initial shock of Fuego’s explosion and pyroclastic flow lasted for days. Horrific images of death and destruction mesmerized the country, as did the incredible stories of how some escaped.
Unfortunately, the stories of survival were rare compared to the stories of loved ones lost. Cell phones provided a vivid picture of what happened as videos of the cloud rolling over villages peppered the internet.
The crying and screams of burned and trapped victims were shared on television and social media. Photos of children clinging to each other or their parents in death brought tears to us all.
This old man became the face of the tragedy when he was found, burned and exhausted, sitting on a guardrail looking out at the half-buried bodies of dead neighbors. He spoke to a television journalist as firemen struggled to bring him down the mountain. It seemed he was a miracle survivor.
When he succumbed to his burns three days later, it was as if the country was put on notice that there would be no more miracles among the victims of Fuego. Rescue became recovery.
Working through the steps
Pain and guilt quickly yielded to anger as word came that Guatemala’s volcano and weather service (Insivumeh) warned the government of an impending disastrous eruption a full day before the event. ConRed (Guatemala’s FEMA) was blasted for not following their advice to evacuate.
President Jimmy Morales initially announced that he could not use government funds to help the victims, claiming a non-existent law said so. This came less than a month after he spent tons of government money flying his entire family- including an incarcerated son- to Israel for the opening of Guatemala’s new embassy.
Then, border and airport immigration officials held up relief shipments from Mexico and Central America due to paperwork and import taxes. It took a couple of days to fix that situation.
But the truth is, not many survivors, mostly indigenous Mayans, expected the president or Senate to do much for them anyway. They shrug it all off and continue to claw through rocks and hot ash.
So… who helps?
Fortunately, there are others who have it in their DNA to step up in disasters. First and foremost, were the other residents of the volcano area. Neighbors opened their closets, pantries, and properties for survivors.
Volunteer networks popped up on social media to coordinate efforts and make sure no one got left out. Thousands of meals are being distributed to recovery volunteers and survivors each day by World Central Kitchen and others.
Shelter coordinators are trying hard to bring a semblance of normalcy to the survivors. They use tasks like washing dishes, cleaning common areas, and trash control to provide a little more structure to the day and alleviate boredom.
Health clinics and even small tiendas can be found in the official shelters. We visited the largest location in Escuintla and found residents playing soccer, cooking a meal, and organizing other chores.
We spoke to volunteers who flew in from Spain, Israel, England, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. We met a retired fireman from Rescue International who drove a retrofitted ambulance all the way from Texas to “Zona Zero”. He maintains a first aid post at the entrance to the danger zone. He expects to be here for a few more weeks.
What does “moving on” mean?
For most of the volcano victims, moving on will be difficult and take time. Shelters remain full. Guatemala says between 2500 and 3300 people are in shelters, but the real number is closer to 5,000.
Larger international organizations have begun long-term needs assessments. Hopefully, the summer will keep volunteers coming for a couple of more months, replacing the multitudes who showed up in the initial weeks.
It will be a tall task to keep the survivors from feeling forgotten. That is important because feeling forgotten leads to depression. Coupled with survivors’ guilt, depression makes each survivor a suicide risk if they are not properly supported.
It will take months to resettle all the victims if past disasters are an indicator. A lot can happen in that time. By then, some survivors might find new work or an opportunity that prompts them to move away on their own.
Or maybe they will just give up.
Restoring Hope and Purpose
Which brings us to what we are trying to do. In the first few weeks, we concentrated on immediate material needs. Our hygiene kits, personal items, and baby supplies were well-received.
But this week, we added Bibles to our arsenal. There are no words to express how gratifying that effort has been. The people of Guatemala are largely Catholic or Evangelical. Regardless of their denomination, they are faith-driven. It appears the loss of their Bibles was as big a deal as clothes and homes for many survivors.
Young and old, brothers and sisters received our treasure with wide grins and bright eyes, the likes of which we have not seen in weeks. Many of them stole away to read the Word even before we left the sites.
Our organization, MCUGuatemala.org (The combined entities of A Couple of Christian Foundation (USA) and Misioneros Cristianos Unidos (Guatemala) feels very strongly that continued and newfound faith will be key in leading many out of the temporary darkness of Volcano Fuego’s ash.
We hope to distribute many more Bibles in the weeks ahead while sharing prayer and worship at shelters around the Escuintla area. Along the way, we expect to grow friendships and establish a brotherhood with our neighbors in the area.
We will also continue to monitor material needs, providing what we can for as long as we can.
We feel strongly that God put us in this situation to spread His Love and the Hope that comes with knowing Him. We don’t plan on letting Him down.
We can surely use your prayers and encouragement. Thanks to all who have reached out and lifted us up. Feel free to contact us at email@example.com or visit https://mcuguatemala.org/ for more information.